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Father of the French Romantic tracker-action symphonic/'orchestral' organ, Cavaillé-Coll (1811-99), 'the Isambard Kingdom Brunel of late 19th-century music,' provided composers with an ennobling medium. His vaulting empire/république edifices of metal, wood and ivory commanded the spaces of Notre Dame (where Sergent and Vierne were incumbents during Widor's lifetime), La Madeleine (Saint-Saëns, Dubois, Fauré), Saint-Clotilde (Franck, Pierné, Tournemire), La Trinité (Guilmant, Messiaen), Saint-Denis (dedicated in 1841), and the old Palais du Trocadéro. Their mechanisms and façades crowned the great abbeys, basilicas and cathedrals from Lyon and Bayeux to Orleans and Rouen. 'You know when you've heard a Cavaillé-Coll organ, just as you know when you've eaten a properly dressed salad niçoise. The first thing to hit you is the breadth of the sound: a gentle nave-shaking vibration that feels like a tidal wind. Pressured wind powers all organs, but Cavaillé-Coll made it part of his sound; a strange, breathing humanity shot through the entire instrument's register. Then there's the stops themselves—distinctive strings that have an alluring mysticism; forceful reeds that seem to protest as if wrongly imprisoned within the woodwork; the harnessing of them all with a seamless general crescendo […] that builds rapidly to an overwhelmingly wide full organ sound' (Andrew Mellor, Gramophone, 2 June 2011).
In April 1862 his 'magnum opus'—comprising more than 100 stops (including two thirty-two foot ranks), nearly 7,000 pipes, nineteen pédales de combinaison, 20 wind-chests, seven pneumatic Barker levers (ante-resistance devices equalising touch and lightening action 'regardless of the physical location of the respective pipework'), eight double-rise reservoirs, and five manuals—was installed in Saint-Sulpice, inaugurated by Saint-Saëns, Guilmant and Franck among others. This, the largest in France, was the lead-grey 'monster' instrument, with its many voices, colours and harmonic overtones, its gradations and immensity of volume, which was to so regally 'seduce' and inspire Widor. 'It's when I felt the […] pipes of the Saint-Sulpice organ vibrating under my hands and feet,' he recalled, 'that I took to writing my first four organ symphonies […] I didn't seek any particular style or form. I wrote feeling them deeply, asking myself if they were inspired by Bach or Mendelssohn. No! I was listening to the sonorousness of Saint-Sulpice, and naturally I sought to extract from it a musical fabric – trying to make pieces that, while being free, featured some contrapuntal procedures' (Souvenirs autobiographiques, typescript 1935-36). In Saint-Sulpice, 'dominating some twenty meters above the nave that extended in front of the gigantic instrument, Widor was king. He reigned, and he had his court of musicians, the faithful, friends, and the inquisitive' (René Dumesnil, Portraits de musiciens français, Paris 1938). Walk into Saint-Sulpice today, arrondissement VI, his spirit and name is everywhere still. Look aloft, become part of the anima and ambience of the place, and you know why he imagined and wrote as he did.
In an avant-propos prefacing the 1887 edition of the Op 13 Symphonies, justifying his intentions and answering his critics, Widor took impassioned care to emphasise the rôle, 'glory' and contribution of Cavaillé-Coll—dating his dawning to 1839 (the organ of the Palais de l'Industrie at that year's Paris Exposition, moved subsequently to the Lutheran church of Les Billettes). 'It is he who conceived the diverse wind pressures, the divided windchests, the pedal systems and the combination registers; he who applied for the first time Barker's pneumatic motors [levers], created the family of harmonic stops, reformed and perfected the mechanics to such a point that each pipe—low or high, loud or soft—instantly obeys the touch of the finger, the keys becoming as light as those of a piano – the resistances being suppressed, rendering the combination of [all] the forces of the instrument practical. From this result: the possibility of confining an entire division in a sonorous prison—opened or closed at will—the freedom of mixing timbres, the means of intensifying them or gradually tempering them, the freedom of tempos, the sureness of attacks, the balance of contrasts, and, finally, a whole blossoming of wonderful colours—a rich palette of the most diverse shades: harmonic flutes, gambas, bassoons, English horns, trumpets, celestes, flue stops and reed stops of a quality and variety unknown before. The modern organ is essentially symphonic. The new instrument requires a new language, an ideal other than scholastic polyphony. It is no longer the Bach of the Fugue whom we invoke, but the heartrending melodist, the pre-eminently expressive master of the Prelude, the Magnificat, the B minor Mass, the Cantatas, and the St Matthew Passion […] henceforth one will have to exercise the same care with the combination of timbres in an organ composition as in an orchestral work' (trans. John R Near, A-R Editions Inc, Middleton 1991). Historically, Widor's Cavaillé-Coll at St Sulpice will always rank supreme among the 19th century's most technologically-defining, fantasy-creating sound-machines. In the 1870s, when Widor ruled the organ loft, it was no antiquated fossil but a wondrously re-born creature. And its vocabulary was infinitely varied. It had nothing to do with the 'old instruments' of Bach or Handel—which, Widor reminds, 'had almost no reed stops: two colours, white and black, foundation stops and mixture stops – that was their entire palette; moreover, each transition between this white and this black was abrupt and rough; the means of graduating the body of sound did not exist'. When it came to sonics and action, power and colours, a big Cavaillé-Coll bore little resemblance to its ancestors. Mirroring Bechstein, Blüthner and Steinway in the piano arena, Aristide fashioned a dream of soaring heights and infra depths.
Widor wasn't the first Romantic to conceive a 'symphony' for solo instrument. His fellow Parisian Alkan published one for piano in 1857 (Nos 4-7 of the Minor Key Études Op 39, dedicated to Fétis). And a five-movement organ Symphony in D major by Wilhelm Valentin Volckmar appeared in Leipzig ten years later (Op 172). Emphatically, though, it was he who was to establish the genre for organ, using the instrument's resources to create a spectacular 'orchestral' palette, hewn as much out of Berlioz (whose Traité d'instrumentation he modernised in 1904) as the 'thoroughly orchestral' precedent of Mendelssohn's Fourth Sonata (which he edited in 1918). Conscious that, High Catholic bureaucratic position notwithstanding, their author was no avid church man, the first eight of his ten belle époque symphonies (two sets of four each: Op 13, 1871, Op 42, 1878-87), are essentially secularised concert suites. Only the last two—the Symphonie gothique, Op 70 (1894) and Symphonie romane, Op 73 (1899)—instil specifically liturgical elements (pre-Solesmesised Gregorian plainchant). Tracing a rising-ninth 'C scale' of keys (C minor, D major, E minor, F minor; F minor, G minor, A minor, B major; C minor; D major), Widor's symphonies are a unique phenomenon, their legacy the gentlemanly preserve of the French Establishment—primarily Vierne at Notre Dame (who completed the last of his six in 1930), Guilmant, Barié, Dupré, Fleury (who effectively brought the genre to an end with his Second in 1949). These days, cleansed of sentimentality and gratuitous sanctity, the purple and the pompous that once cloaked them, observed for their precision detail and scoring, they tower on their own—sonically particular, transcendentally exacting, cogently argued distillations of a special aesthetic, time and place in European history.
'There is no preparation in the scheme of things for the appearance of a Widor. His work comes like a clap of thunder out of a clear sky, and not even the work of Franck can explain it. It is due entirely to the outstanding personality of the man' (Albert Riemenschneider, 1934). Dedicated in their 1879 incarnation to Cavaillé-Coll, the Third Empire Symphonies Op 13 were published in Paris in early 1872, engraved in Leipzig. In the absence of any autographs, no genesis is traceable, though there is evidence to suppose that some of their ideas may date from the 1860s. Hailing them 'the greatest contribution to organ literature since the works of Johann Sebastian Bach,' laying the foundations of modern organ technique, Widor's definitive modern biographer and editor, John R Near, observes that their author's 'lifelong practice of revision affected [their content] most noticeably, undoubtedly because many of [their movements] were either born of his Sunday improvisations at Saint-Sulpice or of an earlier conception […] In the different editions of Op 13, pieces often appeared in a drastically different guise […] in many respects these symphonies were experimental works on which Widor continued to reflect the rest of his life. Undergoing many stages of revision, whole movements were added, omitted, or altered—several were fleshed out considerably […] Widor earned his living primarily by playing the organ and publishing his music.
The [four] Op 13 Symphonies fulfilled the varied musical requirements of church service, organ inaugurations, and salon concerts'. Confirming the composer as his own most demanding critic, five principal Paris editions exist: (a) 1872, (b) 1887, (c) 1900-01 , (d) 1914-18, 'revised, and entirely modified' , and (e) 1928-29.
Organ Symphony No 1 in C minor Op 13 No 1
First of the canon, the C minor blueprints the genre. Less a prescribed symphony, more a tonally diverse suite—'a collection of fantasy pieces, most often without ties between them' ran Widor's definition of the latter (1923)—where set-numbers, mood tableaux and contrapuntal routs become cumulatively more important than (and even deny) sonata principle: a 'symphony' in the sense of an antique 'concord of sound'. The work divides into seven movements, linked pivotally through the various notes of the root triad (C, E flat, G): Prélude, Allegretto (A flat major), Intermezzo (G minor), Adagio (E flat major), Marche pontificale (C major), Méditation (E flat minor), Finale (C minor). The muscular, tactile style of Widor's writing is apparent from the onset, the forte moderato quaver subject, slurred/staccato, announced on pedals, the manuals entering to forge a gritty, harmonically intensified trialogue—which tensions are then pursued in the second movement. The Schumann of chords clarified down to staccato semiquavers between the hands, and of boldly proclaimed dotted rhythms, is never far away in the third and fifth movements, the grandiose rondo fifth (paraphrased two years later in Lemmens's First Organ Sonata) in the spirit of both Gounod's 1869 Marche pontificale, dedicated to Pius IX, and the ceremonious processionals Widor used to accompany regularly during high feast days at Saint-Sulpice. Compound metres inform the fourth and six movements—a 9/8 chorale (including an unexpected D major semitone drop, cf the sidestepping of the second movement); and a 6/8 barcarolle cadencing in the major. In the closing four-part fugue, the Mendelssohian cut of the Prélude is replaced by one of tougher stance and chromaticism: the dynamic and grammar may be baroque/classical—the final two bars are pure Bach—but the speech is avowedly 1870 Liszt/Wagner—Widor's heroes. The leonine six-bar subject, fff, spans a minor tenth. All twelve semitones of the scale are spelt out. And, five pages on, affirming point d'orgue notwithstanding, there is no Picardy third to appease the emotions, triumph the moment, or relent the debate. Tough music for serious minds.
