Charles-Marie Widor: Complete Organ Symphonies Vol. 2


  • Artist(s): Salvatore Reitano
  • Composer(s): Charles-Marie Widor
  • EAN Code: 7.46160916071
  • Edition: Da Vinci Classics
  • Format: 1 Cd
  • Genre: Instrumental
  • Instrumentation: Organ
  • Period: Romantic
  • Publication year: 2023
SKU: C00768 Category:

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The literature for the organ reached an absolute and undisputed zenith with Johann Sebastian Bach, arguably one of the greatest organists ever and recognized as such even by his enemies and critics. After him, however, that impressive flowering was followed by a moment of crisis, perhaps not coincidentally corresponding to the late Enlightenment years and the French Revolution, as well as with the ensuing turmoil and instability. An instrument so closely bound to the church and to its aural imagery was probably not the best suited musical resource for expressing the fierce anticlericalism of the French Revolution and the secular approach of the following centuries.
Again not by chance, the “organ renaissance” is due to a deeply Christian musician, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, to whom also the so-called “Bach-Renaissance” is owed. Mendelssohn, a fine organ player himself, left important organ works and demonstrated the organ’s possibilities as a Romantic instrument, expressing the quintessentially Romantic longing for the infinite conceived as transcendence of sound and beauty.
After him, the axis of organ music moved slightly westwards and southwards, with the creation and establishment of an important organ school in Belgium and France. One of its most important members is Charles-Marie Widor, to whom this recording of the complete organ symphonies is dedicated.
His output of organ symphonies can be roughly divided into three periods, as indeed happens with most great composers: early works (i.e. those indicated by the collective opus number 13), works of the maturity (op. 42), and late compositions (Symphonie gothique and Symphonie Romane). These three periods do not refer to biographic elements only, but also to Widor’s compositional attitudes and to his stylistic evolution, with the first Symphonies which display a stronger attachment to tradition and to the past, those of the middle period characterized by a broader palette in terms of emotional and musical qualities, and the last one blending Widor’s religious inspiration with the novel languages of musical modernity.
In spite of these differences, what unifies Widor’s entire organ output is its tight and indissoluble link with a particular “object”. This object – but the term is utterly inadequate for referencing such majestic and complex creations of the human mind – is the Cavaillé-Coll organ played by Widor for decades.
If, indeed, the genius of Franck, Vierne and Widor could have expressed itself also through other musical media – and so, in fact, happened – it is also true that the magnificent adventure of late Romantic and modern French organ music could never have taken place without the indispensable stimulus represented by the Cavaillé-Coll organs. This was particularly evident in the case of musicians who, as happened to Widor, remained faithful to a specific organ – a Cavaillé-Coll, of course – throughout their career as church organists. The symbiosis between Widor and the St.-Sulpice Cavaillé-Coll lasted for more than sixty (!) years, from 1870 to 1933. The new possibilities offered by the Cavaillé-Coll organs were crucial for the development of Widor’s own compositional style, and for opening up new ways for organ composition in general.
The way for Widor’s innovations, however, had been paved not only by Cavaillé-Coll’s revolutionary organs, but also by the equally revolutionary teaching he had received from Jacques Lemmens. The Belgian organist had painstakingly studied the compositional and performing techniques of Bach’s works, and had become one of the leading experts in Bach’s organ music. As it often happens, the study of Bach is the prerequisite for being really and radically innovative in music, and Lemmens was no exception. His playing style, which was rather unheard-of, immediately appeared to be the aural embodiment of Cavaillé-Coll’s visionary imagination. The organ builder recognized and acknowledged the uniqueness and originality of Lemmens’ understanding of organ music. Rightly observing that his own innovations were doomed to remain fruitless unless a whole school of “new” organists gave them voice, Cavailé-Coll directly encouraged and prompted some young, promising organists to study with Lemmens. One of them was Charles-Marie Widor, who certainly fulfilled Cavaillé-Coll’s expectations to the highest degree. Along with former fellow student Alexandre Guilmant, Widor would also be responsible for transmitting the fine details of Bach performance they had received from Lemmens to their students at the Conservatory of Paris.
