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Pierre's Tuesday Blog

Charles-Marie Widor (1844 - 1937)

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Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent (the forty days of spiritual reflection and atonement that precede Easter). During the lenten season, I have programmed four PTB posts dedicated to the king of instruments, the organ.

The series will be interspersed with la Chronique du disque (next week and on March 27) and a special post for Daylight Saving Time (March 13). I haven't done much in these pages with the organ, so I hope you won't mind this tiny indulgence...

Related threads: Works for organ

To launch our series of organ recitals for Lent, I wanted to showcase the music (and organ artistry) of a man who passed away 75 years ago this year: Charles-Marie Widor. Much will be written about other notable composers who passed away that year - Gershwin and Ravel key among them – so this is a nice opportunity to do so.

I don’t know why that is, and whether this is a personal thing, but to me when it comes to the organ, there’s J.S. Bach, and not far behind is a cluster of French composers (many of them organists of long standing in French churches): Cesar Franck being the leader of the pack, and a litany of pupils and second-generation pupils follow: Widor, Marcel Dupré and Olivier Messiaen (three of our four organ posts this season will focus on them) and others like Maurice Duruflé and Jehan Alain.

Widor: Organist and Teacher

In January 1870, the 25-year-old Widor was appointed as "provisional" organist of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, the most prominent position for a French organist. Despite his job's ostensibly "provisional" nature, Widor remained as organist at St-Sulpice for over 60 years, until the end of 1933.

In 1890, upon the death of César Franck, Widor succeeded him as organ professor at the Paris Conservatoire. Widor had several students in Paris who were to become famous composers and organists in their own right, most notably the aforementioned Dupré and Messiaen, Louis Vierne, Charles Tournemire, Darius Milhaud, and many more. Albert Schweitzer also studied with Widor, mainly from 1899.

In 1921, Widor founded the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau with Francis-Louis Casadesus. He was the Director until 1934, when he was succeeded by Maurice Ravel, and it is where Nadia Boulanger taught an entire generation of new composers.

On December 31, 1933, Widor resigned his position at Saint-Sulpice. Three years later he suffered a stroke which paralysed the right side of his body, although he remained mentally alert to the last. He died at his home in Paris on March 12, 1937 and his remains were interred in the crypt of Saint-Sulpice.

Widor: The Composer

Widor wrote music for a wide variety of instruments and ensembles (some of his songs for voice and piano are especially notable) and composed four operas and a ballet, but only his works for organ are played with any regularity today. These include: ten Organ Symphonies, three Symphonies for orchestra with organ, Suite Latine, Trois Nouvelles Pièces, and six arrangements of works by Bach under the title Bach's Memento.

The organ symphonies are his most significant contribution to the organ repertoire. It seems unusual to assign the term "symphony" to a work written for one instrument. However, Widor was at the forefront of a revival in French organ music, which had hit bottom during the early nineteenth century, and began its renaissance under Franck and Saint-Saëns.

A prime mover in this revival was Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, who pioneered a new organ that was "symphonic" in style – Cavaillé-Coll had a hand in the refactoring of Widor’s home organ at Saint-Sulpice, and was one of Widor’s supporters when the position was available in 1870. Unlike baroque- and classical-era organs designed to project a clear and crisp sound, Cavaillé-Coll's organs had a much warmer sound, and a vast array of stops that extended the timbre of the instrument. This new style of organ, with a truly orchestral range of voicing and unprecedented abilities for smooth crescendos and diminuendos, encouraged composers to write music that was truly symphonic in scope.

Widor's symphonies can be divided into three groups. The first four symphonies are more properly termed "suites" (Widor himself called them "collections".) They represent Widor's early style.

With the Opus 42 symphonies (5 to 8) Widor shows his mastery and refinement of contrapuntal technique while exploring to the fullest the capabilities of the Cavaillé-Coll organs for which these works were written. The Fifth Symphony has five movements, the last of which is the famous Toccata.

The ninth and tenth symphonies, respectively termed "Gothique" (Op. 70, of 1895) and "Romane" (Op. 73, of 1900), are much more introspective.

Today's Playlist

The playlist features some of Widor's organ compositions appropriate for the lenten season, along with significant excerpts from a number of his organ symphonies. I also made sure there are a coupple of selections that feature Widor himself at the Saint-Sulpice organ, including himself playing the Toccata from the fifth.


Works by Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844 - 1937)

"Mattheus-Final" from Bach's Memento (1925)
Peter Van de Velde plays the Schyven organ at Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal (Antwerp, Belgium)

Motet Surrexit a mortuis, for choir and two organs, op. 23 no. 3
Mainzer Figuralchor, directed by Stefan Weiler
Sophie-Véronique Cauchefer Choplin plays the Daublaine and Callinet Choir organ and Daniel Roth plays the grand Cavaillé-Coll Organ at Église Saint-Sulpice (Paris, France)

Allegro, from Symphony No. 6, op. 42, no. 2
Unnamed organist (Organpipe on YouTube)
plays the Kenneth Jones organ at the Cathedral of the Madeline (Salt Lake City, Utah)

Finale, from Symphony No. 6, op. 42, no. 2
Ignace Michiels plays the Klais organ at St. Salvator's Cathedral (Bruges, Belgium)

Finale, from Symphony No. 8, op. 42 no. 4
John Near plays the Aeolian-Skinner organ at The First Church of Christ, Scientist (Boston, MA)

Andante Sostenuto from Symphonie Gothique pour orgue [No. 9], op. 70
Charles-Marie Widor plays the grand Cavaillé-Coll Organ at Église Saint-Sulpice (Paris, France) - recorded in 1932.

Finale, from Symphonie Romane pour orgue [No. 10], op. 73
Michael Bouvard plays the grand Cavaillé-Coll Organ at the Basilique de Saint-Sernin (Toulouse, France).

Allegro, from Symphony No. 5, op. 42, no. 1
Diane Bish plays the Schantz organ at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church (Atlanta, GA).

Toccata, from Symphony No. 5, op. 42, no. 1
Charles-Marie Widor plays the grand Cavaillé-Coll Organ at Église Saint-Sulpice (Paris, France) - recorded in 1932.

Your Playlist:

February 24, 2012, "I Think You Will Love This Music Too" will be adding a new montage "Two of a Kind" to its Pod-O-Matic Podcast. Read our English and French commentary February 24 on the ITYWLTMT Blogspot blog.
Likes Sid James, Picea liked this post

Updated Feb-22-2012 at 14:42 by itywltmt

Classical Music , Musicians , Composers , Recorded Music


  1. Sid James's Avatar
    He is a favourite organ composer of mine. I seem to favour French organ music to eg. German.

    I have THIS compilation album of bits of Widor's solo organ symphonies & I like it quite a bit. I like that orchestral feel these have, as you mention. Also the grand and romantic - maybe also liturgical - element in his music.

    I also have THIS disc on ASV label, which has his organ symphonies 1 & 2 complete.

    One of the problems with Widor is that he was an obsessive reviser and - much like Bruckner - often left several versions of a symphony without saying which one was "the one" that organists should play. Eg. on that Naxos disc, it has his Sym.#5 - the one with the famous Toccata ending - in complete form. It's in three movements on that disc, but I've seen it on another (Hyperion) disc in five movements (that same work, the Sym.#5). So it can be confusing.

    However, as regards to that Toccata, it is inevitably played in organ recitals, sometimes as the final work on the bill, or as an encore. & I never tire of hearing it, esp. live. It really sounds spectacular in that resonating acoustic of a church interior...