1870 - 1937
Born almost completely blind and with extremely poor eyesight despite an eye operation, Vierne was encouraged to pursue a career in music when a musician uncle discovered his musical talent. A pupil of César Franck in private lessons, he joined his class in the Conservatoire in 1890, the year of Franck’s death. He then became the pupil of Franck’s successor, Charles-Marie Widor, and two years later became his substitute at the Saint-Sulpice organ loft. He left this post in 1900, when he was appointed tenured organist of the Cavaillé-Coll of Notre-Dame de Paris. His personal life was a long series of hardships, but his career brought him great joy. A highly respected professor, teacher at the Conservatoire, then at the Schola Cantorum, he found in Marcel Dupré and Maurice Duruflé his most remarkable pupils. Above all, however, alongside his elder Alexandre Guilmant, he was the first organist to give real recitals. His fame reached as far as the United States and he died at his Notre-Dame loft, struck down by a heart attack, while he was giving his one thousand seven hundred and fiftieth concert, on June 2, 1937.
Just as with Widor, his master and mentor, his inspiration is intimately linked with the Cavaillé-Coll instruments and he was able, more than anyone else, to tease out their full range of tones and dynamic. Of the traditional organ forms – prelude and fugue, choral or toccata –, Vierne preferred two areas where his sensitivity could find its fullest expression: the symphony, much in the same vein as Widor, and the free piece, a pure poetic outpouring more in tune with the sensibilities of Franck.
Vierne wrote six symphonies for the organ, between 1899 and 1930. Their respective keys climb one by one up the steps of the scale : D minor, E minor, F sharp minor, G minor, A minor, B minor. A seventh and last symphony, in C, would have completed the Vierne series were he not, due to ill health, forced to abandon the work.
In this activity, Vierne’s work was the perfect transition to Widor’s : his Première Symphonie was completed in 1899 just as Romane, Widor’s tenth and last, would emerge the following year. Displaying all his master’s qualities of orchestral grandeur, instrumental brilliance, an ability to shape vast structures and an intimate bond with the Cavaillé-Coll instruments, Vierne would add a more dynamic and original harmony (whose chromatism drew heavily from Franck), a deeper structural cohesion and, above all, his poète maudit (accursed poet) sensibility.
This pessimism, which nonetheless did little to diminish a very profound religious faith, finds its most affecting expression in the slow movements that Vierne generally placed in the fourth or penultimate position, from the Andante rêveur in his Première Symphonie to the chromatic and painful Adagio of his Sixième and the sublime Adagio in his Troisième.
Composed from 1902-1903, Symphony no. 2 was the first great work that Vierne would compose for the organ of Notre-Dame. It drew the good graces of a critic who was often harsh, and who one would not imagine was necessarily enamoured with the organ: Claude Debussy. The author of La Mer made this note in his Gil Blas review dated February 23: “Last Saturday, the Société nationale gave its 308th concert […]. We were treated to something very interesting; it was here that on Saturday we heard extracts from a symphony for the organ by M. Vierne, where a most generous of musicality was united with ingenious inspiration drawn from the unique tone of this instrument. A certain J.-S. Bach, our kindred father, would have been very pleased with M. Vierne.”
In his Deuxième Symphonie Vierne expresses a joy not present in any other symphony, not even in the sixth and last, composed in 1930 in the “sweet” town of Menton. During its composition, Vierne was enjoying rare years of true happiness. Newly appointed to the Notre-Dame loft, recently married and expecting his second son, he saw a life full of promise open up in front of him. An entirely different fate was in store: a bad fall on a worksite in 1906, which almost cost him his right leg, marked the beginning of a long series of ordeals.
All the symphonies are in minor keys, which immediately instils them with a sombre feeling. Right from the thundering Allegro maestoso which opens the Troisième Symphonie, perhaps the most accomplished of Vierne’s triumphs, this solemnity is apparent. The six symphonies are in five movements, organised around a lighter, central piece. In the Troisième, it is the Intermezzo fantomatique, a disembodied dance at the outer limits of atonality. The more we progress through the symphonies, the more this medial movement lays bare its bitterness, without losing any of its spirit; and in the Sixième Symphonie, it becomes a truly diabolical scherzo. As for the final sections that crown these structures, they too refuse to succumb to the “happy endings” that one might generally expect from such places. The scale, inspiration and virtuosity are always gripping. Vierne yearned passionately for the light. But often it would only appear veiled.
Alongside these colossal scores, Vierne brought two series of twenty-four pieces to the organ, each one exploring the twenty-four major and minor keys.
Vingt-quatre Pièces en style libre (1913) focussed solely on the manual keyboards, deriving their beauty from expression rather than from pure virtuosity. Here we can find the famous Berceuse, the exquisite harmonisation of Dodo, l’enfant do.
In contrast, the Pièces de fantaisie , created between 1926-1927, require highly skilled performers. You would have to look to Debussy, and his Préludes pour piano (composed around 1910), to find a similar range of emotions and sounds. Grouped into four sets of six, the Pièces de fantaisie are home to many familiar themes: Naïades and its fascinating undulations, the extravagant Feux follets, the melancholy Etoile du soir, the tousled Toccata and the Carillon de Westminster, where the famous Big Ben motif beats out a powerful procession towards its grand finale. In its hieratic grandeur, Cathédrales is a clear homage to Notre-Dame de Paris, as is the strange Gargouilles et Chimères ; but this last piece calls up the cathedral in a wholly different way, “as though Quasimodo were skulking about in its lofty passageways”, to use Gilles Cantagrel’s image.
Vierne’s legacy also includes less well known works for the organ: youth pieces, a Messe basse (1912), a Messe basse pour les défunts (1934) and the Triptyque which brought together three very expressive pieces (1929-1931).
The organ also played its role in the magnificent Messe solennelle en ut dièse for two organs and a mixed choir (1900), in which Vierne celebrated taking up his role at Notre-Dame, in three motets (Ave Maria for choir and organ, Ave verum for tenor and organ, Tantum ergo for choir and organ), and in Marche triomphale du centenaire de Napoléon Ier, for the organ, three trumpets, three trombones and timpani, written in 1921 at the Conservatoire de Paris.
Generally eclipsed by his organ music, Vierne’s remaining work (two-thirds of his output!) nonetheless reveals pages full of passion, particularly a number of cycles of pieces for the piano, a violin and piano sonata, a cello and piano sonata, a symphony and melodies inspired by poets such as Verlaine, Baudelaire, Gautier, Hugo and Anna de Noailles. Aside from his organ music, his masterpiece however is perhaps the extremely moving Quintette avec piano en ut mineur (1918), created during a tragic period for Vierne, when he suffered greatly with his eyes and lost first his brother and then his son.