Organ Symphony No 2 in D major Op 13 No 2
Less overtly polyphonic than the First, the Second emphasises tone-colour: 'Widor,' says Near, 'seems to be taking the listener on a timbral tour of the organ,' with each movement featuring 'fresh combinations' of sound. The 1901 edition introduced several changes to the original—most drastically the (arguably mis-advised) substitution of the original fourth movement, a chattering, fugato-gifted E major staccato scherzo in 6/8 [reinstated fifth in this recording] with a (compositionally later style) Salve regina in D minor, drawing on the Gregorian antiphon for the Blessed Virgin Mary. 'Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve; to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in thiés vale of tears.' Near believes that the distinctively sectional character of this chorale fantasy 'suggests the alternatim practice commonly adopted by the grand organ and choir organ in large French churches'. Towards the end, against a texture of left-hand semiquavers, the pédale trompette, fortissimo, sounds the closing line of the plainchant: 'O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria' (O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary). The fifth [here sixth] movement, an Adagio in D major, was written originally (uniquely) for just the short-resonating voix humaine, re-registered in the 1887 revision. The change of tempo to Andante in 1901, contradicting the Adagio heading, 'seems never to have captured Widor's attention' (Near). The 1901 re-labelling of the 3/4 first movement—from Prélude to Praeludium circulare—would appear to have been a gesture drawing attention to the petit labyrinthe harmonique trajectile of the music: mirroring a tradition from the early 16th century onwards, including Beethoven and Chopin in the generations preceeding Widor, it begins and ends in the tonic but en route orbits chromatically through the keys.
Placed second, and broadly unchanged in subsequent editions, the 12/8 G major Pastorale, 'replete with grace and aural colour' (Near), inhabits a post-Bachian/Berliozian world, somewhere between Jesus bleibet meine Freude and L'enfance du Christ. In March 1870 Le Ménestrel reported Widor playing 'a beautiful fantaisie pastorale' at Saint-Sulpice: the Pastorale of the Second Symphony, Near wonders? The ensuing Andante in B flat major is a chorale-like scena (on an anacrustic theme determined by repetitive two-quaver/two-crotchet patterns) displaying Widor's schooled command of motivic and sequential development. Likewise his habitual pleasure in key-shifting. Scarcely has the theme been announced before we are sharing a calvados or two with D major, F sharp major, B minor, G major/minor—the start of an adventurous ramble. Anticipating the Fifth Symphony (1879), the tripartite Finale [here the seventh movement] is a grand toccata—slurs and staccato as critical to its thematic profile as harmonic thrust and resolution are to its architecture.
Organ Symphony No 3 in E minor Op 13 No 3
Planned initially in six movements (a four-voice Fugue, Moderato assai, placed fifth, was omitted subsequently, reappearing around 1910 as one of the Deux pièces pour grand orgue, together with the discarded original fourth movement of the Second Symphony), the Third opens with a 6/8 Prélude, dynamically contained. The cut of this—ties, undercurrents of fluid cross-metre, chromatic progression, harmonic pacing, modulations—establishes a distinctively active quality, Moderato tempo and pedal-pointing notwithstanding. The B minor Minuetto, with a trio in G major and a routine tierce de picardie coda, breaks no formal boundaries but is interesting in its 'orchestration' and for how Widor uses tessitura, rhythm and simple variation techniques to re-angle appearances of the principal style ancien idea (from as early as bar 5). The Marcia in F sharp unleashes hewn majesty but isn't all about unrestrained volume. François Sabatier (1991) calls it a 'rondo à refrain varié'—confirming a design that's essentially ABACA, with the central reprise in (classically 'wrong key') A major (tonally anticipating the fourth movement). The first episode is modulatory; the second, more stabilised, moves from B-flat to the home tonic. Both provide quieter, voice-led, counterfoils to the refrain—an imposing idea welding a distinctive anacrusis/downbeat dotted-rhythm with a pedal part democratically melodic and harmonic. Anchored by a slow-moving, pedal-pointed bass line, the 6/8 Adagio, a two-part canon-at-the-octave in A major (soprano-led at one bar's distance), looks to the French pastorale tradition, vaguely resonant, albeit not modally, of a Mendelssohnian gondola song. Emphasing the strong compound/triple time/triplet character of the work as a whole, the 'orchestrally' exuberant, swirlingly over-toned, 12/8 Finale is a sonata allegro of flowing movement and fluid structure, displaying Widor's evident delight in dramatising German-descended musical architecture. Both the principle subjects are urgent in different ways: the first through submediant inflections and short-upbeat/long-downbeat rhythms (which latter feature comes to pervade the music throughout); the second through subdominant minor referencing. The closing moderato/adagio, based on the second subject, draws the curtain down in E major—but with enough side-stepping tension to ensure no easy solace.
