2015-02-15 Notes from the Bench

“Toccata” by Louis Vierne

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate

 

The organist and composer Louis Vierne (1870-1937) was born in Poitiers, Vienne, a municipality in the west-central region of France. Vierne wrote music for organ, piano, choir, orchestra, and chamber ensemble, but his organ works are his best-remembered, represent his most important compositions, and are frequently performed today. Vierne’s harmonic language is more chromatic than other composers of his generation who wrote in a more the nineteen-century romantic style; he drew upon the ideas of impressionist composers such as Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy. This Sunday’s postlude, the fiery Toccata, is one of Vierne’s Pièces de Fantasie and dedicated to his friend, the American organist Alexander Russell, a music professor at Princeton University. This work was composed in the French toccata style, a “touch” piece that displays the organist’s virtuosity, written with rapid figuration for both hands and feet. These works are great pieces to perform as postludes to worship services or concluding selections of recitals because they are highly energetic and usually bring great enjoyment to listeners, and to be honest, are fun for the organist to play.

 

 

 

Vierne’s life was filled with physical difficulty and hardships, emotional and spiritual. He was born with congenital cataracts and was nearly blind his entire life. When he composed, he often wrote using large-sized manuscript paper, but later resorted to using Braille. Vierne studied at the Paris Conservatoire under the tutelage of César Franck and Charles-Marie Widor and beginning in 1892, served as Widor’s assistant at the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris. Saint-Sulpice was home to the largest Cavaillé-Coll in France, an impressive instrument with five manuals and 100 stops, the builder’s magnum opus. In 1900, Vierne was appointed the titular organist for the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, one of the most prestigious organist positions in all of France and home to a similarly impressive Cavaillé-Coll organ with five manuals. Vierne revered the Cavaillé-Coll organ of Notre Dame, although the instrument was in poor condition during most of his tenure and the financial conditions of the cathedral parish at that time prohibited expedient restoration work. A highly regarded recitalist and brilliant improviser, he performed concert tours throughout Europe and in North America to raise money for the restoration of and improvements for the instrument at Notre Dame. It was during his 1926-1927 concert tours that his famous 24 Pièces de Fantasie were composed and premiered. Vierne dedicated these works to his various friends and fellow organists. There is a great variety of musical styles, textures, difficulty, and moods among these colorful programmatic works.

Vierne wrote music for organ, piano, choir, orchestra, and chamber ensemble, but his organ works are his best-remembered, represent his most important compositions, and are frequently performed today. Vierne’s harmonic language is more chromatic than other composers of his generation who wrote in a more the nineteen-century romantic style; he drew upon the ideas of impressionist composers such as Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy. This Sunday’s postlude, the fiery Toccata, is one of Vierne’s Pièces de Fantasie and dedicated to his friend, the American organist Alexander Russell, a music professor at Princeton University. This work was composed in the French toccata style, a “touch” piece that displays the organist’s virtuosity, written with rapid figuration for both hands and feet. These works are great pieces to perform as postludes to worship services or concluding selections of recitals because they are highly energetic and usually bring great enjoyment to listeners, and to be honest, are fun for the organist to play.

It was during Vierne’s 1750th organ recital, performed at Notre-Dame, that he suffered a heart attack or stroke (eyewitness accounts differ) just as he concluded the main portion of the concert and was about to begin the improvisation portion of his program. Audience members said Vierne had never played as well as he did that evening. He was presented with the two themes submitted for his improvisation and just as he was about to begin playing, he collapsed at the console, hitting the low “E” pedal of the organ, and fulfilling his often stated life-long dream – to die at the console of his beloved organ at Notre Dame Cathedral.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: