Friday, March 28, 2014

Montage # 149 - Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911)

As of  April 25, 2014, this montage will no longer be available on Pod-O-Matic. It can be heard or downloaded from the Internet Archive at the following address:



The Lenten season is usually an opportunity for me to program organ music, and this year is no exception. On the Tuesday Blog, we have already featured posts on E. Power Biggs and a set of French Organ Masterpieces, and next month we will revisit a live concert by Virgil Fox. On the Friday Blog, in addition to this week’s feature, I plan a complete performance of Messiaen’s Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité.

Olivier Messiaen belongs to a long tradition of French musicians, who were titular organists in some of France’s most prestigious churches (many of them were endowed with organs by Cavaillé-Coll), as well as composers and teachers., The tradition goes back to César Franck and Camille Sauint-Saëns, and in posts here and on our other platforms, we have had opportunity to offer posts featuring many of them.
Somewhat neglected among that who’s who of the French organ is one of France’s first such “triple threats”, Alexandre Guilmant.

A student of his father, then of the Belgian master Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens, Guilmant became an organist and teacher in Boulogne-sur-Mer, a city ion Northern France and his place of birth. In 1871 he was appointed to play the organ regularly at la Trinité church in Paris - the same church and organ Messiaen occupied for 60 years and a position Guilmant himself held for a mere… 30 years.

From then on Guilmant followed a career as a virtuoso; he gave concerts in the United States (the first major French organist to tour that country), and in Canada, as well as in Europe, making especially frequent visits to England. His American achievements included a 1904 series of no fewer than 40 recitals on the largest organ in the world, the St. Louis Exposition Organ, now preserved as the nucleus of Philadelphia's Wanamaker Organ.

In 1894 Guilmant founded the Schola Cantorum with Charles Bordes and Vincent d'Indy. He taught there up until his death at his home, in 1911. In addition, he taught at the Conservatoire de Paris where he succeeded Charles-Marie Widor as organ teacher in 1896.

As a scholarly organist, Guilmant oversaw critical editions and anthologies (such as Archives des Maîtres de l'Orgue and l'École classique de l'Orgue. These anthologies, despite all the musicological developments which have taken place since Guilmant's own time, remain very valuable sources of early music that is often hard to track down elsewhere.

Guilmant was an accomplished and extremely prolific composer. Unlike Widor, who produced a great deal of music in all the main genres, Guilmant devoted himself almost entirely to works for his own instrument, the organ. His organ output includes: Pièces dans différents styles (published in 18 books); L'organiste pratique (published in 12 books); and L'Organiste liturgique (published in 10 books).

Most of his pieces (and all of the most frequently played ones) are fairly short. Among his most ambitious pieces, Guilmant's Eight Sonatas were conceived with the Cavaillé-Coll organ of La Trinité in mind, and are therefore symphonic in style and form, taking their place alongside the symphonic organ works of Franck and the Organ Symphonies of Widor. Two of these sonatas (Nos. 1 and 8) were given extra orchestral treatment and are also known as his two symphonies for organ and orchestra. These are not “concertos” but rather pieces where the organ is fully meshed to the orchestra. Despite being championed by great conductors (Sonate No. 1/Symphonie No. 1 for organ and orchestra, was programmed by Sergei Koussevitzky in the 1930s), recordings of these works are few and far between. The recordings retained for today’s montage were part of a two-disc set featuring Yan-Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic in collaboration with the Liverpool Cathedral titular, Ian Tracey.

As filler, I added some short works from a recent Naxos release.

I think you will love this music too!

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