Organ Symphony No 4 in F minor Op 13 No 4
Neither sonata rigour nor Beethovenian elementals (cf Alkan's piano Symphony) underwrite the Fourth. Affirming, like its companions, Widor's early Saint-Sulpice aesthetic, it asserts, rather, the idea of a homo-polyphonic partita-suite, identifiably Baroque in reference (cf Raff's piano Suites, 1857-76). Preceding the composer's full assimilation of Liszt and Wagner (he attended the inaugural Bayreuth 'Ring' in 1876), the harmonic language (unlike some of the key changes) is relatively straightforward, sometimes even plainly simple. That, however, Widor was a natural master of 'fifth species' counterpoint, passing note routines, sequence, and fugal procedure is never to be doubted. With practised ease he weaves shapely lines and malleable textures, crafting his voices and articulation with an orchestrator's eye. Franck's view of the organ as an orchestra was one he shared—'an organ of thirty, forty, fifty stops is a [wind] orchestra of thirty, forty, fifty musicians'.
The minore first movement is a single-dotted-rhythm 'French overture' Toccata with florid interjections characteristic of the type. The second, also in the minor, is a four-part Fugue in 6/8 on a subject related to the gigue from Bach's Third English Suite. Mendelssohn shadows the third and fourth chapters—a winning 'song without words' in A flat major, redolent of that master's Op 19 No 4, played at Widor's funeral (absent from the first edition); and (likewise added only in 1887) a nimbly semiquavered Scherzo in C minor (pianissimo staccato) with a common-time trio (in accompanied two-part canonic/imitative counterpoint) which serves also as a coda. The fifth movement, again in A-flat, is stylistically a pastorale—on the one hand memorable for its voix humaines emphases and variations of detail (for instance, the harmonic enrichment and added pedal notes of the reprise); on the other striking for the key swings of the central section. The coda, at the end echoing of the close of the third movement, could not be more beautifully placed or proportioned. The maggiore Finale is a sonata-rondo on a 3/4 quasi-'martial' refrain alla Schumann. Primary and secondary harmonisation contrasts with an unexpected tonal event in the reprise following the triplefied D minor middle episode, the modified refrain reinforcing B flat and D flat rather than the tonic of expected convention. When F major is finally reached, it's thundered home in appropriately ringing glory, full organ ablaze. 'Grandeur,' Widor used tell his students, 'is the organ's essential characteristic. This is because, of all musical instruments, [it] can sustain sound indefinitely and with the same intensity'.
Organ Symphony No 5 in F minor Op 42 No 1
The F minor Fifth Symphony (1879) and earlier G minor Sixth (1878) open the Op 42 quartet, dedicated to the pianist and piano-maker Auguste Wolff, a former business partner in Paris of Pleyel. Each majesterially refute Paul Henry Láng's damning 1941 view that Widor's 'symphonies for organ' are merely the 'contrapuntally belaboured products of a flat and scant musical imagination, the bastard nature of which is evident from the title alone'; that their 'creative force springs more from the technical than from the spiritual'. Whether or not Schweitzer was entirely correct to say that the Fifth 'deserts' the path of its predecessors, 'the lyric withdraws' (1951), is arguable. Certainly, along with No 6 (7 and 8 too), its slow counterfoiling content, the 'mouvement lent ou modéré à la Mendelssohn' element (François Sabatier, 1991), would seem to continue rather than abandon earlier traits. Progressiveness, though, there most certainly it—what Schweitzer calls that 'something else [striving] to take form'. Near opines that 'the ["signature work"] Fifth and ["astounding", "innovative"] Sixth Symphonies show the composer in full control of his craft, and thus provide a pivotal point to mark the transition to Widor's second creative period […] Still in his mid-thirties […] mature and successful [a man of "distinct musical personality"] working in large forms'.
'By the grace of its abundant inspiration […] the preferred symphony with the public' (Le Ménestrel, 1889), the epic Fifth similarly divides into five parts, with a reflective, suggestively terpsichorean inner core, comprising an impeccably gauged Allegro cantabile, a fantastical, whimsical A flat Andantino quasi Allegretto, and a C major Adagio. Contrasting the Sixth, however, variation procedure replaces sonata discipline. Self-evidently so in the opening Allegro vivace—a bronzed, lithe theme leading the way. And indirectly in the falling/rising step sequences of the closing maggiore Toccata—a fabled 'wedding' allegro of simple yet ingenious tonal patterning, thunderous climax, inexorable foot-work, and unremitting manual dexterity, the octuplet semiquavers of the right-hand calling for high-velocity staccato articulation. The first ascertainable public performance was given by Widor in Lyon on 16 December 1880, inaugurating Cavaillé-Coll's new organ in Saint François de Sales. From this fact, a handful of truncated Paris outings in 1879—at Saint François Xavier (27 February, first movement) and the Trocadéro—and the internal evidence of the score, Near reasons interestingly that the Fifth may have been composed 'with an instrument other than Saint-Sulpice in mind'—just as the Sixth had been intended for elsewhere (the 1878 Exposition Universelle). 'Several passages require an expressive Positif division—something that the Saint-Sulpice organ did not have, but which Saint François Xavier [built by Fermis & Persil], Saint François de Sales and the Trocadéro instruments included.'
