Louis Vierne was for no less than 37 years (between 1900 to 1937, his death year) the titular organist of the great Cavaillé-Coll organ (93 stops and 5 keyboards) of Notre Dame in Paris, and was among the greatest composers and improvisers of his time. In 1927, he appointed Maurice Duruflé as his assistant at Notre Dame; Duruflé later became the titular organist at Saint-Étienne-du-Mont in Paris, remaining in the post for his entire life. These two French great organists and composers, unsurpassed icons of the musical twentieth century, were also bound by mutual esteem and respect. Duruflé, for instance, premiered Vierne’s Sixième Symphonie op. 59 at Notre Dame Cathedral. Many other episodes and anecdotes bear witness to their friendship; however, the most important – albeit tragical – moment happened in the evening of June 2nd, 1937, when Vierne died for an embolism. He was playing at the Notre Dame organ during a concert shared with his beloved pupil, assistant, and friend, Maurice Duruflé. In short, these are some of the threads which indissolubly bind the two great organists and composers represented in this album, in the awareness that their compositional languages differ conceptually.
Vierne was a Romantic, in life as in art. He had inherited two opposing trends, those of César Franck and of Charles-Marie Widor, of both of whom he had been a student. He was fascinated by Widor’s formal perfection and writing skills, whilst he was attracted by Franck’s expressive intensity and by his “cyclic form”, where he saw the advantage of an empowerment of thematic unity. In fact, for Vierne, the central element of all music is the theme, which bears a sentiment. His aesthetics was grounded on a precise axioma: “I love, in music, what touches, not what surprises, even less what explodes”. This
was his creed in music. In his maturity, he got closer to Wagner, whose extreme chromaticism and many harmonic details he assimilated. These are the themes of his Deuxième Symphonie in E minor, op. 20, written in 1902:
(from B. Gavoty Louis Vierne, Éditions Buchet/Chastel, Paris)
His Deuxième Symphonie was positively reviewed. In his feuilleton of Gil Blas (February 25th, 1903), Claude Debussy noted: “Mr Vierne’s Symphony is really noteworthy. The most generous musicality is united with ingenious inventions in the special sound of the organ. Old J. S. Bach, our father under all aspects, would have been pleased with Mr Vierne”.
The originality of this Symphony is almost total. For the first time, Vierne uses the “cyclic form”. The principal or secondary themes of the different movements come from two central cells of the initial Allegro. Still, every piece maintains its autonomy, and the themes’ derivation remains discreet; under this viewpoint, the Deuxième Symphonie is a model of variety in unity. Let us consider its contents in its individual movements.
I. Allegro (in E minor). The Allegro presents the two main ideas of the cycle: one is rhythmical (theme A) and the other melodic (theme B). They are initially presented separately, but later Vierne’s genius combines them together and superimposes them to each other in a powerful peroration.
II. Choral (in A flat). The Chorale’s theme (B) comes from the Allegro’s second idea (B). A second motif (C), contrasting with the former, is proposed twice but does not find the way for a development of its own. It works as a contrasting element. The movement’s concluding section presents the Choral’s theme in augmentation.
III. Scherzo (in E major). The basic theme of the Scherzo (D) is original, but the second thematic idea (E), found in the pedal part, is reminiscent of the Allegro’s first theme (A). It plays a fundamental role in the development of the entire movement. The content of this movement is beautiful; it gives to the Symphony some colourful brush strokes, with wonderful scents and lightness.
IV. Cantabile (in C-sharp minor). This movement is built on the alternation of two ideas, one of which (F) is new, and the other (A) derives from the Allegro’s first idea (A). Also in this case, Vierne plays on the contraposition of two thematic elements, one of which (A) has cantabile features, and the other (F) has a contrasting colour. It evolves through refined harmonisations, dense with chromaticism, to a fiery crescendo. In the finale Vierne reproposes theme (A) with the cantabile stop of the “Clarinette solo”, and, following it (F) “Flûte 8” with accompaniment of “Gambe et Voix celeste”, bringing serenity to the contrasting sections.
