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Louis Vierne, one of the great concert organists and composers of the twentieth century, is best known for his organ works. In each of the six Symphonies for Organ, Vierne explores a method of generating a symphony from just a few themes. He once stated that he was far more attracted by musical thematicism than by tone colour. Born virtually blind, Vierne showed an early aptitude for music. His works are said to reflect the vast and decorated architecture of Notre Dame in Paris.
His primary instrument however, was the organ, an instrument which for much of the nineteenth century fulfilled, outside of a liturgical function, the role of the modern day symphony orchestra. Limited by and large to a restricted diet of popular symphonic and operatic transcriptions, it was Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937) who virtually single-handedly resurrected the instrument's integrity and restored an awareness of the contrapuntal art in organ music. As the custodian of a tradition initiated by Jacques Lemmens (1832-1881)—one based on a study of Bach's music—he nurtured in the closing years of the nineteenth century, une école d'orgue du français. Important composers of Widor's generation, Saint-Saëns, Franck and Fauré, enjoyed careers as organists and their instruments reflected the technical and tonal innovations of visionary organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811-1899). In the middle years of the nineteenth century, he revolutionised the organ as an expressive, communicative musical vehicle, but yet his new 'symphonic' aesthetic was as secular in inspiration as it was sacred.
Cavaillé-Coll's instruments possessed a 'symphonic' blend of colours which drew inspiration directly from the orchestra. Flutes and soft reeds contrasted dynamically between extremes of the keyboard compass (allowing the clear enunciation of melodic lines), a variety of unique timbres was provided and the power and éclat of the Trompettes was unashamedly designed to stir emotions. These instruments became a direct source of Vierne's inspiration. César Franck is accredited with being the first to develop the sound and colour of these conceptually new organs in a truly symphonic manner, his Grande Pièce Symphonique of 1863 unfolds in symphonic-organic fashion and in one long continuous movement. The themes sound orchestral, developments strongly classical (cyclic techniques, where thematic recurrences bind together an essentially fantasia-like structure, are evident) and the concluding flourishes possess an orchestral breadth. Widor's ten organ symphonies however, divide into five or six independent movements and, with the exception of the final two are more akin to suites (such is the independence of musical thought between the movements). Thus, it was Louis Vierne, Widor's pupil and close associate, who was to bring symphonic organ music to its zenith.
Louis Vierne—His life
Vierne showed a strong aptitude for music at an early age despite being virtually blind from birth, a consequence of congenital cataracts. Vierne spent his childhood successively in Poitiers, Lille and Paris (the family moved frequently due to his father's journalistic career) and he received the doting attention of his parents in his early years. However, it was an uncle, Charles Colin (an oboe teacher at the Paris Conservatoire and an organist) who first recognised his young nephew's musical talent and who brought him to the church of St. Clotilde in Paris where he first heard the music of César Franck. For Vierne, Franck's music was a 'une révélation profonde', and the fundamental inspiration for his subsequent studies and ambitions to become an organist himself.
A tranquil childhood was abruptly halted at the age of 11 when his beloved uncle suddenly died. Vierne was 15 when his father, who had encouraged his son's aspirations after Colin's death, showed signs of declining health, and within the year, he too had died. At 19, Vierne finally entered César Franck's organ class at the Paris Conservatoire yet Franck, whom he revered above all, died quite suddenly within a few months. Deeply shaken once again, Vierne nevertheless continued his studies with Charles-Marie Widor (whom he came to regard as a supremely cultured and articulate man) and before long, became his assistant at both the church of Saint-Sulpice and at the Conservatoire. Widor had become widely known, not only for the integrity of his playing and writing but also for his collaboration with the organist (and later famous humanitarian) Albert Schweitzer in the publication of new editions of Bach's organ works. During the 1890s, Vierne became a regular performer in the homes of the Parisian aristocracy and in acting on one occasion as accompanist, met and fell in love with a young soprano Arlette Taskin. They were married in 1899.
A year later, in 1900 (aged 30), he was appointed organiste titulaire at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, a post he would occupy for nearly forty years. His standing as a brilliant composer (assured by the completion of his First Symphony the previous year), a performer and improviser of great artistry singled him out from a long list of highly qualified candidates.
