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ClassicsOnline Home » GUILMANT: Organ Works
Félix-Alexandre Guilmant is considered, along with
Charles-Marie Widor, as one of the founders of the
nineteenth-century French Romantic school of organplaying.
As a composer, editor, musicologist and
publisher he made significant contributions to the organ
repertoire. His teaching led to a vast improvement in the
technical abilities of organists as well as in the quality of
organ performance in general. He was a worldrenowned
performer and improvisor who inspired a
greater appreciation of the organ and its music amongst
the general public.
Guilmant was born on 12th March, 1837, at
Boulogne-sur-mer. His parents were Jean-Baptiste
Guilmant (1793-1890) and Marie-Thérèse Poulain
(1798-1867). In 1849 he received his first organ lessons
from his father, who was organist of St Nicolas Church
in Boulogne and an occasional organ-builder. He
progressed so rapidly that he was able to deputise for his
father at St Nicolas at the age of twelve. In 1853 he
became organist at St Joseph’s Church in Boulogne, and
in 1857, at the age of twenty, was appointed choirmaster
at St Nicolas and a teacher at the Boulogne
Conservatoire. He also studied the violin and viola and
was elected a member of the Boulogne Philharmonic
In 1860 Guilmant heard a recital in Rouen given by
the Belgian virtuoso Jacques Lemmens (1823-1881).
While in Rouen he played for Lemmens, who then
suggested that he come to Brussels for further study.
Under the tutelage of Lemmens he learned the Bach
tradition, studied improvisation, and acquired a fluent
and immaculate technique. In 1862 he was invited to
take part in the dedication of the new Cavaillé-Coll
organ at the Paris Church of St Sulpice, performing
with, among others, César Franck and Camille Saint-
Saëns. In 1862 he began work on the first of his
publications for the organ, L’organiste liturgiste, Op. 65,
which was to comprise ten volumes by the time of its
completion in 1899.
In 1871, at the age of 34, he was appointed organist
at La Trinité in Paris, where he was to remain for 31
years. In 1874 Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 42, the first
of his eight sonatas was published. The sonatas appeared
at regular intervals until 1906, when Sonata No. 8, Op. 91,
was issued. It was during this period that Guilmant
began activities as a teacher, eventually attracting
students from all over the world.
For the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris, he was
invited to perform a series of recitals on the magnificent
new Cavaillé-Coll organ installed in the Palais du
Trocadéro. These recitals were immensely popular and
did much to develop a worldwide audience of admirers.
The series also demonstrated to the public that the organ
was capable of being a concert instrument in its own
right, not solely for use in church. After the exposition
ended, Cavaillé-Coll’s instrument was originally to have
been dismantled but, owing to the success of Guilmant’s
recitals and to his own strong recommendations, it was
retained and Guilmant embarked on a series of historical
recitals each year from 1879 to 1897. This series did
much to popularise the organ and its music from all
historical periods and all countries.
Guilmant’s reputation as a virtuoso began to spread
outside France and he became the first French organist
to tour Great Britain, Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy,
Sweden, The Netherlands, Hungary, Russia and
Scotland. In 1893 he was invited to America to perform
at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, making
an extensive concert tour after his appearance at the fair.
In 1894, along with Charles Bordes (1863-1909)
and Vincent d’Indy (1851-1931), Guilmant founded the
Schola Cantorum in Paris, a school for the training of
church musicians. He was to teach there one day a week
until his death in 1911. In 1896 he succeed Widor as
Professor of Organ at the Paris Conservatoire. He
enjoyed great success as a teacher, developing his own
method based upon the Lemmens tradition of training,
and eventually was to produce more Premier Prix
winners than any of his predecessors. These laureates
included Louis Vierne, Charles Tournemire, Joseph
Bonnet, Nadia Boulanger and Marcel Dupré.
In 1898, upon his return from his second American
tour, Guilmant was forced to resign his post at La Trinité
owing to changes which were made to the organ during
his absence and without his authorisation. In protest
against this unfortunate incident, his former pupil and
assistant at La Trinité Louis Vierne arranged for
Guilmant to be appointed an honorary organist at Notre
Dame Cathedral in Paris in 1902.
In 1899, William Carl, a former student and longtime
friend, founded the Guilmant Organ School in New
York City for the training of church musicians.
Guilmant consented to be president and the students at
the school were taught in the Guilmant method, thus
assuring that his influence would be felt far beyond Paris
after his death.
Guilmant undertook his final American tour in
1908, performing forty recitals at the St Louis
Exposition. The organ at the Exposition was then the
largest organ in the world. It was later acquired by
Rodman Wannamaker and installed in his Philadelphia
department store, where it remains to this day. A tour of
24 recitals followed immediately after the exposition
In his later years Guilmant bought a home, which he
named the Villa Guilmant, in the Parisian suburb of
Meudon. In the music room Cavaillé-Coll installed a
three-manual, 28-stop organ on which Guilmant
frequently performed at evening soirées and continued
his teaching activities, attracting organists from all over
Europe and America. Several honours came his way
including that of Chevalier of the Legion of Honour
(1893), an honorary Doctorate from Manchester
University in England (1910), and the institution of a
prize at the Paris Conservatoire, to be given each year to
the outstanding student in the organ class. In 1909 his
wife died, and on 30th March, 1911, after a brief illness,
Guilmant himself died at the Villa Meudon. The funeral
was held in the music room, and he was laid to rest in
Montparnasse cemetery in Paris.