Organ Symphony No 6 in G minor Op 42 No 2
One of several starry celebrants to inaugurate Paris's first concert organ (moved since to the Auditorium Maurice Ravel in Lyon), Widor premiered No 6, billed as '5me Symphonie', at the Palais du Trocadéro, 24 August 1878. 'The performing talent of this artist […] is of the most brilliant sort. M[onsieur] Widor is skilled in execution, and there is scarcely a difficulty that stops him,' admired the Revue et Gazette. The B major Adagio and feathered, taloned staccato Intermezzo (G minor/E-flat) particularly impressed. The one for its 'gracious' character and 'descending semitones' recalling Wagner; the other for its 'brilliant' manner, albeit 'written rather for the piano than for the organ'. What was thought of the tonally remote D flat major Cantabile, with its quartet-like texture and balanced part-writing, is not recorded. The work follows a quinque-partite plan, imposing 'sonata' powered columns enclosing a gentler quasi-Brahmsian tapestry—architecture versus cameo. These flanking movements, in rhetorical minor and exultant major respectively, traverse Jovian vistas, Widor contesting, dramatising and 'orchestrating' ideas with all the skill, splendour and fff voice of a rampant field commander. Not for small places or shy instruments.
Organ Symphony No 7 in A minor Op 42 No 3
The Seventh is in six movements, the triple-time outer ones acknowledging sonata design. The uncompromising drive and cogency of the first, with its angular rhythmic patterns and short-breathed rests, manuals and pedals octaved at the start, fff, at once declares the toughness of Widor's intentions. Likewise the brevity and assertive 'no nonsense' punctuation of the closing cadence. 'The great majority of organists,' Saint-Saëns knowingly reminded him years later (29 September 1919), 'retreat terrified before your works'. The finale, Near proposes, intensifies the atmosphere of the first. 'Here is epoch-making organ music, new and thrilling—even hair-raising—in its conception.' Its magnificent opening subject, Aeolian-cut on pedals against an open-fifth shield and short chordal daggers, lends itself to tight motivic development.
The Choral, placed second, alludes loosely to the slow movement double theme/variation prototype of Haydn 103 and, more particularly (given the added temporal dimension), Beethoven Nine. An audibly clear, finely wrought, structure unfolds. First subject, ABA, A major (minor)/C-sharp minor/A major, Andante 4/4, forte/piano/forte. Second subject, AB, A minor-E minor, Andantino 6/8, pianissimo. First subject, curtailed reprise, C major (minor), Tempo I 4/4. First variation/development, second subject, C minor-G minor, rising to a sustained soprano cantus firmus on the first subject, F sharp minor, Tempo II 6/8. Second variation/development, first subject, A major, baroque division style, Tempo I 4/4. Coda, contrasting syncopated (right hand) and augmented (right foot) versions of the first subject, Poco più vivo 4/4.
With its distinctively Neapolitan opening, the third movement is a sicilienne à la Mendelssohn in F sharp minor/major, Andante-Allegretto—bringing a touch of grace and light staccato to proceedings. The central animato is in B minor. An intermezzo-toccata-étude in A minor à la Schumann follows. The most pianistically laid-out of any movement in Widor's symphonies, its model, Near ventures, may lie in Liszt's Vision, the sixth of his Études d'exécution transcendante—'the funeral of the first Napoleon advancing with solemn and imperial pomp' (Busoni). 'The main theme, in long notes [a minore form of the Choral cantus], rides over an accompaniment altogether extraordinary for the organ, a flurry of arpeggiated figuration […] that rises and falls like great waves.' The second edition (1900-01) revised, re-addressed and shortened the original text by 44 bars. Distantly recalling the Orphean pages of Beethoven's Fourth Concerto, the lento fifth movement, in C-sharp minor/major, journeys a high spiritual realm in contrasting paragraphs of proclamation and supplication.
Near identifies the first theme of the Choral as the Seventh's Urmotif. Evidently related in contour and scale reference, though in neither key, harmony, metre nor bass-line, to the andantino of Franck's Pastorale, Op 19 (1860-62), dedicated to Cavaillé-Coll, it variously informs each movement of the work, establishing a quiet, often subliminal, cyclic unity across the whole—at times near-Sibelian in anticipation.
Organ Symphony No 8 in B major Op 42 No 4
One of the highlights of the 1889 Paris Exposition, singled out in his late Souvenirs autobiographiques, was Widor's performance at the Trocadéro, on July 3rd, of the Eighth and Fifth Symphonies—the one, according to Le Ménestrel, 'severe and highly elevated in style,' the other 'completely appealing'. 'With the Mahlerian scope of the […] Eighth Symphony,' declares Near, 'Widor seems to have exhausted the possibilities of his instrument, as well as his own compositional technique. The Eighth represented the ultimate achievement in the art of organ composition' by the end of the 19th century. 'Severity at first sight' (letter, 10 April 1887), it was to be 'the capstone to his organ works'. In its original form the Eighth comprised seven movements. In the 1900-01 revision, the fourth, a Prélude in A minor/major (preparing for the ensuing Variations), was withdrawn.