Despite his by now near-total blindness, Vierne often made his way around Paris alone. One night in 1906, injuries sustained through an unfortunate encounter with street excavation works nearly cost him his career as an organist and over the next ten years, he was to experience a series of further misfortunes. The painful discovery of his wife's adultery with a supposed friend (Charles Mulin, the dedicatee of the Deuxième Symphonie) led to a divorce in 1909 and his youngest son contracted tuberculosis (from which he would die four years later at the age of ten). In 1911, both his mother and his colleague Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911) succumbed to kidney failure and during the early years of the First World War, he lost both his brother René and another son Jacques from mortal wounds in combat. Vierne's grief was exacerbated by a guilt he harboured in feeling personally responsible for his teenage son's death; he had reluctantly relented to his pleas to enlist. Finally, the composer himself lost what little sight he had retained in 1918 after eleventh hour surgery in Switzerland attempted to halt his rapidly advancing glaucoma. His brilliant student Marcel Dupré covered at Notre-Dame what became a four-year absence through surgery and rehabilitation, and the bitter fracturing of their relationship on Vierne's return over titular semantics (Vierne objected to Dupré having used what he regarded as his exclusive title: L'Organiste de Notre-Dame) remained unhealed at his death in 1937.
It is perhaps no surprise that Vierne's character has periodically been described as crabby, but a life marked by misfortune doubtless left Vierne an emotionally vulnerable man and his music, which became darker and more austere, is undoubtedly a reflection of his misfortune. He himself acknowledged that tragedy had informed his musical personality, but for all the anguish and loss he faced, he was plainly also a man of remarkable resilience and character. A. C. Delacour de Brisay writing in the Musical Times in 1935 eloquently described Vierne on a visit to the Notre-Dame, 'There is much pain, torment both physical and moral in Vierne's face, and the hard and sometimes wilful chromaticism of much of his music is symptomatic of this inner struggle.'
Vierne has also been described as having been a man of great kindness, ever generous with his time and always encouraging towards his students. He became known as a great teacher and many of his students formed the nucleus of an important twentieth-century French organ school; Marcel Dupré, Joseph Bonnet, Nadia Boulanger, Olivier Messiaen, Maurice Duruflé, Gaston Litaize and Jean Langlais. Having taught at the Paris Conservatoire (1894-96) as Widor's assistant, he became a colleague and assistant there of Widor's successor, Alexandre Guilmant (whose own organ sonatas harboured decidedly symphonic aspirations and influenced Vierne's early style as much as Widor's). Vierne should have succeeded Guilmant as organ professor in 1911, but adverse political machinations saw Eugène Gigout appointed instead. After 1911 he taught at Vincent d'Indy's Schola Cantorum.
In his later years, he ventured into the then new technology of recording by committing to 78 RPM disc, three improvisations and works by Bach (1928), although when the aforementioned de Brisay told Vierne that 'J'ai tous les disques qu'il a faits ici', Vierne retorted 'Ils ne sont pas bons, ils ne sont pas bons!' In June 1937 he played the recital at Notre-Dame which he was never to finish. His favoured pupil, Maurice Duruflé was at his side as he performed his Triptyque Op 58. He was thereafter given a theme (in Braille) on which to improvise, decided which stops to use but suddenly wavered as a pedal note sounded. Placing his hand over his heart, he fell and died there and then of a stroke. It was a lifting if untimely and sensational end for a man who had given greatly through his artistry, sacrificed much and had dedicated his life to the instrument at which he died.