Their interest in Bach took also the form of instructive editions of Bach’s works. In general, their musical perspective was so radically influenced by Bach that they stood almost in opposition with the other great organ school of the French-speaking countries (i.e. that of Franck and Saint-Saëns): whilst Bach was obviously important for them all, the influence of the Bach tradition on Widor and Guilmant was dramatically greater than that on the other musicians.
These French-speaking organists were also in charge of a major novelty, i.e. to create new genres in which the organ could be, on the one hand, a musical medium capable of competing in terms of timbral variety with a full Romantic symphony orchestra; on the other hand, an instrument not perforce bound to its nature as a church instrument. The paradoxical element is that Widor’s organ symphonies are clearly conceived for the concert hall rather than for performance in a church, but they predate (by a long stretch of time) the installation of concert organs in secular concert halls.
This view, however, was already transparent in Widor’s primary choice to name his majestic organ works as “symphonies”, borrowing the term directly from orchestral music. (After Bach had employed this word to indicate solo keyboard works, virtually all other symphonies had been for orchestra, or at least orchestrated). Widor fully acknowledged the role of the instrument he played and of its builder’s generosity when discussing the Cavaillé-Coll organs: “Old instruments had almost no reed stops: two colors, white and black, foundation stops and mixture stops—that was their entire palette; moreover, each transition between this white and black was abrupt and rough; the means of graduating the body of sound did not exist”. In spite of this, Cavaillé-Coll is given the merit for conceiving “he diverse wind pressures, the divided windchests, the pedal systems and the combination registers, he who applied for the first time Barker‘s pneumatic motors, created the family of harmonic stops, reformed and perfected the mechanics to such a point that each pipe—low or high, loud or soft—instantly obeys the touch of the finger, the keys becoming as light as those of a piano—the resistances being suppressed, rendering the combination of [all] the forces of the instrument practical. From this result: the possibility of confining an entire division in a sonorous prison—opened or closed at will—the freedom of mixing timbres, the means of intensifying them or gradually tempering them, the freedom of tempos, the sureness of attack, the balance of contrasts, and, finally, a whole blossoming of wonderful colors—a rich palette of the most diverse shades: harmonic flutes, gambas, bassoons, English horns, trumpets, celestas, flue stops and reed stops of a quality and variety unknown before”. Widor further emphasised the opposition between a modern concept of the organ, bound to symphonism, and an older one, built on polyphony.
The entire tonal plan of Widor’s symphonies is beautifully conceived, with the first four symphonies, those of op. 13, organized as a tetrachord (c, D, e, f), followed by another tetrachord as op. 42 (f, g, a, B) and by two further ascending intervals (leading to c, op. 70, and D, op. 73). This seemingly surprising foresight is tempered by our knowledge of Widor’s painstaking effort to pursue perfection; this takes the form of constant revisions, at times ill-advised, at times right but harsh, but certainly always thought-provoking. One major revision is found precisely in the Second Symphony recorded here, whose Scherzo was excised in order to leave room for a piece on the Gregorian Salve Regina.
The op. 13 symphonies share the further uncommon trait that they are organized as “suites”. Movements called after the genres which were in vogue in the French Baroque populate the collection, and constitute a kind of purposeful anachronism. Another trait which should be taken into account is their derivation from improvisational moments, and from composed works dating back to his composition studies under Fétis, who had thoroughly trained Widor in strict counterpoint and whose teaching left clear marks particularly in organ works such as the ones recorded here.
With its numerous movements, the Second Symphony is one of the most varied and light of all. The Praeludium Circulare looks back to an ancient tradition, i.e. that of wandering among the keys, getting seemingly lost, and then finding the road for “home”. Other unforgettable moments include the tenderness of the pastorale, the space/time playfulness of the third movement, the Salve Regina with its skillful use of Gregorian plainchant, and the brilliant opposition of a touching Adagio/Andante and a brilliant concluding Allegro.
The third Symphony is dramatically different, and displays Widor’s deepened knowledge of compositional secrets, as well as his maturing personality. At its heart, flanked by a variable first movement and the timbral games of the second, we find the Marche, impressive in its colossal size. It is followed by a canonic movement which alludes rather obviously to Bach, and the enthralling finale which re-established order and hope.
Together, these two Symphonies display Widor’s talent at is purest, and his youthful elan which never contradicts profundity and depth.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2023