The opening 6/8 movement is nominally in sonata form in so far as it welds facets of exposition, development and recapitulation—but Widor refuses to be straight-jacketed by convention, expectation or prescription, exploring his material through a whole ebb and flow of sub-structures and dramatic tensions. Three anacrusistic 'upward pointing' subject groups underline the first: A), a risoluto motif (falling octave led); B) a rising scale pattern (G-sharp minor); C) a 'halting' phrase (interval led). These are then worked through in turn, with A functioning as a pseudo-rondo refrain—ABACA. On its final appearance A fuses reprise, development and coda into one. Ongoingly developmental, the ternary second movement is a vocally-intoned E major modéré à la Mendelssohn, encompassing some of Widor's most gracefully lyric invention and 'orchestration'. Jules Delsart, in his youth a pupil of Chopin's friend Franchomme, notably arranged it for cello and piano. It's offset by a 2/4 B minor third movement that's less fairy-scherzo more relentless, Hexentanz in aspiration—phantom horsemen, creatures of the night, demons of ill-omen menacing the skies … With the D minor Variations Widor celebrates at Bach's altar, sculpting a twin-climaxed passacaglia of a magnificence and strength to equal the mightiest in Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner. Near thinks it 'may be the greatest movement of the symphonies'. Theme … eleven entries … interludes, extensions, asides … rigour … fantasy. Poised and shapely, crystallised out of an ascending bass recitative (the ghosts of Weber or Rossini lurking somewhere within perhaps), the subsequent F sharp major Adagio glimpses gentler pastures—many voiced, with a central fugato—couched in harmonic terms diversely piquant and dolce, complex and simple.
Impelled by the falling F sharp octaves of the first movement's opening, the 2/4 B minor finale is a large-scale ABACABA sonata-rondo. Albert Schweitzer didn't like it: 'what a shame that Widor wrote this!' Riemenschneider, on the other hand (The American Organist, July 1925), savoured its 'almost barbaric splendour and exuberance'. A canvas of transcendental virtuosity and inexorable energy, organistically, pianistically, orchestrally imagined, its Eiffelsque girders and trellises, its shuddering currents of unassailable sound, silence men and move stones.
Symphonie gothique 'Organ Symphony No 9' Op 70
Premiered by the composer in St Ouen, 28 April 1895 (Vierne having weeks previously aired a truncated version in Lyon), movements I-III of the basaltic 'Gothique' were written in Persanges in the Jura during the summer of 1894. Overall the tonality scheme spells out the triad and octave of the home key: C minor—E flat major (bel canto inflected middle section in B-flat)—G minor (6/8 fugue in four voices, excursioning to E flat minor and G flat major)—tierce de picardie C major (theme and variations). The third and fourth movements are based on pre-Solesmesised Gregorian plainchant—the Introit Puer natus est nobis (fourth Christmas Day Mass, Ad Missam in die), valued by Widor for its purity of line and potential for 'polyphonic development'. Of the six variations comprising the Moderato/Allegro finale, a quasi-passacaglia with origins possibly as early as the spring of 1890 when Widor inaugurated the St Ouen instrument ['"Magnificat versets", a fragment composed for the occasion (Symphonie gothique)'], i) presents the plainchant as a longnote cantus firmus; ii) and v) are canons at the octave at four and two bars' distance; and vi) is in the style of a virtuoso toccata culminating in a paen of snarling thunder and lofty chorale. The contrapuntal genius of this movement, of the symphony as a whole indeed, takes the highground at every turn, baffling some, awing others. 'What is counterpoint,' Widor wrote in a feuilleton about the B minor Mass (Piano-Soleil, 27 January 1895), 'if not the art of writing luminously? It is not filling, trompet-l'oeil, false means, possible tricks; all is displayed in broad daylight, out in the full sun; each note has its value in the whole; each detail, each modulation, each plan must assert itself in its turn, sparkling as the facets of a diamond. We need, we want, to hear everything.' The Ninth was Widor's favourite symphony. At Saint-Sulpice it became customary for him to play the first movement at the Feast of All Saints' Day (1 November); and the last movement, together with the Allegro cantabile from the Fifth, at Midnight Mass.
