2016-05-08 Notes from the Bench

“Toccata” from “Organ Symphony No. 5” by Charles-Marie Widor

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

Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937) is among the best-known composers of French symphonic organ literature. During his lifetime, Widor was an internationally famous recitalist, having performed concerts throughout Europe. Widor wrote music for operas, ballets, choirs, solo voice, orchestra, small ensembles, and piano, however his organ works are his best-known compositions and performed with the greatest frequency. Widor composed ten organ “symphonies,” multi-movement works for solo organ that were inspired by the symphonies composed for orchestra. The organ symphony genre utilized the tonal resources of the symphonic organ and imitated the orchestral timbres, textures, effects, and the symphonic process. The Toccata is the final movement of Organ Symphonie No. 5, composed in 1879. This fiery and grandiose movement with its perpetual motion and rhythmic figures is Widor’s best-known work.



Widor was born in Lyon; members of his family at that time were organ builders and friends with France’s distinguished organ builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811-1899). Charles-Marie studied organ with Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens (1823-1881) and composition with François-Joseph Fétis (1784-1871) at the Brussels Conservatoire. Following the death of Louis Lefébure-Wèly (1817-1869), the titular organist position for the Church of Saint-Sulpice was vacant, one of the most prestigious in France. Saint-Sulpice housed the largest Cavaillé-Coll organ, an impressive instrument with five manuals and 102 stops, Cavaillé-Coll’s magnum opus. Cavaillé-Coll, along with composers Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) and Charles Gounod (1818-1893), lobbied for Widor’s appointment to the position and in 1870, at the age of 25, Widor was appointed on a “provisional” basis. He remained at Saint-Sulpice until 1833, almost 64 years, but was never granted titular status. Widor was a professor at the Paris Conservatoire where he taught organ and composition, succeeding his teacher, César Franck (1822-1890). Many of Widor’s organ students became famous in their own right, among them, Marcel Dupré (1886-1971), Louis Vierne (1870-1937), and Charles Tournemire (1870-1939). Widor advocated for the organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach and demanded that his students have the playing technique necessary to master Bach’s music. Widor also founded the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau.


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