Guilmant was active his entire professional life as a
composer, editor and publisher of organ music. His
output for the organ is so vast that he can be described as
one of the most prolific of composers for the instrument.
In addition, his life-long interest in the organ music of
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries bore fruit in
four major publications of early organ music: École
classique de l’orgue (25 volumes 1893-1903),
Répertoire des Concerts du Trocadéro (25 volumes
1892-1897), Concert historique d’orgue (1892) and,
with the musicologist André Pirro, Les archives des
maîtres de l’orgue des XVI, XVII, et XVIII siècles (ten
volumes, 1892-1910). Guilmant originally published
much of his music himself and his wife played an
important role in the sale of it, eventually establishing a
small music store in Meudon.
Guilmant’s organ music can be divided into two
large groups: concert works and those written for church
service. Foremost amongst the concert works are the
eight sonatas (1874-1907), Pièces dans différents styles
(25 volumes, 1870-1881), L’organiste pratique (twelve
volumes, 1870-1881), 18 nouvelles pièces, Op. 90 (c. 1904)
and Sept morceaux (1894-1899). The works written for
church use are often based upon Gregorian melodies and
include L’organiste liturgiste, Op. 65 (ten volumes,
1884-1889), Soixante interludes dans la tonalité
grégorienne, Op. 68 (1884-1911), and Noëls, Op. 60
(four volumes, 1883-1896).
The Grand Chorus in G minor, Op. 84, was
published in 1898. It is typical of the numerous marchtype
pieces which Guilmant wrote for various festive,
ceremonial, and liturgical occasions. The opening theme
alternates with a trio and a short fugato before ending
with a dramatic flourish.
The Caprice in B flat major, Op. 20, No. 3, is from
the collection Pièces dans différents styles which
contains many of his most popular works. The piece
features the ingenious effect of alternating manuals of
equal colour. The Trio section couples the manuals
together and in the final section the right hand must hop
between the Great and Choir divisions while the left
hand plays a counter-melody on a solo reed stop.
Another popular work from this collection is the
Allegretto in B minor, Op. 19, No. 1, a wistful piece
which features the Oboe and Clarinet stops in dialogue.
The Lamentation in D minor, Op. 45, No. 1, was
inscribed by Guilmant to the memory of his friend Abbé
Henri Gros, who was killed during the bombardment of
Paris during the unrest following the end of the Franco-
Prussian War in 1870. It is a magnificent elegy which
builds to a shattering climax, ending quietly with a
harmonized Gregorian hymn.
Offertoire sur ‘O filii’ pour la fête de Pâques,
Op. 49, No. 2, is a set of variations on the well-known
Easter hymn. Guilmant treats the theme in a very original
manner by having a central set of variations framed by a
toccata-like treatment of the theme.
The Lento assai (Rêve) is the fourth movement of
Sonata No. 7 in F major, Op. 87, which was published
in 1902. Guilmant was a passionate admirer of Claude
Debussy and never missed a performance of the
composer’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande. Unusual for
Guilmant are the startling whole-tone harmonies heard
at the beginning of the movement, perhaps reflecting his
admiration of Debussy’s style.
The music of Handel played an important in role in
Guilmant’s repertoire and he was the first to play the
organ concertos on his series at the Trocadéro in 1878.
Several works use themes by Handel, the most popular
being the Marche sur un thème de Haendel, Op. 15, No. 2.
It uses the theme from the chorus Lift up your heads
from Messiah. A solemn, introductory march is followed
by a spirited fugal development which builds to the final
massive statement of Handel’s theme.
The collection L’organiste pratique contains pieces
of varying styles, marches for various occasions, lyric
pieces, and virtuoso works such as the Scherzo
symphonique in C major, Op. 55, No. 2. The form of the
work is of symphonic proportions. A modified rondo
with two trios moves to a development section, and a
virtuosic coda gives a final apotheosis to the main
In France, the noël has been an ever popular form of
Christmas carol. Noëls usually depict charming and
evocative vignettes of the shepherds, and were often
sung in the home during the seasons of Advent and
Christmas. In the eighteenth century a number of
composers made arrangements of noëls for the organ,
including Lebègue, Daquin and Dandrieu. Guilmant,
through his work in editing early music, was very
familiar with this repertoire and his studies led him to
publish twenty arrangements of melodies from various
countries in Noëls, Op. 60. The melodies in the
collection are treated in a variety of styles including
variation, march, offertory, and those in which the
melodies are treated in a more restrained, expressive
style as in the Noël languedocien.
The Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 42, published in
1874, has remained one of the composer’s most popular
works. It was later transcribed by the composer as
Symphonie no. 1 pour orgue et orchestre, Op. 42. The
sonata-form finale, Allegro assai, uses two themes, an
opening toccata-like figure and a second chorale-like
theme which provides contrast to the toccata. After an
extended development, involving a gradual shift from
minor to major, the chorale theme finally emerges
triumphant in the massive final section.
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GUILMANT: Organ Works