Louis Vierne—His Music
In each of the six Symphonies for Organ, Vierne explores with ever-greater cohesion a method borrowed from mainstream nineteenth-century orchestral symphonists of generating a symphony from just a few main themes. Vierne stated that he was far more attracted by musical thematics than by tone colour—something borne out by essentially organic and developmental writing, The cyclic conception with which he was most interested was derived fundamentally from a Franckian aesthetic and in harmonic terms, each of his Symphonies moves a little further towards a convoluted, astringent and dissonant language. He extended the parameters of tonality (particularly in the 5th and 6th Symphonies) yet never totally abandoned its guiding principles and unlike a later generation of painters in sound (Messiaen in particular), form itself remained of seminal importance. His music retains the dramatic flourish and emotional pathos of Romanticism but combines it with an impressionistic 'pastel-like' quality (one is often reminded of the elegant and wistful slyle of Debussy or Fauré) and a tendency towards more dispassionate and 'modernist' abstraction is palpable in the later works. Like so many turn-of-the-century composers (including Widor and Franck), Vierne felt a strong pull towards the spacious and dramatic chromaticism of Wagner, yet his own chromatic writing often contains traces of 'jazz' influence (he was of course, a 'child' of early twentieth-century Paris). Thus, this blend of modernistic, traditional and Romantic elements in his music is perhaps unique in the environs de musique pour orgue.
With the exception of the first (which more closely resembles Widor's earlier 'suite'-like forays in the genre), the organ symphonies all contain five movements and maintain a greater symphonic thread than Vierne's mentor's. As with Widor however, the tonic key of each symphony rises successively one note up the scale. All six begin in minor keys, but only the First, Fifth and Sixth contain final movements in the triumphant major. By contrast, the Second, Third and Fourth, although concluding with late transitions to the major key, remain for the most part in dark moods of considerable turmoil. Late in his life, Vierne began a seventh symphony but it existed only in brief sketches at his sudden and dramatic Jour de mort.
The Première Symphonie in D minor, Opus 14 (1898-99) is dedicated to Alexandre Guilmant and begins with a homage to Bach in a Prelude and Fugue, the only example in Vierne's oeuvre. Although not a 'cyclic' Symphony as such, the opening notes of the Prelude become the cornerstone for the later finale's main theme, and the four-note descending figure which follows bears a resemblance to the finale's second subject. The Prelude betrays the influence of Franck and the Fugue is built on a four-note ascending figure which forms a pervasive diminished seventh. A lyrical and ternary-shaped Pastorale contains a haunting minor key central episode, placed between an engaging oboe melody in the outer portions. The main theme again hints at 'cyclic' writing as its contours share those of the Finale's second theme. The scherzo (Allegro Vivace) incorporates a lyrical 'trio' where the melody (heard on the trompette) is set periodically in canon with the pedal. A quiet and tender Adagio precedes the noble and heroic Finale, one of Vierne's most celebrated pieces with its thundering pedal melody set beneath broken chord figurations in the hands. That the first several notes of the pedal melody are identical to those of the Marseillaise may be purely incidental…
The Deuxième Symphonie in E minor, Op 20 (1902) is cyclic and draws virtually exclusively on the germinal ideas announced in the first movement. The initial theme [A] is rhythmic (marked marcato), the second [B] more hymn-like and lyrical. The opening Allegro (in sonata form) is dark and turbulent and the following Choral seems a further 'homage à Franck'. As in the Chorals of Franck, Vierne's theme is original, but it is constructed from the two main themes of the first movement heard in reverse order. The dramatic ascent to the chorale theme's ecstatic re-appearance towards the close is grandiloquent and majestic.
The dance-like scherzo (where, in its contrasted second episodes, [A] is heard on an 8' pedal beneath limpid phrases high up in the compass) looks forward to many of the Pièces de Fantaisie in its quicksilver textures and the Cantabile converts themes [A] and [B] both tonally and rhythmically. After a 'maestoso' lntroduction, the Finale begins where the opening Allegro left off. Hardly the well-known crowd-pleaser of the First Symphony, the main theme [A] reappears only altered slightly and the brooding disquiet of the opening Allegro is maintained. The ending, which ultimalely establishes the tonic major key, is triumphant but not transfigured. Debussy heard the Symphony at its premiere (played by its dedicatee Charles Mulin) and commented that 'The Symphonie of M. Vierne is a remarkable work; it contains abundant musicianship with ingenious discoveries in the special sonority of the organ. Old J. S. Bach, the father of us all, would have been pleased with M. Vierne'.
