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Symphony No. 5 in A minor Op. 47                             Louis Vierne (1870-1937)

Organist of the Cathedral of Notre-dame in Paris for nearly 40 years, Louis Vierne was the great romantic among the French composers of his time. Unlike many of his organist contemporaries, he sought his inspiration on a human rather than a spiritual level; as Ralph Downes once wrote, ‘Being a real Romantic, Vierne’s compositional activity was essentially related to his own emotional life - in a sense rather like our own Edward Elgar in that period of dark depression was liable to be the herald of great creative resurgence. Like Elgar too, he needed and responded warmly to feminine affinity on the musico-spiritual plane..” The composer himself summed up his artistic creed in this revealing declaration - “I do not believe that a musician who, as a man, is incapable of love or suffering, will ever create anything of real beauty.’

Vierne’s own life was a curious mixture of success and tragedy. At birth he was officially classified as blind, but an operation during childhood and a further two-year course of treatment from 1916 to 1918 (which at one stage entailed his spending six months in a darkened room) enabled him to retain a limited amount of vision; his near-blindness intensified his naturally sensitive and introspective character - in later life he was to describe his own nature as “hypersensitive, the source of intense joy and inexpressible pain.” His uncle was a professional musician and a friend of César Franck, and when he was nine years old the frail youngster was taken to Sainte-Clotilde to hear Franck play the organ. The emotional intensity of Franck’s music overwhelmed him; he had to be carried from the church in a state of near-prostration, but this experience confirmed his vocation, and he vowed to devote his life to music (“The good Lord, who has taken my eyes, will surely help me.”) Many years of intensive study followed. At the Institut des Jeunes Aveugles (the School for the Blind) and the Paris Conservatoire, first with Franck, and then, after his death, with Widor. As his studies neared completion, Vierne was promoted from pupil to assistant, both at Widor’s church, Saint-Sulpice (from 1892 until 1900), and at the Conservatoire, where he acted as a deputy to the Organ Professors from 1894 until 1911. He married in 1899 and won the coveted post of Organist of Notre-Dame in 1900; a happy and fulfilled future seemed assured.

But Vierne’s happiness was short-lived - “1906 - le début des catastrophes,” he was later to write in his memoirs. The next 15 years were marked by a grim procession of personal and professional problems, disappointments and tragedies - the breakdown of his marriage and a subsequent divorce, the failure of his lifetime ambition to be-come Organ Professor at the Conservatoire, serious accidents and illnesses, severe suffering with his eyes, the death of his younger son, and finally the loss in the War of both his elder son and his adored younger brother. But Vierne survived his “years of torment,” and during the 1920s his playing career began to flourish once again, with concert tours taking him all over Europe, and even to the USA. During his final years he fell victim to increasing loneliness and depression, and losing the desire to compose, he transferred his creative energies into writing his memoirs. He died suddenly on 3rd June 1937 at the console of Notre-Dame, in the middle of a recital.

Although Vierne’s love of music as a means of expression was inspired by Franck, it was from Widor that he learnt the mechanics of his craft as composer and organist - mastery of musical forms, clarity of structure, and understanding of the highly-specialised style of playing demanded by a large organ in a resonant building, a style characterised by grand rhetorical gestures, massed registrations, and spacious contrapuntal textures. It was Widor who first encouraged Vierne to write organ symphonies, and although he was later to compose in many forms - including three superb chamber pieces and a number of works for the female voice, which was always one of his greatest inspirations- it is the six Organ Symphonies, standing like pillars to mark the various stages of his life and his compositional career, that remain his finest achievement. The First (1898) and Second (1902) date from his earlier years; the concentrated passion and intensity of the Third (1911) and Fourth (1914) reflect the more troubled times in which they were written, while the Fifth (1923/4) and Sixth (1930) once again attain a certain serenity. During one of his darkest periods (1907-8), Vierne also wrote an orchestral symphony, and the nostalgic verse from the poet Verlaine which stands at the head of this score could serve as a motto for much of his other music - “O can it be that there were once bright days and summer nights?” But as a fully-rounded, cultivated and intelligent human being, he was also (to borrow a phrase which is more often applied to Olivier Messiaen) a “musician of joy”, and many of his works - most notably the last two symphonies - end in a heart-warming affirmation of the value of human life.

