If Louis Vierne (1870-1937) wrote his Organ Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 20, to be a rigorous workout for the organist using a fairly conventional sonata form, it stands today as a fin de siècle masterwork (composed 1902-1903) not only for that reason, but also because it stretches Wagnerian excess and chromaticism to a few breaking points. The opening Allegro presents an important dotted-eighth-note theme in a robust E minor (which returns at least once in the Final movement) with the more subdued ebb and flow of the second theme in the relative major. The development is ordinary enough until it introduces a series of odd ascending modal scales that lead to a high trill, signaling the recapitulation. An almost cacophonous progression of thick chords continues to the end of the movement, which includes a grandiose closing section in which the first and second themes are played simultaneously.
More surprises occur in the second movement, which begins harmonically far away with a chorale in A-flat major (and a distinctive rhythm – quarter note, dotted quarter note, eighth note, quarter note – which returns in the Final). An Agitato contrasting section in A-flat minor takes over, emphasizing triple meter. After a truncated return of the opening chorale with its contrasting duple meter, the Agitato suddenly becomes more intricate in a highly chromatic C minor, eventually overlapping both the triple and duple meter textures. This leads to a loud coda that pulls the listener in an entirely different direction, with the melody from the beginning returning in the highest voice. But this time its distinctive rhythmic values are slowed down (much like Lizst’s method of thematic transformation).
The brisk triple meter of the Scherzo produces shimmering ripples with a definite hypnotic effect, with a lyrical melody emerging in the pedals.
A thorny Cantabile, saturated with Wagnerian motivic development, chromatic harmony, and an equally chromatic melody that cuts through it, serves as the penultimate movement, beginning in G-sharp minor and ending in C-sharp major.
After an opening fanfare, the Final develops the rhythm of the second movement, digressing along the way into sinuous and dense chromatic passages. Eventually, the first theme from the first movement is also heard, presented as before (first in the right hand, then in the pedals). The two ideas are then played simultaneously as if in a contest of leitmotivs, with the second movement’s rhythm prevailing. The melodic motives (including the opening fanfare) play dramatically out of a thick chromatic texture, and are developed all the way to the conclusion of the piece.
— Gregg Wager is a composer and critic. He is author of Symbolism as a Compositional Method in the Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen and High and Low Culture Since 1975. He has a PhD in musicology from the Free University Berlin and a JD from McGeorge School of Law.