Regular readers may recall that last year, 2012, marked the 75th anniversary of the death of the blind French organist Louis Vierne on June 2, 1937. Vierne suffered from congenital cataracts, which means that he was not totally blind; but he was what, in contemporary language, would be called “legally blind.” While he could work with oversized manuscript paper early in his career, he could only manage with Braille by the end of his life.
However, his ears clearly made up for what his eyes lacked. The legend is that he heard a lullaby by Franz Schubert at the age of two and responded by picking out the notes of the melody on a piano keyboard. Vierne studied at the Conservatoire de Paris, and in 1892 he began serving as assistant to Charles-Marie Widor, the organist at the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris. He became the organist of the Notre Dame de Paris cathedral in 1900 and remained in that position up to the day of his death. Indeed, the circumstances of his death were so dramatic that the Wikipedia account bears repeating:
He had completed the main concert, which members of the audience said showed him at his full powers – “as well as he has ever played.” Directly after he had finished playing his “Stele pour un enfant defunt” from his ‘Triptyque’ Op 58, the closing section was to be two improvisations on submitted themes. He read the first theme in Braille, then selected the stops he would use for the improvisation. He suddenly pitched forward, and fell off the bench as his foot hit the low “E” pedal of the organ. He lost consciousness as the single note echoed throughout the church. He had thus fulfilled his oft-stated lifelong dream – to die at the console of the great organ of Notre-Dame.
Those who believe in the symbolism of numerology are likely to appreciate that this was Vierne’s 1750th recital, that number also be the year of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Like Bach, Vierne was an accomplished improviser. The Wikipedia author calls him “one of the greatest musical improvisers of his generation.” However, while Bach’s improvisations tended to involve working in and around some predetermined structural framework, Vierne was given more to free forms that tended to evoke moods or images. His harmonic language was rich in chromaticism, but the underlying progressions were seldom particularly adventurous. On the other hand his sonorities were acutely attuned to the characteristics of the instrument he happened to be playing, thus demonstrating the he relied more on his ears than on any visual relationship with physical score pages.
The American organist Christopher Houlihan commemorated the anniversary of Vierne’s death with his Vierne 2012 concert tour. He visited six cities, playing Vierne’s six “symphonies” for solo organ over the course of two concerts in each of them. I used those scare quotes when I wrote about his touring schedule, because there is little to justify calling any of these pieces symphonies other than their being multi-movement compositions. One could just as easily have called them suites, which is what he did when he organized his collection of 24 Pièces de Fantasie (fantasy pieces) into four six-movement suites. However, while each symphony has its own fundamental key, the same cannot be said of each of the suites. Among those who do not specialize in the organ repertoire (as either performers or listeners), the last movement of the third suite is likely to be the most recognizable familiar, since it is a prodigiously ornate fantasia on the four pitches of the Westminster Quarters (known more familiarly as the “Westminster Chimes”).
At the beginning of this month, Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm (MDG) took Houlihan’s project to the next level and released a nine-CD box set of Vierne’s complete works for organ. All the music is performed by the Dutch organist Ben van Oosten, who performs on four of the organs built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in the nineteenth century. All of these organs are in France in the following cities and churches:
- Lyon: Saint-François-de-Sales
- Rouen: Saint-Ouen
- Toulouse: Saint-Sernin
- Paris: Saint-Antoine des Quinze-Vingts
For the record, Cavaillé-Coll built the organ in Saint-Sulpice that Widor played and was responsible for rebuilding and expanding the organ in Notre Dame. Thus, while van Oosten did not record on the two instruments that figured most significantly in Vierne’s life, he did use instruments made by the same organ builder.
This is an impressive collection. Nevertheless, it is important to note that most listeners are likely to require some time getting used to Vierne’s particular approach to free improvisation. Those who expect to find the order and symmetry encountered in Bach are likely to be disappointed, if not frustrated. However, those who dispense with the connotations of “symphony” and “suite” and deal with these pieces as tone poems on a variety of different durational scales will come to appreciate Vierne’s expressiveness and its realization through the sonorities that Cavaillé-Coll made available to nineteenth-century French organists.
Finally, in recognition of the circumstances of Vierne’s death, it is important to note that the collection has been assembled in such a way that “Stèle pour un enfant défunt” is the last track of the ninth CD.