View RSS Feed

Pierre's Tuesday Blog

Louis Vierne (1870-1937)

Rate this Entry
En français

During our Lenten organ series, I peeked at three significant French organists: Widor, Dupré and Messiaen. During my look at Widor , I pointed out (accurately) that 2012 is the 75th anniversary of his passing, inexplicably ignoring another significant milestone – the 75th anniversary of the passing of his student Louis Vierne. Today’s post is meant to rectify this sin of omission from my part.

Vierne and Widor are the subject of my Friday Podcast this week (see the below “teaser”) and, as I did with Widor, I wanted to provide a good look at Vierne’s organ output.

Vierne and I share something ion common: we both are legally blind – Vierne was born nearly blind due to congenital cataracts and partially regained sight after undergoing a procedure at age six. Obvious talent was rewarded with piano and solfège studies, to which were added harmony, violin, and a general course when he entered the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles in Paris in 1880. There he was befriended by César Franck who, from 1886, gave him private lessons in harmony while including Vierne in his organ class at the Paris Conservatoire.

Vierne entered the Conservatoire as a full-time student in 1890. Following Franck’s death in November, he was succeeded succeeded by Widor as professor of organ at the Conservatoire. Vierne soon became Widor's assistant, a post he continued to hold under Alexandre Guilmant—where he taught Marcel Dupré and Nadia Boulanger—and deputized for Widor at St. Sulpice. Vierne took the Conservatoire's first prize for organ in 1894, though his career waited until 1900 to be spectacularly launched when, on May 21, he triumphed over four other organists in a competition for the prestigious post of titular organist at Notre Dame de Paris a position he held until his death in 1937 (more on that later on).

Here is rare video footage of Vierne playing at Notre-Dame:

Vierne’s organ output is significant (see a past Chronique du disque for links to a compilation of his organ works by Dutch organist Ben Van Oosten). He had an elegant, clean style of writing that respected form above all else. His harmonic language was romantically rich, but not as sentimental or theatrical as that of his early mentor César Franck. Of all the great fin de siècle French organists, Vierne's music was perhaps the most idiomatic for his chosen instrument and has inspired most of the great Parisian organist-composers who followed him.

His output for organ includes six organ symphonies, 24 Fantasy Pieces, and 24 Pieces in Free Style, among other works. There are also several chamber works, vocal and choral music, and a Symphony in A minor for orchestra.

Despite having held one of the most prestigious posts an organist could hope for, Vierne's life was otherwise almost unbelievably tragic. His marriage ended after his wife cheated on him (with a friend of his, no less), and because of his job at the cathedral he was never allowed to remarry. His two successive female companions each eventually left him as well. His youngest son died from tuberculosis, and his eldest son and brother were killed fighting in World War I. At one point, he fell and broke his leg and ankle and had to completely relearn his pedal technique. Four years of his life were spent living in Switzerland, undergoing then state-of-the-art eye treatments, mostly unsuccessfully; at one point he even had to spend six months in a dark room recovering.

Such a tragic life had to have a fitting, tragic ending – during a public concert on June 2, 1937 at Notre-Dame. As he was programed to improvise Vierne adjusted many stops of the organ, choosing the sounds he wanted to hear.

"I'm going to be ill," he said to his student Maurice Duruflé, who was standing beside him.

Then, the 3,000 in the audience, far below the organ loft, heard a low note come from the organ: the start of the improvisation, they assumed. But right then, Vierne had a heart attack. His foot landed on low E of the pedalboard -- the last note he ever played. He died just a few short moments later.
It's not an entirely depressing story. The great thing is, Vierne had always said that was exactly where he hoped he would die -- at the keyboards of the instrument he loved.

The Selections

The bulk of the selections are Vierne organ works, including several excerpts from his many organ symphonies. The last selection is a complete performance of his Sinfonie en la mineur of 1907.


Louis VIERNE (1870-1937)

Feux Follets, op. 53, no. 4
Peter Bengtson plays the Hauptwerk Virtual Pipe Organ (replica of the Mutin-Cavaillé-Coll (1903) organ at l'Eglise Notre-Dame de Metz, France)

Clair de Lune, op. 53, no. 5
Prof. Roland Maria Stangier jplays the Hauptwerk Virtual Pipe Organ (replica of the Mutin-Cavaillé-Coll (1903) organ at l'Eglise Notre-Dame de Metz, France)

Final from Première Symphonie pour Grand Orgue, op. 14
Rob Stefanussen plays the Hauptwerk Virtual Pipe Organ (replica of the Mutin-Cavaillé-Coll (1903) organ at l'Eglise Notre-Dame de Metz, France)

Allegro from Symphony No.2, op. 20
Daniel Roth plays the Grand-Orgue Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1862) of l’Eglise Saint-Sulpice

Final from Symphony No.3, op. 28
Sarah Soularue plays the Cavaillé-Coll (1890) organ at l’abbaye Saint-Ouen de Rouen

Carillon de Westminster, op. 54, no.6
Olivier Latry plays the Grand Organ at Művészetek Palotája of Budapest

Arabesque, op. 31, no. 15
Marie Andree Morisset Balier plays the Cavaillé-Coll (1890) organ at l’abbaye Saint-Ouen de Rouen

Élégie, op. 31, no. 22
Dragan Trajer plays the Hauptwerk Virtual Pipe Organ (replica of the Mutin-Cavaillé-Coll (1903) organ at l'Eglise Notre-Dame de Metz, France)

Sinfonie en la mineur, op. 24
Orchestre Philharmonique de Liège under Pierre Bartholomée


November 16 2012, "I Think You Will Love This Music Too" will feature a new podcast "In Memorian: Vierne & Widor" at its Pod-O-Matic Channel. Read more November 16 on the ITYWLTMT Blogspot blog.

Updated Nov-13-2012 at 18:36 by itywltmt

Classical Music , Composers , Recorded Music