Charles-Marie Widor

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Charles-Marie Widor : biography

21 February 1844 – 12 March 1937

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 sunk to its nadir during the early nineteenth century. A prime mover in this revival was Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, who pioneered a new organ that was "symphonic" in style. The organ of the Baroque and Classical periods was designed to project a clear and crisp sound capable of handling contrapuntal writing. Cavaillé-Coll’s organs had a much warmer sound, ideal for the homophonic style of writing that now predominated, 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. This trend was not limited to France, and was reflected in Germany by the organs built by Eberhard Friedrich Walcker and the works of Franz Liszt, Julius Reubke, and Max Reger.

Widor’s symphonies can be divided into three groups. The first four symphonies comprise Op. 13 (1872) and are more properly termed "suites". (Widor himself called them "collections".) They represent Widor’s early style. Widor made later revisions to the earlier symphonies. Some of these revisions were quite extensive.

With the Opus 42 symphonies 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 Sixth Symphony is also famous for its opening movement. The Seventh and Eighth Symphonies are the longest and least performed of Widor’s Symphonies. The Seventh Symphony contains six movements, and the first version of the Eighth Symphony had seven. (Widor subsequently removed the Prélude for the 1901 edition.)

The ninth and tenth symphonies, respectively termed "Gothique" (Op. 70, of 1895) and "Romane" (Op. 73, of 1900), are much more introspective. They both derive thematic material from plainchant: Symphonie Gothique uses the Christmas Day Introit "Puer natus est" in the third and fourth movements, while the Symphonie Romane has the Easter Gradual "Haec dies" woven throughout all four movements. They also honored, respectively, the Gothic Church of St. Ouen, Rouen and the Romanesque Basilica of St. Sernin, Toulouse, with the new Cavaillé-Coll organs installed in each. The second movement of the Symphonie Gothique, entitled "Andante sostenuto", is one of Widor’s most-beloved pieces. Dating from this same period, and also based on a plainsong theme, is the "Salve Regina" movement, a late addition to the much earlier second symphony.

Symphonie pour orgue N° 5, op. 42 Nr. 1 (1887), 5. [[Toccata (conclusion)]] Widor’s best-known single piece for the organ is the final movement, Toccata, from his Symphony for Organ No. 5, which is often played as a recessional at wedding ceremonies and at the close of the Christmas Midnight Mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica (The Vatican City, Rome). Although the Fourth Symphony also opens with a Toccata, it is in a dramatically different (and earlier) style. The Toccata from Symphony No. 5 is the first of the toccatas characteristic of French Romantic organ music, and served as a model for later works by Boëllmann, Mulet, and Dupré. Widor was pleased with the worldwide renown this single piece afforded him, but he was unhappy with how fast many other organists played it. Widor himself always played the Toccata rather deliberately. Many organists play it at a very fast tempo whereas Widor preferred a more controlled articulation to be involved. He recorded the piece, at St. Sulpice in his eighty-ninth year: the tempo used for the Toccata is quite slow. Isidor Philipp transcribed the Toccata for two pianos.

Over his career Widor returned again and again to edit his earlier music, even after publication. His biographer John Near reports: "Ultimately, it was discovered that over a period of about sixty years, as many as eight different editions were issued for some of the symphonies." (ref. Near)

Writings

  • Technique de l’orchestre moderne faisant suite au Traité d’instrumentation de H. Berlioz (1904, Paris: Lemoine)
  • L’Orgue moderne, la décadence dans la facture contemporaine (1928, Paris: Durand)