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Charles-Marie Widor’s ten organ symphonies, inspired by the magnificent Cavaillé-Coll organ at Saint-Sulpice in Paris revolutionised the art of organ playing and composition in France. This disc of selected highlights includes the Symphony No. 5, the best-known of Widor’s symphonies, with its famous concluding Toccata, the Andante cantabile from Symphony No. 4, one of the composer’s loveliest slow movements, and the hugely virtuosic Allegro from Symphony No. 6, which features one of the most exciting crescendos in the organ repertoire. Bach’s Memento is a tribute to a composer whose reputation Widor did much to re-establish in France.
By David Denton
Charles-Marie Widor (1844–1937)
Charles-Marie Widor was born on 21 February 1844, in Lyons. His father, organist of the church of Saint François-de-Sales, gave Widor his first music lessons. By the age of eleven, his progress was such that he became organist of his school chapel and could deputise for his father at Saint-François. In 1863 the French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811-1899) arranged for him to study in Brussels : organ with the virtuoso Jacques Lemmens (1823-1881) and composition with François- Joseph Fétis (1784-1871), director of the Brussels Conservatoire. Widor emerged from this rigorous course of study a virtuoso organist with a thorough training in the principals of classical composition.
With Cavaillé-Coll's continuing help and influence, Widor's reputation as an organist began to flourish, and he came in contact with many of the great music personalities of the time such as Saint-Saëns, Franck, Meyerbeer, Liszt, Rossini, and Gounod. In 1868 he was one of seven organists chosen to give the inaugural recital of the new Cavaillé-Coll organ at Notre Dame. In 1869 he participated in the opening recital of the new Cavaillé-Coll organ at La Trinité and was appointed Saint-Saëns' assistant at La Madeleine. In January 1870, on the recommendation of Cavaillé-Coll and Gounod, he was appointed as probationary organist for one year at the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris. It housed what was, at that time, Cavaillé-Coll's magnum opus. The appointment of a 25-year-old to such a prestigious post was controversial, but Cavaillé-Coll felt that from this position, Widor could best advance an organ reform movement inspired by the teaching of Lemmens. It is indeed fortunate that the young composer had such a magnificent instrument at his disposal, for it became the inspiration for his ten organ symphonies which revolutionised the art of organ playing and composition in France. He was never confirmed as permanent organist at Saint-Sulpice, and so remained the temporary organist for the next 64 years. During his tenure the organ loft at Saint-Sulpice became a gathering place for the artistic and aristocratic elite of Paris, who came to admire the wonders Widor could conjure from Cavaillé-Coll's monumental instrument.
Widor became a giant in the musical scene of nineteenth-century Paris. He was a cultured, elegantly dressed, widely read and intelligent man, who knew everyone of importance. He mingled with the aristocracy and politicians and was recognised and respected for his intelligence, erudition, and willingness to help others. In 1890 he succeeded César Franck as Professor of Organ at the Paris Conservatoire, was made a member of the Légion d'Honneur in 1892, and eventually became Professor of Composition at the Conservatoire in 1896. In 1910 he became a member of the Academié des Beaux-Arts and in 1914 was appointed Permanent Secretary to that organization, one of the most significant honours for an artist at that time. In 1924, after thirty years, Widor retired from teaching at the Conservatoire. He continued to remain active as a performer and conductor, giving the opening recital at the 1932 Salzburg Festival. In the same year he made a gramophone recording in Saint-Sulpice, which included movements from the Symphonie Gothique and the famous Toccata from the Fifth Symphony. In June of that year he joined his former pupil Louis Vierne in the opening recital of the re-built organ in Notre Dame, an instrument he had helped inaugurate 64 years earlier. In December 1933, he relinquished his post at Saint-Sulpice and was succeeded by his former pupil and protégé, Marcel Dupré.
Charles-Marie Widor died at 8 o'clock in the evening on Friday, 12 March 1937. His funeral the following day was attended by the French establishment, which turned out in force to pay their respects. Dupré played Bach's Prelude and Fugue in B minor, the Andante cantabile from Symphony No. 4, and the first movement of the Symphonie Gothique as the coffin was born to the crypt.
In his 93 years Widor was highly esteemed as an organist, composer, teacher, conductor, writer, and cultural ambassador, not only for French music but for French culture in the widest sense. He left behind an impressive output of more than eighty opus numbers, including chamber music, songs, sacred works, orchestral symphonies, solo concertos, music for the stage and ballet, and three operas. It is through his organ music, however, and in particular the ten organ symphonies, that his reputation survives today.
In addition to the solo organ works, Widor wrote two symphonies for organ and orchestra, Symphony No. 3, Op. 69, (1894) and Sinfonia Sacra, Op. 81, (1907). Beginning in 1900, the organ symphonies of Op. 13 and Op. 42 underwent two complete revisions. Widor had the habit, much like Bruckner, of continually seeking to improve his compositions, and the performer often has to decide which version to perform, as later revisions did not necessarily improve on the original inspiration.