Reacting against what it saw as the excesses of late romanticism, the musical culture of Paris in the 1920s was dominated by jazz, neoclassicism, and the style and wit of Jean Cocteau and Les Six. Vierne was totally out of sympathy with this new aesthetic, and his Fifth Symphony seems to represent a conscious attempt to reassert the traditional values in which he believed. In striking contrast to the concentration of the Third and Fourth, the Fifth is a monumental virtuoso work ex-tending to 70 pages in the printed score; as always with Vierne, the structure of each movement is clearly defined, but here the paragraphs are broader, the developments more leisurely, the melodic lines more expansive, and the harmonic language more advanced in its heady chromaticism. Like three of the other symphonies, the Fifth adopts the “cyclic form” beloved of César Franck and his pupils, and the musical material of all five movements is entirely derived from transformations of two contrasting musical motifs, which are clearly presented in the opening bars of the atmospheric prelude (Grave) with which the symphony begins. The first motif (Theme A) appears in the bass as a pedal solo, and is answered by the second (Theme B) on the manuals; A is a chain of descending thirds, a fairly neutral musical building-block, while B is more emotional,as a yearning, Wagnerian phrase, containing a distinctive leap of seventh (Vierne’s biographer, Bernard Gavoty, actually suggested that the whole symphony was inspired by Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde). In the powerful sonata-form Allegro that follows, Theme A is inverted and given a strong rhythmic profile, while B forma the more lyrical second subject; throughout the lengthy exposition, development and recapitulation of these two ideas, Vierne displays a masterly control of tension and relaxation, perfectly pacing his climaxes, and finally bringing all the musical threads together in a thunderous coda.

The captivating D minor Scherzo is a study in thirds and sixths which maintains a dancing rhythmic momentum from first note to last. A fragmented version of Theme B inspires the foot-tapping main theme, while Theme A makes two appearances on a growling Clarinet deep in the bass; piquant registration and extensive use of whole-tone harmonies give the whole piece an impish, slightly sinister flavour. Composed in Italy, at Stresa on the banks of Lake Maggiore, during Vierne’s summer holiday in 1923, the eloquent Larghetto is bathed in the mood of romantic nostalgia that lay at the heart of his musical personality - a mood that was to be further explores soon afterwards in some of his nature-inspired Piéces de Fatnaisie, such as Étoile du Soir and Clair de Lune. In this long lyrical meditation, in the warm key of F# major, the main theme is related to motto theme B, while a syncopated version of A (inverted again) inspires the more animated central section. In the evocative final pages, the return of the main theme is accompanied by a murmur of semiquavers, which is finally stilled in a coda of exquisite and inimitable serenity.

The A major Finale begins like a conventional French toccata, but in fact this too is a substantial sonata-form allegro, encompassing a wide range of mood and dynamic. A and B again supply first and second subjects, and their extensive developments continues the musical argument of the second movement of the symphony, in the same highly-chromatic style. But with the return of the toccata figuration, a fresh wind blows the shadows away, and the music explodes into a triumphant and un-clouded A major, embracing both themes in a final climax of prolonged and breathtaking brilliance.

Deux Chorals                                                                                                                                                                                                Jehan Alain (1911-1940)

Deux Préludes Profanes


Jehan Alain grew up in a house full of music; his father Albert was a well-known organist, who built a remarkable organ in his own home, and the four Alain children were all musically gifted. Jehan was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire to study organ and composition, but his originality and independence of spirit caused problems in the Composition Class; unable to conform to the required academic disciplines, he withdrew from this class in 1936 without winning the expected prize. Fragile health, a year’s National Service, and the necessity of earning a living to support a wife and young family, all combined to prolong his organ studies, and it was only in the summer of 1939, at the age of 28, that he obtained his First Prize in the Organ Class of Marcel Dupré. Soon afterwards he joined the army, and less than a year later he was killed in action in the War.

