Louis Vierne, Symphony nr. 1, Prélude | Secrets of Organ Playing Contest, Week 91

This is my entry for the Secrets of Organ Playing Contest, week 91. I play the first part, Prélude, from Vierne's first symphony in d minor, opus 14.


Louis Vierne was one of the great organists and composers of the French Romantic style. Other notable members of this 'school' are Césat Franck, Vierne's mentor Charles Marie Widor and Vierne's pupil Maurice Duruflé. The music of these organists and composers was inspired by the magnificent instruments build by Aristide Cavaillé Coll. Widor was organist at the famous instrument in the Saint Sulpice in Paris, while Vierne became the organist at the Cavaillé Coll organ in the Notre Dame. Ues, that's the same instrument that was miraculously saved from destruction by the fire in the Notre Dame last year.

The instruments of Cavaillé Coll were in conception much more 'orchestral' than instruments build before. These new sounds from these organs led to a whole new style of writing organ music, much more colourfull and orchestral than before. Widor was the first one to take the analogy of Cavaillé Coll's instruments to an orchestra literally and started writing symphonies for his instrument. He wrote in total 10 symphonies and developped the genre to great heights.

It was Vierne however, who took over and pushed the genre to the emotional and intellectual limit of what was possible on the great organs of Cavaiilé-Coll. If there ever is an example of a pupil surpassing his teacher, it is the example of Widor and his student Vierne.

Vierne composed his first symphony in 1898 - 1899. Widor wrote his tenth and last symphonie in 1898. Widor probably knew that this first symphony of his pupil surpassed anything he himself had written in the genre before. Although he lived for nearly 40 years (till 1937) after his own tenth symphony and Vierne's first, he never wrote another one.

And this first symphony of Vierne is not even his best one.

Vierne's first symphony consists of 6 movements. Of these 6 parts, the final is movement known and most often played. It is a typical finale, conceived as a French Toccata, a rousing and vibrant. It has been played for this contest by @contrabourdon and @iwan2believe. The most beautiful movement however, in my opinion, is the first movement, the Prélude. Vierne uses his chromatic and refined harmonic language to create a piece of music that is deeply moving and satifying to play.

Using no more than one simple motive, Vierne builds a large structure that ranges dynamically from very soft, to very loud. He makes full use if the tonal colours of the French Romantic organ and the possibility it offers to create diminuendi and crescendi. I particularly love how after all the drama in this first movement Vierne returns in the last eight bars to an almost simple canon between right hand and pedal with the main melodic motif. With the left hand on the Récit, the right hand on the Positif coupled to the Récit, it is almost like someone acquiescing in his fate. When I play this piece, I know those eight bars are coming, I look forward to it, because they never fail to move me deeply. Which is why is is terribly difficult to play them wihout error. Also, in this perfomance, I make a bit of the mess of the last three bars, most noteably a few extra notes and because of the shock of that mistake I forgot to lift the first left hand closing chord.... However, the rest of the performance is, I think, actually quite good, and you'll notice the errors in the last bars only if you're familiar with the music.

So, here is it anyway.

The recording was done with the Hauptwerk software and the sampleset, made by Voxus, of the Stahlhuth/Jahn organ in the St. Martin’s church, Dudelange (https://www.voxusorgans.com/en/product/dudelange). It is not an instrument, build by Cavaillé-Coll, Yet is is build in the tradition Cavaillé-Coll set and very suitable for the French Romantic organ music.


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