Symphonie romane 'Organ Symphony No 10' Op 73
'The nature of a masterpiece is to remain eternally new; time glides by without leaving its mark on it' (Estafette, 10 February 1879). Distinct from the suite trajectory of Opp 13/42, the Symphonie romane—'the apogee of [Widor's] art' (Near), completed in the summer of 1899 at the ancestral family home near Savigny west of Lyon—confines itself, like the Ninth, to a four-movement design. The opening phrases of a single chant—the Gradual Haec dies, quam fecit Dominus ('This is the day the Lord hath made', Easter Sunday Mass)—pervades the work, turning it simultaneously into a vast set of variations and a comprehensive application of Lisztian/Franckian thematic metamorphosis. To Widor this melody and its 'elegant arabesques' was like 'a vocalise as elusive as bird song'—lending itself to be used either flexibly, repetitiously, without development (as in the opening moderato); or metronomically. 'When this theme is caught in a symphonic web, becoming part of the polyphony, it must be executed strictly in tempo, calmly and grandly without any kind of attenuation. It is not free any more, but has become the property of the composer.' Motioned into being by 'an introductory arabesque, as evanescent as a whiff of incense' (Near), the first movement (12/8) initially presents the chant, quasi recitativo, espressivo, a piacere, against an F-sharp pedal-point, the first four pitches of the melody, F#-E-G-F#, approximating a familiar B-A-C-H contour. The second and third voluntary-type movements are tripartite—a smoky adagio Chorale in F major (4/4), harmonising homophonic poco agitato in G major. Tonally discursive and temporally varied, the D major allegro finale, subdivided into five chapters, belongs among Widor's supreme achievements, an imposing, richly stratified paraphrase on Haec dies in compound and simple metres, the power of the instrument setting acoustic and soul into a gloire of resounding union and oceanic inexorability—before the 'incense' of the first movement and five bars of triadic blessing, pianissimo, return it to silence.
The Tenth is the only one of the cycle for which an autograph survives, albeit incomplete (Bibliothèque nationale). Widor gave the earliest referenced performance on 6 January 1900, at the then new Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtnis Kirche in Berlin, his recital including also Bach's G minor Fantasy and Fugue, 'played marvellously'.
Suite latine Op 86
Premiered by Widor on the Madeleine's newly restored Cavaillé-Coll, 13 January 1928, the Suite latine, Op 86 (1927)—'latine' in the religious rather than Respighi understanding—was inspired by the devotion and support shown him by his American student, the Bach scholar Albert Riemenschneider (1878-1950). Rivalling Shaw's pithiness across the Channel, one French critic the morning after was lost for words—'Maître Widor played the organ: that says it all' (Gaulois). Riemenschneider considered it 'the wonderful product of a man old in years, but who seems to keep eternally young through his work and interest in the progress of others'. Marcel Dupré, a former (pre-War) composition student at the Conservatoire, found within its leisurely, cultured pages 'a definitively purified and spiritualised sentiment'. Like the last two organ symphonies, three of the movements draw on Gregorian plainchant. II Beatus Vir, 'Blessed is the man' (Psalm). E flat major, Andante. IV Ave Maris Stella, 'Hail Star of the Sea' (Marian Vespers Hymn). D minor, Andante moderato molto. VI Lauda Sion [Salvatórem], 'Sion, lift up thy voice and sing' (Sequence). C minor, Tempo di marcia). The Suite latine featured with the 'Gothique' in Widor's last foreign concert, in Salzurg Cathedral opening the 1932 Salzburg Festival (31 July). His proximity to the greats of the past—Wagner, Liszt, Verdi—caught everyone's imagination. 'How lyric the Suite latine, of which the Adagio [fifth movement] evokes a brother of Bruckner, for Widor has also known him.' The critic Felix Aprahamian, as a boy of nineteen, heard Widor play this same piece at Saint-Sulpice the following year. 'It was a revelation for the youngster: instead of adding and subtracting stops at every crescendo and diminuendo, Widor simply opened or closed the swell box' (David Aprahamian Liddle, February 2005).
Trois Nouvelles pièces Op 87
New in composition, old in language, ancient in mood, the Trois Nouvelles pièces, Op 87 (1934) were the swansong testament of a ninety-year old. Varyingly diatonic, chromatic, modal—organistic, pianistic, vocal—lyric, muscular, 'undaunted by modern trends'—Varèse, Messiaen (both his students), the Second Viennese School, Stravinsky, Bartók, America's jazzmen—showing 'a mind still fertile with ideas and artistic sensitivity' (Near), they were dedicated to three of the composer's American disciples—Riemenschneider, Charlotte Lockwood (Fontainebleau) and Frederick C Mayer (organist of the West Point Cadet Chapel, 1911-54). The movement titles veer away from the formalistic into a more diffuse associations: I Classique d'hier (Yesterday's Classical). E minor, Moderato. II Mystique (Mystical). D-flat major, Andante. III Classique d'aujourd'hui (Today's Classical). D minor, Moderato-Andante. The closing 'running' toccata-style motion of the third is echt Widor, its lingering tierce de picardie 'amen' an incensed, candle-waxed farewell to sixty years of music-making.