It was not just his tragic death that set Alain apart from his contemporaries, most of whom survived into ripe old age; a questing, troubled spirit, he remained a rather solitary figure in the musical world of his time. Expressing a sentiment with which Vierne would doubtless have agreed, Alain once wrote that “artistic expression is the only form of happiness”’ and at the time of his death he had composing music for ten years, mostly in the form of modest miniatures, only a handful of which had been published. Rejecting both the brittle superficiality of the fashionable music of the 1920s, and also the grandiose Germanic style of Franck and Widor (the kind of music that - like Vierne;s - tried to “say everything”), ha was seeking to create a new kind of evocative musical language, an elusive language of dreams and fleeting emotions, and his music, his diaries and letters, and his bizarrely humorous sketches and drawings all bear witness to a uniquely colourful, quirky and profound imagination.

Dating from 1935, the Deux Chorals were Alain’s first published compositions. Their modal titles, Dorian and Phrygian refer to the modes of Greek music rather than the more usual medieval church modes; according to the Greek system (which confusingly uses the same names, but with a different meaning) the Dorian Mode is a white-note scale beginning on E, and the Phrygian Mode is based on D. The modal descent of the bass from F natural to E defines the hypnotic harmonic progressions of the mysterious Choral Dorien, gradually increasing in intensity and finally fading into silence, while the flowing Choral Phrygien is more chromatic, and more overtly expressive.

Composed in 1933, while Alain was suffering from a severe attack of pneumonia, the little-known Préludes Profanes are entirely typical of their composer in their creation of a magical but strangely elusive atmosphere, and their enigmatic impression is reinforced by the texts which he wrote at the bottom of each piece, rather than in the manner of the subtitles which Debussy placed beneath his piano preludes:

1) “After this night, another one. And then another, and yet another.... And then....”

2) “They worked long, without respite and without hope. Their hands became thickened and rough. Then, little by little, they penetrated the great rythm of life.”

Most of Alain’s organ music was published posthumously in three slim volumes. Many of the pieces are little more than sketches, but the three-movement Suite (1934-6) is conceived on a much larger scale. Alain submitted this work for the Composition Prize of Les Amis de L’Orgue in Paris in 1936, and he deservedly won the prize. As his sister and devoted interpreter Marie-Claire Alain has written, “prepared for a composition contest, the Suite is certainly one of the most elaborate of Jehan’s works. It gives the idea of what his music could have been, had he had the time to work out his masterpieces, instead of just tossing them onto paper”.

A rich vein of evocative poetry runs through the Introductions & Variations that form the first movement of the Suite. An introduction of flowing chains of unrelated chords (“like running water”) leads imperceptibly into the melancholy main theme, and the three statements of this theme are separated by two contrasting variations, the first enlivened by triplet movement, the second more rhapsodic, with a tender dialogue between soprano and bass around soft sustained chords for strings. With the final statement of the theme the music sinks sadly to rest.

The unusual form of the first movement (Theme - Variation 1 - Theme - Variation 2 - Theme) is echoed in the Scherzo, where instead of placing his trio section in the middle of the piece in the usual way, Alain begins and ends with it as well. The movement begins quietly with a plaintive four-note call on the flute, but this is soon swept aside by a relentless whirling dance as the scherzo proper gets under way. The opening motif is later caught up in the dance, returning on a reed stop in the middle of the piece, and again on the strings at the end, as the music suddenly recedes into the distance over an insistent pedal ostinato.

The final movement is a powerful chordal Choral - not a traditional church chorale, but a strange, highly imaginative conception, evoking a wild mountainous landscape of the mind, vividly described by Alain himself in his own enigmatic way - “...violent shadows, sudden burst of sunlight, and above all, wind..wind...”

© David Gammie

Vierne Vol3.mp3

Complete Organ Symphonies of Louis Vierne Volume 3

PRCD 590


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Symphony No. 5 in A minor Op. 47


Louis Vierne (1870-1937)

Allegro molto marcato

Tempo di scherzo ma non troppo vivo


Final (Allegro moderato)

Deux Chorals

Choral Dorien

Jehan Alain (1911-1940)

Choral Phrygien

Deux Préludes Profanes

Premier Prélude Profane

Jehan Alain

Deuxiéme Prélude Profane


Introduction et Variations

Jehan Alain