Part of the liturgical life of Saint-Sulpice involved large processions around the church on festive holy days. Widor probably wrote his Marche Pontificale for just such an occasion. It is a flamboyant march utilising the resources of a powerful organ in the resonant acoustic of a large building. It combines pomp, tunefulness, and jaunty rhythms in equal measure.
The Salve Regina was added to Symphony No. 2 in the 1901 revision. It is a large-scale Bach - style fantasia on the famous Gregorian chant. The melody first appears in the tenor, moves from voice to voice, and after a massive build-up, finally appears in the pedals.
The Andante cantabile from Symphony No. 4 is one of the composer's loveliest slow movements. It is in song form and reminiscent of Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words for the piano. It was reputed to be one of Widor's favourite movements and was played by Marcel Dupré at the Consecration during the Requiem Mass held for Widor in 1937.
The Finale. Allegro molto from Symphony No. 3 survives in five different versions. It is a virtuosic movement of tragic feeling, giving it a unique place in Op. 13. Three themes are heard, which grow to an impressive climax. The turbulent opening theme returns, however, and the movement gradually fades into a subdued Coda, in which the second theme is heard as a quiet echo. The composer played this movement to conclude his recital on the new Palais du Trocadéro organ in 1878, a programme which featured the première of his Symphony No. 6.
Mystique, from Trois Nouvelles Pièces, dates from 1934 and is the composer's last published work. Each movement is dedicated to a former American pupil: Albert Riemenschneider (an eminent Bach scholar), Charlotte Lockwood (one of the first important female organists) and Frederick Mayer (organist of the West Point Chapel). With these three contrasting pieces, Widor summarises the various stylistic elements which characterize his organ works. Mystique presents a lyrical melody on the Flûte Harmonique followed by a more animated and contrapuntal section which then leads to a return of the first theme. The piece closes with an expressive coda.
The music of J. S. Bach played an important rôle in Widor's career. In nineteenth-century France Bach's music was seldom heard and it was, to a great extent, through the efforts of Widor that interest in the great Cantor's music was revived. In collaboration with Albert Schweitzer, Widor helped prepare the famous edition of the Bach organ works, published by G. Schirmer in 1912. In 1925 the publisher Durand approached Widor with a proposal that Widor transcribe some of his favourite Bach pieces for the organ. He responded with Bach's Memento, six transcriptions from various works, ranging from literal transcriptions of the originals to rather free, expressive treatments, modelled on the Lisztian operatic paraphrase. The Sicilienne is from the Sonata in E flat major for Flute and Cembalo, BWV 1031. It is a nearly literal transcription except for the two added measures before the reprise of the solo melody. Marche du Veilleur de Nuit is based on the famous chorus from Cantata 140 (Wachet, auf!). It is a Lisztian-style paraphrase of Bach's original, perhaps indicating that waiting for Advent could be a rather rollicking affair.
The Allegro from Symphony No. 6 is one of the composer's finest inspirations and is probably destined for everlasting popularity in the repertoire. Two themes are heard, a massive, march-like theme followed by an agitated recitative, which assumes much importance throughout the movement. After the music builds, there follows a development section which has challenged many an organist's technique – the opening theme is heard pp over pizzicato pedals with cross-rhythms in both hands and feet. Then follows one of the most exciting crescendos in the organ repertoire, leading to a recapitulation in which the two themes are combined.
In his last two symphonies Widor departed from the secular nature of Symphonies 1-8, and created two works inspired by church architecture and based upon Gregorian chant, the Symphonie Gothique (1899) and Symphonie Romane (1900). The Symphonie Gothique was inspired by the church of Saint Ouen in Rouen, which contained Cavaillé-Coll's acknowledged masterpiece of organ-building. The second movement, Andante sostenuto, is meant to evoke the calm, peaceful interior of this great gothic edifice.
Symphony No. 5 is the most famous of Widor's symphonies and is best known for its first movement and concluding Toccata. It was probably written in 1878 and first publicly performed by the composer on 19 October 1879, at the Palais du Trocadéro. The Allegro vivace presents a Schumanesque theme followed by four variations, each exploiting a different tone colour. The fifth variation is an extended development, culminating in a thrilling restatement of the theme on full organ. The theme of the Adagio, played on a four-foot flute in the pedals, hints at the theme of the toccata to follow. The final movement, the composer's most famous work and the work with which Widor is most readily identified, is wholly original in concept. It represents what became the classic toccata-texture for the organ, fast-moving manual figuration heard over a long-note theme in the pedals.
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WIDOR: Organ Favourites