A quarter-of-a-century separates the last of Widor's organ symphonies, the 'Romane', and Bach's Memento, a suite of free paraphrase-transcriptions without opus number. Giving the first performance on 30 June 1925, he wrote the set to inaugurate a three-manual Jacquot-Lavergne instrument in the Salle du Jeu de Paume of the Conservatoire Américain, Fontainebleau—of which post-war 'summer-school' institution he was director, Nadia Boulanger lending support on the teaching staff. 'I have recently "orchestrated" six pieces of Bach for organ […] drawn from the harpsichord [sic] works or the cantatas,' he informed Albert Schweitzer, 13 August 1926. 'I wrote just five […] originally, but I did the sixth because the number five is lame.' The most 'direct' homage of his entire catalogue to the composer whose works 'had been the cantus firmus of his whole life' (Near), it pleased some but offended others. Especially Joseph Bonnet, a former student of Guilmant's and founder, in 1921, of the organ department at the Eastman School of Music, Rochester. 'In this collection,' he vented—undeterred that 'taking the elder statesman of French music to task […] was tantamount to questioning papal infallibility' (Near)—'some noble pieces of Bach are mercilessly deformed and gain nothing from these tasteless treatments.' A century on, faced with the intimate contemplation, chess-play and ascending grandeur of these pages, we beg to differ.
Marche américaine Op 31
Contemporary with early Sousa, garnished with a dash of Left Bank, the rousing A minor/major Marche américaine, Op 31 No 11, comes from a set of twelve Feuillets d'album for piano (1876), dedicated to a young American woman, Leila Morse—Cornelia 'Leila' Livingston Morse [Rummel] (1851-1937), youngest daughter of the inventor Samuel Morse. In 1923 Widor orchestrated it for Walter Damrosch. The present transcription by Marcel Dupré (1886-1971) dates from 1939.
Marche nuptiale Op 64 No 6
Serving to remind that Widor's copious catalogue embraced mediums well beyond the organ bench, the Marche nuptiale in F (1890) closes some incidental music he wrote for a production of Auguste Dorchain's poème/four-act comedy Conte d'avril ('April Tale') at the Théâtre de l'Odéon, 12 March 1891. Loosely based on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, this play, then with 'only a minor score' (Near), had first been staged at the this venue in September 1885, two weeks before Bizet's L'Arlésienne. But for the ten-performance 1891 run, Widor noted, 'the director and poet asked me for a little bit of [added, revised] symphony ''to put the audience in a lyrical mood'''. Believed by critics to have 'made the play's reputation' (Le Ménestrel), 'expanding the repertory of drames lyriques' (Les temps), compared with L'Arlésienne, Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Beethoven's Egmont, and benefitting from the Orchestre Lamoureux in the pit, the music was well received (and not only in France), with Édouard Colonne extracting two orchestral suites and conducting the complete score at the Théâtre du Châtelet, 15 November 1891. The Marche nuptiale had its origins in the third number of the second edition of the Six Duos for piano and harmonium, Op 3, published (judging from the plate number) around 1889. Starting demurely, Andantino, rising to a glowing, exultant finish, fff, Widor's organ arrangement appeared in 1892. Recessional music to vie with the best.
Ateş Orga © 2019
The Cavaillé-Coll at La Madeleine is one of the few instruments of its kind with a sequencer, and I think the recording would have been impossible without this assistance. However, the superb ears of producer Adrian Peacock are not easily fooled, and the nocturnal recording sessions—sometimes until four in the morning!—left me shattered. It was with considerable elation and relief that the final take was completed in reasonably good time on the last night of recording. What I didn’t know at that point was that we had wasted our time recording Symphonie romane due to a future opportunity, but more on that later …
The critical reaction to the discs as they emerged, one by one, was significantly beyond my expectations. I had taken the artistic approach that it was crucial to record Widor’s symphonies in a massive space, on a Cavaillé-Coll organ of real pedigree, as Widor and Cavaillé-Coll are inseparable. Having read a great deal about Widor, his own artistic philosophy and listening to Widor's own playing style on remastered records, my overriding view was that a monumental, super-sized symphonic approach should be adopted to persuade listeners that the symphonies are not merely suites.
Dr John Near’s book A Life beyond the Toccata cannot be surpassed in terms of honouring Widor and informing us of his incredible story. It should be no surprise, then, that I used Near’s own performing editions of the Widor symphonies, published by A-R Editions. The scholarship and critical detail of these editions is exemplary, and no stone is left unturned with regards to tempi, style, articulation, registration and phrasing.
Particularly crucial to me was the choice of tempi and pacing that would honour Widor’s artistic vision, but also imbuing the recordings with my own musical personality and ideas. Whilst I have enormous respect for Ben Van Oosten’s Widor recordings made around twenty years ago, a clone-like, replica recording would have been a pointless waste of time for everyone concerned, particularly you, the listener!
Encouraged by the cycle’s positive reception, Signum and I agreed to record all Widor’s remaining organ music at St Sernin, Toulouse, and St François de Sales, Lyon. These recordings took place in 2013 and 2014, and a new artistic team was born in producer Tim Oldham and recording engineer Mike Hatch for the recording at St Sernin. Recording at St Sernin provided the opportunity to record Widor’s Symphonie romane, it being the building and organ the work was composed for, and so the recording of 'Romane' at La Madeleine lies dormant at Signum HQ. Such musical and architectural symmetry reveals so many secrets, and recording sessions in Lyon and Toulouse were happy, stress-free affairs.
I am so grateful to the whole team at Signum Records, but do have to single out Steve Long, its Managing Director, for the significant amount of trust, time, and resources he has invested—and continues to invest—in me and my career.
I hope this handsome boxset brings you much pleasure.
Joseph Nolan © 2019