French Symphonic Works
French Symphonic Works
French Symphonic Works


S. Wayne Foster, organ

  • Widor: Sixième Symphonie en sol mineur
    (op. 42, no. 2) I. Allegro

  • Dupré: Vêpres du commun des fêtes de la Sainte Vierge (op. 18, 1920) III. Six versets du Magnificat

  • Tournemire: Fantaisie-Improvisation sur l'Ave Maris Stella (reconstructed by Maurice Duruflé)

  • Vierne: Troisième Symphonie en fa dièse mineur (op. 28, 1911):
    I. Allegro Maestoso III. Intermezzo
    V. Final

  • Langlais: Trois Poèmes évangéliques (1932) La Nativité

  • Dupré: Deuxième Symphonie, en ut dièse mineur (op. 26, 1929) Preludio

About the music:

In music written for the pipe organ, the majestic style of the French Symphonic School stands out as a favorite among organists and audiences alike. Although brilliant toccatas and massive organ symphonies play the dominant role in this genre, this recording, an overview of French Symphonic organ music, also includes reconstructed improvisations and chant-based compositions. The four manual, 71-rank Ontko & Young pipe organ (1992), while built to serve all styles of repertoire, is particularly well-suited to this music given its extremely large and effective double swell division and the numerous reed and foundation stops built after French models.

To fully understand and appreciate the qualities of this music, one cannot help but mention the famous French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811-1899), whose instruments inspired the musicians of the time to develop new ways of composing for the organ.

With the installation of Cavaillé-Coll's first important organ in the royal church of Saint-Denis just north of Paris in 1841, the stage was set for far-reaching innovation in both organ building and organ playing. Tonally, this instrument exhibited traits inherited from earlier French classical instruments, but its pneumatically-assisted key action was truly revolutionary. Cavaillé-Coll's instrument for the church of Sainte-Clotilde in Paris, where César Franck was organist, represented yet another departure from earlier styles. Built in 1859, it featured a large number of 8' foundation stops, fewer mutations and mixtures, and for the first time the Positif division included a Plein Jeu Harmonique and an Unda-Maris. The swell box was constructed in a manner which increased dynamic possibilities far beyond what was possible when this invention was introduced in the late eighteenth century by the English organ builder John Abbey. Finally, the pédales de combinaison were perfected, which enabled the organist to change registrations rapidly without the help of an assistant.

New advances in organ playing technique were introduced by the Belgian organist Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens (1823-1881), which he demonstrated to an elite group of musicians handpicked by Cavaillé-Coll in 1852 during a recital at Saint-Vincent-de-Paul in Paris. Lemmens' legato style of playing, his virtuoso pedal technique, and his note-accuracy stemming from a pianistic keyboard technique, astonished all who were present. Within fifteen years Lemmens' new school of organ playing dominated the French capitol, and his prize students Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937) and Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911) continued throughout their careers to transmit this style to future generations. The fusion of expanded organ technique with the new tonal and mechanical possibilities of Cavaillé-Coll's organs formed the foundation of the French symphonic organ tradition.

By 1890 large symphonic organs could be found all over France, and organ recitals were becoming increasingly popular musical events. Earlier in 1872 Widor published his first set of Organ Symphonies, and although he was never a disciple of Franck, he was undoubtedly influenced by Franck's Grande Pièce Symphonique. The other major musical figure in French Symphonic organ literature, Louis Vierne (1870-1937), started his studies as a pupil of Franck, but upon the latter's death, became a student of Widor. Vierne eventually composed six symphonies for organ and four suites, entitled Pièces de Fantaisie.