V. Final (in E minor). The central theme (E), derived from the Scherzo’s second idea (E), alternates with theme (A), which is nothing else than the generating theme of the entire composition. The exposition, in E minor, presents for a long time these two ideas. It refers to the tormented character of the Choral or of the Cantabile, and the central theme reappears, in the minor mode. But the work gradually acquires light, and the radiant tone of E major in the end dominates the work and brings it to a shiny conclusion.
The balance of this Symphony is shown not only in its themes, but also in the movements’ musical interest.
In 1943, Maurice Duruflé became a professor of Harmony at the Conservatoire of Paris, where he worked until 1970. Among his pupils there were also Pierre Cochereau, Jean Guillou and Marie-Claire Alain. He composed his Suite op. 5 in 1932 and dedicated it to his composition teacher, Paul Dukas. Duruflé was a great perfectionist, and was very critical about his own works. He published only a few works, and frequently kept modifying them even after their publication. For instance, the Suite’s Toccata has a completely different ending in the first edition with respect to the most recent version, and the score of the Fugue sur le nom d’Alain originally had “accelerando” throughout. The Toccata of the Suite, beautiful in the eyes of us all, was for him an imperfect work, which should have been destroyed. Only the intervention of his second wife, Marie-Madeleine Chevalier, an organist herself and his assistant at St-Étienne-du-Mont, prevented this from happening; still, he never played it in his concerts. His Suite op. 5 is formed by three movements: a Prélude in E-flat minor; a Sicilienne in G minor, and the concluding Toccata in B minor. As happens with his other works for the organ, it demands great skills of the performer.
The Prélude in E-flat minor has a close resemblance with the Adagio from Vierne’s Sixth Symphony (1931). It is built as a great arch. It opens in pianissimo, with a theme making use of the organ’s darkest colours (32-foot stops at
the pedal), and later it becomes a sequence, in crescendo, of continuing aural additions, more and more luminous, until the grandiose sound of the entire instrument explodes, reaching the climax at bars 47 and following, with a fortissimo with three f’s. From this huge sound span, truly impressive and grandiose, Duruflé then gets gradually back to the contemplative atmosphere of the opening. He inserts, at b. 68, a “Più lento, quasi recitativo”, with the agogic indication “espressivo, senzarigore”, with a marvellous melody entrusted to “Clarinette 8 ou Trompette 8”. The Prélude closes, fading down in a pianissimo.
The Sicilienne, elegant and suggestive, is built on a rondo scheme. All of its 113 bars demonstrate Duruflé’s debt towards Debussy and Ravel. The frequent use of chords of seventh, ninth, and thirteenth, together with plagal cadences, intervals and chords founded on the hexatonic scale, with alternating thirds in the accompaniment – these elements all underline its unmistakably Impressionist imprint. The thematic element is a modal tune in G minor, whose second half displays hemiola syncopations. The development follows the rondo’s typical alternations, with sections juxtaposed to the principal theme’s return, in different tonal situations and with register changes. After a last section with the theme in G minor and an accompaniment in semiquaver triplets, the movement closes on a plagal cadence.
The Toccata is one of the hardest pieces in organ literature. It is an aural vortex of incomparable beauty, and it is a genius’ structure. It is one of the best twentieth-century French toccatas. Technically challenging, but musically very satisfying, it remains one of the virtuoso pieces favoured by those organists who can afford it. This Toccata’s strength and originality are found in the depth of its rhythmical, harmonic and thematic content, as well as in the development of its varied figurations. The theme entering at the pedal at b. 15 is an imposing melody, characterized by a semiquaver upbeat surrounded by a diminished fifth. The development is also imposing, along with the alternation of new themes, chords, rhythmic figurations. After a section with electrifying staccato cords leading to a return in B minor of the first principal theme at the pedals (b. 105-118), we get to the majestic finale, with a very quick passage at the unison culminating on a B-major chord.
