Program to air on Thursday 8 October at 1pm
Written by Rex Burgess
The origins of the French organ tradition can be traced back to a certain Jean Titelouze (c.1563-1633). Priest, scholar, performer and composer, his two collections of organ music from the 1620s set in train a great outpouring from organ composer-performers in France which has continued right up to the present day.
By no means least amongst the cavalcade of names – from the Couperins to Messiaen and beyond – is that of Louis Vierne. Born in 1870, he had congenital cataracts to an extent which nowadays would be called legally blind. Nonetheless, such was his musical ability that he was already tinkering at the piano at the age of two. Vierne attended the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (The National Institute for Blind Children), where he learnt harmony, piano and violin as well as Braille. In 1890 he entered the Paris Conservatoire, going on to serve as assistant organist to Charles Widor at the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris. Then in 1900 he became principal organist at Notre-Dame cathedral, a post he held until his death in 1937.
Vierne started composing at an early age, with his visual impairment obliging him to use outsized manuscript paper and “a large pencil”, as his colleague Marcel Dupré recounted. Later in life, as his sight continued to diminish, he resorted to composing in Braille.
His personal life was both physically and emotionally difficult, with severe spiritual trials that are reflected in his music: Vierne was deeply affected by his separation and subsequent divorce from his wife, as well as the deaths of his brother René and his son Jacques, who were killed in battle in World War I.
Besides his great skills as a performer and improviser, Vierne was also an important composer in several genres. He composed an orchestral symphony, vocal and choral music, and a number of substantial but neglected chamber works, including a violin sonata and piano quintet. He did place, however, a particular emphasis on his own instrument. Most notable amongst Vierne’s compositions is a set of six symphonies for organ composed between 1899 and 1930. Monumental in style, they have been described as reflective of the immense and decorated architecture of his beloved Notre-Dame cathedral. Interestingly, in 2003, a German progressive rock group recorded a composition which “rearranges moments of an organ symphony” by Vierne, regarding its pomp and power as a forerunner to rock’n’roll.
Jeremy Filsell recounted Vierne’s final moments, a recital at Notre-Dame on 2 June 1937: “He was … given a theme (in Braille) on which to improvise, decided which stops to use but suddenly wavered as a pedal note sounded. Placing his hand over his heart, he fell and died there and then of a stroke.” His wish to die at the console of the Notre-Dame organ was thus fulfilled. A spiritual ending for a man to whom music had been the absolution from life’s trials.
This October, we commemorate 150 years since Vierne’s birth. 18 months on from the fire in the Notre-Dame, and in a year where even ecclesiastical music has been silenced, we too can find solace in Vierne’s music and look forward to the days when church organs and choirs ring out again.