In 1994 he starts his organ studies at the Musical Institute “Vincenzo Bellini”, Catania, with the tutorship of Gianluca Libertucci. In 2000 he graduates in Organ and Organ Composition with Superior Merit. He improved with Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini, Weijnand Van De Pool, Enrico Viccardi, Ludger Lohmann and he took part in organ improvisation Master classes with Pierre Pincemaille, Emmanuel Le Divellec, Tobias Willi.
In June 2004 he completed his organ Master studies at the Superior Music Conservatory of Lausanne (CH) getting the Diplôme de Concert with honors under the guidance of Jean- Francois Vaucher.
He won several prizes in National and International Organ competitions. In 2007 he finished the specialist two-year period (2nd level) graduating in Musical Subjects with final mark 110 and praise with Prof. Daniele Boccaccio as the dissertation was about the Symbolism and Numerology in the Choral “Vater unser im himmelreich” of the Klavierübung III and of the Orgelbüchelein by J.S. BACH.
Since January 2008 he has been living in Switzerland where he holds the position of organist holder in the Catholic Church of St. Maurice, Pully (Lausanne).
From 2008 to 2010 he studied jazz music at the Modern and Jazz music Department of professional preliminary section of EJMA and at the Superior Conservatory of Music, Lausanne with professors Emil Spany, Mathieu Roffe, Yannick Delez (piano) and Pierre-Luc Vallet (Hammond organ).
He plays in the Ensemble “Disfonik Orchestra”, a project made for the well-known Spanish countertenor Carlos Mena, as an organ accompanist and arranger.
Between 2008 and 2019 Disfonik Orchestra self-produces in Spain in theatres like: 35th festival FeMAS espacio Turina - Seville, Teatro Pérez Galdos of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Great Auditorium of Tenerife, Gayarre Theatre of Pamplona, Cultural Caja Theatre of Burgos.
He is a composer for organ solo music, organ and a variety of instruments, organ and choir, Symphonic orchestra and short films, as well as jazz quartets, already played in various occasions and printed by Editions: Da Vinci Publishing and Pizzicato Verlag.
In June 2021 he accomplished the Organ Improvisation class at the Conservatory of Freiburg (CH) and he got the degree with distinction under the guidance of Prof. Jean-Louis Feiertag.
He is actually the art director of the Organ Festival “The concerts of Great Organ Jaquot” of the Cathedral of Catania.


Charles-Marie Widor
(b Lyons, 21 Feb 1844; d Paris, 12 March 1937). French organist, composer and teacher known primarily for his organ symphonies.
His mother was of Italian ancestry, and his paternal grandfather was an organ builder of Hungarian descent; his father was both an organ builder and performer who gave Widor his first lessons. The boy showed great ability and at the age of 11 became the organist at the lycée in Lyons. Upon the recommendation of Cavaillé-Coll, Widor went to Brussels, where he studied composition with Fétis and the organ with J.-N. Lemmens. Lemmens, who was the most recent member of a line of teachers connected directly to Bach, taught him traditional German interpretations of Bach to which he remained loyal for the rest of his life. He played the organ at St François in Lyons from 1860 and performed frequently in the provinces until 1870, when he was given a provisional one-year appointment succeeding Louis Lefebure-Wély at St Sulpice in Paris; there he remained for 64 years. In the 1870s he produced numerous compositions in various genres, and in 1880 his first stage work, the ballet La korrigane, was successfully produced at the Paris Opéra. At about the same time he became a music critic for the daily L’estafette, signing his articles with the pen name ‘Aulétès’. He also conducted the Concordia, a choral society which specialized in oratorios. On the death of Franck in 1890, Widor became professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire; six years later, when Théodore Dubois assumed direction of the Conservatoire, Widor replaced him as professor of composition. He was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1910 and became the permanent secretary four years later. During World War I he used his numerous contacts to obtain money for artists who had suffered misfortunes. In 1916 he introduced the idea of founding the Casa Vélazquez, a counterpart to the Villa Medicis, at which French artists could study Spanish culture. This project came to fruition at Madrid but the building was apparently destroyed in the 1930s. Widor continued to perform regularly until the age of 90; he was succeeded at St Sulpice by Marcel Dupré.

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