Friday, April 5, 2019

The Symphonic Organ

No. 308 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages, which can be found in our archives at

This week’s Blog and Podcast contriybutes to this year’s Lenten Organ series with three “Symphonies for Organ” by three French organ masters, teachers and composers: Marcel Dupré, Louis Vierne and Charles-Marie Widor. The following excerpts from liner notes of a recording featuring the three intermingled composers provide some insight”

In the middle of the nineteenth century the sorry state of church music in Paris was a source of bitter controversy. The passion for opera and ballet that dominated the musical life of the city had become firmly entrenched even in the churches, where organists deficient in both taste and technique gratified their undiscriminating clergy and congregations with music that was either sentimental or vulgar, or both.

But behind the scenes, times were changing, and a bloodless revolution was being planned. The mastermind was none other than the great organ-builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, who built or rebuilt most of the organs of Paris (and many in the provinces) during his long career, including La Madeleine (1846), Saint-Sulpice (1862) and Notre-Dame (1868). In Northern Europe a true tradition of organ-playing, centred round the music of Bach, still survived, and Cavaillé-Coll arranged for two young French­men to go to Brussels to learn this tradition from the Belgian organist Lemmens. When the two protégés—Alexandre Guilmant and, a few years later, Charles-Marie Widor—returned to Paris, they had mastered a rational technique of organ-playing that placed them in a different league from all their contemporaries. However, it seems to have been Widor who made the greater impression.

After the death of its titular organist, Lefébure-Wély, Widor was installed as titulaire of Saint-Sulpice; Widor’s career at Saint-Sulpice was to last for sixty-four years, during which he became a pillar of the musical establishment, serving for thirty-seven years as a Professor at the Conservatoire and twenty as Perpetual Secretary of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. When he retired in 1933, in his ninetieth year, his place was taken by his disciple Marcel Dupré, who had already been acting as his Assistant since 1906. Dupré remained at Saint-Sulpice until the day of his death, on Sunday 30 May 1971, so between them these two great organists covered an amazing span of 101 years.

Widor was a cultivated all-round musician; a popular figure in the salons of Paris, he wrote quantities of elegant and idiomatic chamber and piano music and songs, not to mention symphonies, ballets and a number of operas. But his mission at Saint-Sulpice was to establish a dignified style of choral and organ music which would satisfy his own high standards without alienating the congregation. The music must be monumental, as befitted the setting, and all picturesque effects must be rigorously excluded. Between 1872 and 1880 he published six of his ten pioneering Organ Symphonies, in which he made striking use of the impressive resources at his disposal—its great Cavaillé-Collorgan.
Before the young Dupré came on the scene, Widor had employed a number of other gifted pupils as his Assistant, and the most notable of these was Louis Vierne, who filled this role for eight years, from 1892 until 1900, when he entered and won a competition for the post of Organist of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. It was here that he was to make his name, and here that he died at the console, in the middle of a recital on 2 June 1937.

Hypersensitive, almost blind, but highly talented, Vierne was already a student in the Organ Class when Widor took his most promising pupil under his wing, and was amply rewarded. Acting as his Assistant both at Saint-Sulpice and at the Conservatoire, Vierne rapidly became a complete master of his art, combining the musical inspiration he had absorbed from Franck with the technical mastery he learnt from Widor, and passing them on to the next generation through his own teaching.

Dupré was the son of a distinguished organist, and his path in life was mapped out almost from birth, for he was only three days old when the bearded figure of Alexandre Guilmant peered into his cradle and pronounced: ‘He will be an organist.’ Acquainted from an early age with both Cavaillé-Coll (who called him ‘le petit prodige’) and Widor, Dupré became the most gifted student of his generation. He studied the organ with Guilmant and Vierne, and composition with Widor who, having lost his first protégé, was to treat him like a son for the rest of his life. Dupré was barely twenty years old when he suddenly found himself Assistant at Saint-Sulpice, playing the organ that was to remain his greatest joy until the day of his death.

The organist featured on all three works is the Dutch organist, teacher and author Ben van Oosten. A graduate of the Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam, he completed advanced studies in Paris with André Isoir and Daniel Roth. Whether by geographical influence or artistic choice, he gravitated toward the French Romantic Organ school of the 19th century that had its origins in the new symphonic organs of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. Van Oosten subsequently became one of the greatest practitioners and interpreters of organ works from that era. Among his recordings are the complete works of Widor, Vierne, and Dupré, as well as the eight sonatas of Alexandre Guilmant and organ works of Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens and Louis James Alfred Lefébure-Wély.

Among the honors and awards he has received are the Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik and the Diapason d'Or. In 1998, the French government awarded him the honorary rank of Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for his efforts in reviving the French Romantic tradition.

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