The Troisième Symphonie in F sharp minor (1911) dates from the summer of 1911 when Vierne took vacation at the Dupré family villa in St Valery-en-Gau in Normandy. The Symphony is dedicated to Dupré who premiered the work at the Salle Gaveau in Paris in March 1912 (the impasse that concluded relations between the two men was still a few years away). Although here Vierne dispensed with overt cyclic considerations, his instinct led to subtle thematic relationships apparent between movements. The majestic Allegro Maestoso opens with an aggressive 'call to arms' and the jagged rhythmic edges heard at the start pervade the movement. A second subject is more lyrical in nature and the succeeding 'classical' development sees both ideas developed and combined. The dreamy and delicate Hautbois melody of the Cantilene meanders its way in long-breathed phrases of wide-ranging compass in outer sections and contrasts with a central homophonic episode. In the impish, scherzo-like and binary-style Intermezzo, the rhythmic outlines of the first movement's opening theme can be discerned whereas the Adagio is built upon a new, noble and tender melody (subjected to manifold transformations), revealing a Franckian or Wagnerian aesthetic debt. In the Finale, the first movement's jagged theme is smoothed-out to form a more graceful melodic shape and as in the Deuxième Symphonie, a minor key movement offers no glib triumphalism, working out its destiny with dramatic intent. The tonic major key is established at the very last and the conclusion hints at a more optimistic and positive note.
The Quatrième Symphonie in G minor, Op 32 (1914) is dedicated to American organist William C. Carl and opens with a single haunting and sustained note, repeated four times; a plangent, tolling bell amidst turbulent times. The Great War had just erupted when this Symphony was composed in the summer of 1914. Cyclic in its thematic conception, it is built from material derived from two germinal 'cells'. Four pairs of chromatic notes (two ascending and two descending) serve as an opening idea [A] in the brooding, slow-moving Prelude. The austerity of the first subject is interrupted periodically by a second more lyrical theme [B], first heard on the Récit trompette. Although highly chromatic, the Prelude is relentlessly organic and the absence of resolution at its end is striking. The succeeding Allegro reverses the order of themes. Opening with the trompette idea [B] in martial mode, a second subject is formed from theme [A]. Its apotheosis is as unexpected as it is strident, affirming an emphatic G major.
The grace and charm of the Minuet seems momentarily to have forgotten the guns and the austere chromatic figure of [A] is converted to an enchanting and piquant idea heard on the Hautbois. In the central episode, the original sustained note from the first movement returns in the background and a portion of the trompette theme reappears. One of Vierne's most sublime melodies is heard in the Romance. The central section recalls the darkly dramatic nature of the opening movement's chromaticism, but the tonic key of D flat major grants the movement melancholic warmth and an atmosphere of solemn tranquillity. Intensity returns in the Finale and [A] and [B] are clearly identifiable in music transformed into a moto perpetuo of considerable drama. Ultimately, the original theme is transformed into a series of massive chords ending the Symphony with four reiterated tonic chords recalling the first movement's opening 'chime'.
The Cinquième Symphonie in A minor, Opus 47 (1924] marks the progress of Vierne's musical language into the modern post-Great War world of increasing dissonance and atonality. Thus the final two Symphonies adopt a thornier, more challenging tonal language and are longer but still masterful in their use of cyclic technique. Written after the series of great catastrophes not only in Vierne's personal life but also within old Europe, the impression of a highly developed musical expression and refinement of language is palpable—one where much of the outwardly exuberant and Romantic utterance of the previous symphonies is forsaken.
In the Fifth Symphony, Vierne builds an edifice on the basis of two themes, one a series of descending diatonic thirds [A] and the second [B], an ascending and then descending chromatic sequence. Both are heard alternately within the opening bars of the Grave—brooding and anguished music with echoes of the Wagner of Tristan in the following Allegro (Allegretto molto marcato), the main diatonic theme [A] is inverted and accompanied by the chromatic second theme [B]. Not dissimilar lo the rhythmic shapes of the Fourth Symphony's Allegro movement, it is harmonically more advanced, significantly longer and more involved developmentally. In the scherzo, the two themes are worked very clearly. As with lhe scherzo of lhe Sixième Symphonie, it adopts a macabre and spectral character and their proximity in the melodic and rhythmic language to Paul Dukas' evergreen 'Sorcerer's Apprentice' is striking. The scherzo's two episodes each adopt a respective cyclic theme. The Larghetto is expressive, graceful and woven principally from the chromatic second theme [B] and an inverted version of the first [A]. The Finale signals a triumphant carillon in the tonic major key. The chromatic second theme [B] places its ascending and descending phrases in reverse order. The elaborate developments are extensive but texturally economical (the clarity of Vierne's counterpoint is never compromised by chordal bombast) and the diminution of rhythmic ideas in the final pages provides a cumulative effect, driving the intensity of this long movement to its dynamic, virtuosic—and strangely unexpected—conclusion.