Further influence came with the larger instruments of Cavaillé-Coll's final period of production which started in the 1860's. Instruments such as the two Parisian giants in Notre Dame Cathedral and Saint-Sulpice exhibited even more variety of tone color, and the Plein jeu Harmonique was supplanted by more classically conceived mixtures. Perhaps most important, the Swell division became very large not only in number of stops but also in tonal importance, hence its name "grand récit symphonique". It continues to represent the most important element of the French symphonic instrument carried over to late twentieth century instruments. Thus one of the most typical sounds of the style is full Swell --16'/8'/4' reeds and mixtures -- coupled to ample 16'/8'/4' foundations on all other manuals. When the swell shades are opened and closed with this registration, a dramatic change in volume and timbre is achieved.

On an appropriately grand note, this recording starts with the first movement of Widor's Sixth Symphony. It is a solemn march; one could easily imagine it as an accompaniment to a liturgical procession down the long nave of a French cathedral.

Marcel Dupré (1886-1971) succeeded Widor as organist of Saint-Sulpice in 1934. His settings of the Magnificat verses highlight some of the more innovative sounds of the style. The first setting is played on an ethereal chorus of 8' flutes. The second setting is written in traditional counterpoint and utilizes a classical registration of a secondary mixture chorus on the swell accompanying a pedal cantus firmus played in canon on 4' reed stops. An unusual chorus of mutations and cornet stops, including the colorful Septième stop, is heard in the third setting, while the fourth setting calls for the Swell Hautbois accompanied by softer flute stops. The mysterious sound of the Swell 16' Quintaton and higher mutations dominates the fifth setting, and the final Gloria is appropriately expressed with full organ.

The reconstructed improvisation on Ave Maris Stella of Charles Tournemire (1870-1939) illustrates the rapid registration changes made possible by the symphonic instruments' technical advancements. After a serene start on flute stops, the swell reeds make their entrance masked by the 8' foundation stops of the other manuals. Exciting crescendos and decrescendos ensue, but the final phrases of each section are played on the unusual sound of the Voix Humaine, a muted reed with fast tremolo, which was a registration especially admired by Franck. The musical theme, centering around the three notes D-A-B, comes from the ancient Latin hymn Hail, O star that pointest used for the Feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The sonorities heard in Vierne's Troisième Symphonie of 1911 capture the drama and grandeur of the French Symphonic ideal. Two themes, one rhythmic and one melodic, dominate the boldly chromatic first movement. The third movement juxtaposes a rhythmic dance bordering on atonalism with a lyric melody played on the suave sounds of the Unda Maris. The last movement, a brilliant final in F-sharp minor, portrays the extreme limits of virtuosity cultivated by organists of the period.

La Nativité, from Trois Poèmes évangéliques, was composed in 1932. Jean Langlais (1907-1991), who lost his vision at age two, recalls folkloric musical themes from his childhood in this Christmas piece. Although composed as one movement, programmatic subtitles indicate multiple sections; the Stable, the Angels, the Shepherds, and the Holy Family. Langlais expresses each thought with either a particular sound of an individual organ stop, such as the nasal Cromorne for the stable and the pastoral Hautbois for the shepherds, or by employing a colorful musical theme, which for the angels is a joyous circular arpeggio played on sparkling flutes. The work concludes with a musical picture of the Holy Family, played mysteriously on the celestial sounds of soft strings.

Preludio, the first movement of Dupré's Deuxième Symphonie, provides a jolting conclusion to this recording. Dupré composed his second symphony in 1929, and Preludio is obviously a complete contrast to Widor's first movement of the Sixième Symphonie, heard at the beginning of this recording. Though quite modern for its time, Preludio exhibits several traits inherent to the French symphonic tradition as cultivated by the earlier masters. The typical dominance of the full swell sound is present, as is the highlighting of mutation sounds and Voix Célestes. The texture, however, is kaleidoscopic, tossing the listener from bombastic tuttis to transparent scherzo-like passages and ethereal legato sections. Dupré, the last of the great line of symphonic composers, and the bridge to the post-symphonic, neo-classic style, seems to be pushing the instrument, the player, and the genre, to the most extreme limits.

--S. Wayne Foster