A quarter-of-a-century separates the last of Widor’s ten organ symphonies, the Symphonie 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 ‘summerschool’ 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’ (John R 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. I Pastorale
. C minor, Allegretto, flute/oboe. Source: Pastorella BWV 590, third movement (Weimar c 1710). II Miserere mei domine
. F sharp minor, Lento. Forty Eight
I:vi, Prelude in D minor, BWV 851 (Cöthen 1722). III Aria en e-moll. E minor, Adagio. Forty Eight I:x, Prelude in E minor, BWV 855 (1722). IV Marche du beilleur de nuit
(March of the night watchman). E flat major, Moderato. Cantata 140, ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’ (Leipzig, 1731 [Lutheran hymn, 1599]). ‘Awake, the voice is calling us.’ V Sicilienne
. E flat minor, Andantino. Flute Sonata BWV 1031, second movement, attributed Quantz/CPE Bach—the adagio of Mozart’s A major Concerto K 488 ever prescient. VI Mattheus-final. C minor, Andante. St Matthew Passion, BWV244, closing chorus (Leipzig 1727).’Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder’, ‘We sit down in tears/And call to thee in the tomb’.
The Miserere mei domine was included in Widor’s final recital on the ‘operatic period’ Cavaillé-Coll at Saint-Sulpice, 19 April 1934, aged ninety. ‘A musician whose name honours French art and towards whom a testimony of respectful and fervent admiration was shown’ (Ménestrel).
from notes by Ates Orga © 2016