The Sixième Symphonie in B minor Op 59 (1930) is a supremely virtuosic work pointing both to a new musical and technical order and a linguistic development perhaps only truly fulfilled by Vierne's successors (Dupré, Messiaen, Alain). Dedicated to the memory of American virtuoso, Lynwood Farnham (recently deceased in 1930), it was Maurice Duruflé who premiered the work in 1934 at Notre-Dame. Cyclic form again serves Vierne despite a tangibly improvisatory feel to many passages in the symphony. The opening Introduction and Allegro ventures towards the limits of tonality in a highly developed chromatic language, yet its dramatic lines remain strong. The elaborate first theme [A] is heard at the very outset and the mysterious second theme [B] appears in an ultra-chromatic harmonised statement soon after. The dramatic Allegro, which breaks out from it, carries subtle transformations of both themes in as strong and cogent a symphonic fabric as Vierne ever created. Certain imposing chord sequences seem to anticipate the Final, and yet the many rapid, arpeggiated figurations appear to take up where the finale of the Cinquième Symphonie left off.
Based on the melodic contours of theme A, the Aria's prevailing mood is hazy and mysterious. A chordal introductory passage interjects between episodes of wide-ranging, arching 'vocal' lines (inverted contours of [B] on the Récit trompette. The final stanzas juxtapose these ideas and the cadence forms a musical 'sunset' of static luminosity. In the brilliant scherzo, theme [A] is clear, later appearing in inverted form. Siegfried Schibli stated that the movement had 'an iridescent quality that sometimes stops little short of the grotesque reflecting Vierne's pronouncement that in the music's bizarre and humoresque rhythms, he had attempted to depict the derisive grin of a gargoyle.' The haunting, brooding Adagio emerges from a long 'pedal point' and evolves into a chromatic labyrinth built from both themes [A] and [B]. Lyrical and expressive, the solemn and static coda is one of exquisite beauty.
In strong contrast to the astringency of the four preceding movements, the Finale is an ebullient, joyous and free-spirited tour-de-force. [B] is transformed into a rousing statement of splendour, pomp and even razzamatazz and the movement's unbridled joie-de-vivre has undoubtedly contributed to its reputation as one of Vierne's most popular symphonic finales. After the long, drawn-out tension of the preceding movements' journey, the joyous optimism of this conclusion to the symphony is entirely justified. In Rondo form, the rousing opening theme (transformed theme [B] is spectacularly underpinned by pedal 'timpani'. A new and lyrical 'second subject' infuses the central, contrasted episode and the reprise of the opening music heralds developments of [A] in combination with the movement's second subject in grand statement. The famous cascading pedal scales usher in the brilliant conclusion, ending Vierne's symphonic 'journey' at a point where the elasticity of tonality seemed to have been stretched to breaking point.
Jeremy Filsell © 2005
The organ, whilst in good playing condition, presented one or two difficulties discernable on the present recording. In an attempt to capture the musical detail of Vierne's often-complex textures, microphones were placed close to the buffet d'orgue. Thus there are odd occasions where the geographical disparity between Positif and Récit divisions gives periodic rise to rhythmic idiosyncrasies. At the console, the disparity is concealed, but microphones only highlighted it. The awesome presence of the 'anches' pedals periodically mitigated against the clarity of bass lines, and despite attempts at intelligibility, certain moments always became 'swallowed' by the manner in which held notes seemed to 'develop' in dynamic presence. This extraordinary—but indeed rather musical—quality inherent in the instrument, whilst being orchestral in inspiration, created occasional problems with musical lucidity. We came to regard such anomalies however as an occupational hazard of being privileged to work with such a remarkable, historical and inspiring instrument.
Jeremy Filsell © 2005