The organ symphonies of Louis Vierne
Louis Vierne stood in an exceedingly favorable position in the matter of the influences which were at work upon him. Though he profited immeasurably by his study with both Widor and Guilmant, he himself possessed an advantage which was not given to either of these two men. For almost two years Vierne was in the organ-class of César Franck; and in that time he was able to add his own share to the almost legendary love, respect, and admiration that Franck's students bore him. There are, in fact, many points of similarity between the careers of Franck and of Vierne. Each spent a goodly portion of his life in the service of the church: Franck at Ste. Clothilde, Vierne at Notre-Dame. Each man devoted his entire life to music; each was a devout believer with a keen sense for beauty and the creation of it; both were superb improvisers; the students of both were avid disciples of their masters; both suffered the results of intrigue at the hands of others, and both had the necessary fortitude to rise above their troubles, taking refuge in their art. As the assistant and close friend of both Wider and Guilmant, Vierne came to know the esthetic creed of each artist in an intimate fashion. Vierne modeled his own compositions upon the general lines of the work of these two men. With the added impetus and the inspiration that came to him through his contact with Franck, be was able to advance in scope, in grandeur, and in emotional content to that point which places his works in the forefront of modern organ composition. Vierne was perhaps more fortunate than bis contemporaries, for he was able to profit greatly by bis association both with Franck and with Wider and Guilmant. His greater point of advantage lay in the fact that he was in such close personal relationship with the latter two men. Vierne had the inestimable advantage of an ability to produce a long melodic line, the intensity of which he was able to modify at will. The short-breathed phrases of Franck do not appear in the work of his student. Vierne used a widely-varied phraseology. In countless movements the phrase organization is quite regular, with perfect balance of periods. In other instances, there are phrases of all degrees of length and of very odd balance. He possessed a fine ability for the building of tremendous climaxes. In this connection must be mentioned his use of chain-phrases and his intriguing manner of extending phrases so that the moment of cadence of resolution is delayed, to the end that climaxes seem more impressive by reason of their delayed entrances. One device in particular contributes to his ability for constructing a stunning climax. The ostinato, the effectiveness of which he may have learned from Widor's use of it in the Toccata of the Fifth Symphony, is used with carillon-like results in many movements in which the effect is gained almost by monotony--much in the manner of Ravel's Bolero. It is true that Vierne exhausted nearly all of the contrapuntal and harmonic devices in the course of writing his symphonies. It is possible that many of these tricks of the musician's trade will remain to be appreciated only by those who have the knowledge and the will to examine the scores themselves. Vierne's use of cyclic construction seems for the most part to be valuable in its strictest sense only to the practiced organist. The paces of the movements where there is identity of thematic material are usually too slow or too rapid to afford the unaided ear any opportunity of grasping the essential cyclic meaning. It remains for the eye to appreciate the tremendously skilful manipulation of the themes. There seems to be no excellence of one type of writing over another in Vierne's work, unless it be in his writing of scherzi. Some of the most charming pages) of the symphonies are to be found in these swift, light-footed movements. The grandeur of some of the dramatic passages is notable. Especially to be commended is the jagged, Gothiclike beginning of the Second Symphony, and the final summing up of the themes which occurs at the end of the first movement. The succeeding Choral and the Romance of the Fourth Symphony contain passages of lyrical loveliness. The training of Franck appears nowhere more noticeably than in the Fourth Symphony with its extreme chromatic style, unless it be in the last two symphonies with their cyclical structure. To Widor's influence can be credited the use of the symphonic form itself, as well as the tremendously difficult passages with which some of the symphonies are filled. It is possible that these bristling technical difficulties would never have been written had it not been for the thorough schooling in organ technique that Vierne received at the hands of Widor. The purist may be comforted by the fact that Vierne’s symphonic writing comes closer to the classical ideal than does that of Widor. The variety and unity achieved by Vierne in the symphonies is not far removed from that demanded by the thorough-going classicist. Vierne has truly built upon the foundation provided by the Widor symphonies, and his own personal manner of expression has given his work an individuality and a breadth of vision that are lacking in the Widor works. The organ symphonies of Louis Vierne represent a substantial and valuable contribution to modern organ literature because of their own intrinsic value; because they are the well-considered works of one of the preeminent members of the modern French organ school, and because they represent the vision and the work of an organist directly descended through one of the finest lines of schooling. As for their permanence in the repertoire, it remains for time and for capable organists to say.--Conclusion.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License. Copyright held by author.