Giorgio Benati © 2022
Italian organist from Brescia, is born in 2000. He is currently pursuing the three-year Bachelor’s Degree in Organ and Organ Composition at the "Luca Marenzio" Music Conservatory of Brescia in the Class of Maestro Giorgio Benati. In 2019 he completed, maxima cum laude, the High School with Administrative, Finance and Marketing at the "Capirola" School of Leno (Brescia). In September 2019 he won, in his category, the 2nd Prize at the International Organ Competition of Tricesimo-Udine (with Olivier Latry, titular organist of the Cathedral of "Notre Dame" de Paris, as President of the Jury) and in October 2019 he was finalist in the "Premio Nazionale delle Arti" organ competition. Previously he was also the winner, in his category, at the National Organ Competition in Bibione (with Maestro Wolfgang Seifen as Jury President) and finalist at the Northern Ireland International Organ Competition 2018. He attended various Masterclasses with esteemed organists such as Fausto Caporali (Olivier Messiaen; Improvisation), Ton Koopman (J.S. Bach repertoire) and Olivier Latry (19th and 20th century French Organ Music). He takes an active part in the concerts of the "Bach's Opera Omnia" project, promoted by the Music Conservatories of Brescia and Castelfranco Veneto in collaboration with the Organ Class of Maestro Giorgio Benati, in various programs including the whole "18 Chorals of Leipzig" and concerts in Buffalora (Brescia), Darfo Boario Terme (Brescia) and in the Cathedral of Asolo (Treviso). He carries out an intense series of concert performances in various locations and has an extensive repertoire ranging from early music to contemporary composers. He is titular organist in the parish churches of Folzano (Brescia), Mompiano (Brescia) and Castenedolo (Brescia).
(b Poitiers, 8 Oct 1870; d Paris, 2 June 1937). French organist and composer.
Born blind with a congenital cataract condition, Vierne's sight was partially restored at the age of six and he was able to recognize people, see objects at a short distance and read large type at close range. At the age of six he began the study of solfège and piano. In 1880 the family moved to Paris from Lille (where they had lived because of his father's work as a journalist) and the following year the young Vierne was enrolled as a boarding student in the Institution Nationale des Jeunes Aveugles. There he pursued a plan of general studies that also included solfège, harmony, piano and violin. César Franck, who often served on juries at the school, advised him to study the organ and in the autumn of 1886 Vierne began lessons with Louis Lebel. From 1888 Vierne studied harmony privately with Franck and attended his organ class at the Paris Conservatoire. He entered the organ class as a full-time student either in October 1890 (as Vierne states in his memoirs) or in January 1891 (according to Widor's class notes). Franck died in November of that year and was succeeded by Widor. Within a year Vierne was serving as Widor's assistant at the Conservatoire, teaching the auditors, and from 1892 was Widor's substitute at St Sulpice. After four years in the organ class he won a first prize in July 1894.
(b Louviers, 11 Jan 1902; d Paris, 16 June 1986). French composer and organist. He received his early musical education (1912–18) at a choir school in Rouen, where he deputised at the cathedral for his teacher Jules Haelling, a pupil of Guilmant. The choral plainsong tradition which thrived there became a profound influence. Maurice Emmanuel heard him play and arranged for him to go to Paris and meet Tournemire who prepared him for entry to the Conservatoire. Duruflé became his deputy at St Clothilde in 1920 but turned to Vierne as a teacher. The entirely contrasting musical temperaments and inspirations of these two composers can be traced in Duruflé's compositions. (He was later to transcribe a number of their recorded improvisations.) From Tournemire he inherited the mystical world of plainsong and the rich ambiguities of modal harmony. From Vierne came a more rigorous sense of structure and proportion and an awareness of the breadth of the organ's capabilities. In 1920 he entered the Conservatoire and achieved outstanding success, winning premier prix in five classes: organ with Gigout (1922), harmony with Jean Gallon (1924), fugue with Caussade (1924), accompaniment with Estyle (1926) and composition with Dukas (1928). In 1927 he became deputy to Vierne at Notre-Dame; Vierne spoke highly of his talents and reputedly expressed the hope that he would succeed him there. But it was to the post of organist at St Etienne-du-Mont that Duruflé was appointed in 1930 and he was to remain there for the rest of his life. In 1942 he deputised for Dupré as professor of the organ class at the Paris Conservatoire and from 1943 to 1970 he held the post of professor of harmony there, counting among his pupils Cochereau, Guillou and Marie-Claire Alain. As an organist he toured Europe, the USA and the USSR.