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"Toccata - From Symphony No. 5"

Composed by Charles Marie Widor


Widor was born in Lyon to a family of organ-builders, and initially studied music there with his father, who was an organist himself. The French organ builder Aristide Cavaille-Coll, reviver of the art of organ-building, was a friend of the Widor family: he arranged for the talented young organist to study in Brussels, with Jacques Lemmens for organ technique and with Francois-Joseph Fetis, director of the Brussels Conservatoire for composition.

St. Sulpice

In 1870, with the combined lobbying of Cavaille-Coll, Charles Gounod and Camille Saint-Saens, the 24-year-old Widor was appointed as organist of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, the most prominent position for a French organist. The organ at St-Sulpice was Cavaille-Coll's masterwork; the instrument's spectacular capabilities proved an inspiration to Widor. Widor remained as organist at St. Sulpice for 64 years until the end of 1933. He was succeeded in 1934 by his former student Marcel Dupre. Meanwhile, in 1890 he succeeded Cesar Franck as organ professor at the Paris Conservatoire, where he also became composition professor in 1896. Widor's best-known single piece for the organ is the final movement, Toccata, from his Symphony for Organ No. 5, which is often played as a recessional at wedding ceremonies and even at the close of the Christmas Midnight Mass at Saint Peter's Basilica. When an organist hears a reference to "the Widor", he instantly knows the speaker is referring to the Toccata from Symphony #5. Widor was pleased with the world-wide renown this single piece afforded him, but he was unhappy with how fast many other organists played it. Widor himself always played the Toccata rather deliberately. He recorded the piece, along with his Symphony Gothique at St. Sulpice in his eighty-eighth year.

St. Sulpice

Widor had several students in Paris who were to become famous composers in their own right, most notably Darius Milhaud, Marcel Dupre and Edgar Varese. He wrote music himself for a wide variety of instruments and ensembles (some of his songs for voice and piano are especially notable) and composed four operas and a ballet, but only his works for organ are played with any regularity today. Widor showed no interest in breaking new ground by stretching tonality to his limits, as many of his colleagues did. However, his music is not unoriginal or dull. Much of it is tremendously effective in the most idiomatic way for the organ, but it offers few startling surprises.

Over his career Widor returned again and again to edit his earlier music, even after publication. His biographer John Near reports "Ultimately, it was discovered that over a period of about 60 years, as many as eight different editions were issued for some of the symphonies." (ref. Near) Widor's organ works include: 10 Symphonies, Suite Latine, Trois Nouvelles Pieces, and six arrangements of works by Bach under the title Bach's Memento (1925). The symphonies are his most significant contribution to the organ repertoire.

St. Sulpice interior

St. Sulpice interior

St. Sulpice organ case

St. Sulpice interior

It seems unusual to assign the term "symphony" to a work written for one instrument. However, Widor was at the forefront of a revival in French organ music, which had sunk to a low point during the 18th century. A prime mover in this revival was Aristide Cavaille-Coll, who pioneered a new organ that was "symphonic" in style. The organ of the Baroque and Classical periods was designed to project a clear and crisp sound capable of handling contrapuntal writing. Cavaille-Coll's organs had a much warmer sound, ideal for the more homophonic style of writing that now predominated, and a vast array of stops that extended the timbre of the instrument. This new style of organ with a truly orchestral range of voicing encouraged composers to write music that was truly symphonic in scope. (This trend was not limited to France, and was reflected in Germany by the works of Franz Liszt, Julius Reubke, and Max Reger.)

Widor's symphonies can be divided into three groups. The first four symphonies comprise Op. 13 (1872) and are more properly termed "suites" (Widor himself called them "collections".) They represent Widor's early style. Widor made later revisions to the earlier symphonies. Some of these revisions were quite extensive. The early symphonies show great variety in writing, but neither the individual movements nor the symphonies themselves compare to his later works.

St. Sulpice organ console

The second group of symphonies, Symphonies 5-8, are part of Op. 42 (1878-87). The Fifth Symphony has five movements and closes with the famous Toccata. The opening movement of the Sixth Symphony is also very famous. The Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, while not very well known, contain some truly remarkable and exciting moments, and are by far the longest of Widor's Symphonies, employing the full scope of sonorities of which Cavaille-Coll's organ at St-Sulpice was capable.

The ninth and tenth symphonies, respectively termed "Gothique" (opus 70 of 1895) and "Romane" (opus 73 of 1900), are much more introspective. They both derive thematic material from plainchant. Although these symphonies are considered to represent the pinnacle of Widor's development as a composer, they are not as famous as the fifth and sixth symphonies.

St. Sulpice organ stoplist and history:

recorded/sequenced via computer on the Reuter opus #822 pipe organ, December 26, 2009

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