Skip to page content

As a genre, the organ symphony is a not-uncommon case of form following function, with nomenclature lagging behind. In the 18th century, multi-movement works for solo organ were either suites (partitas) of shorter dance or liturgical pieces, or toccata (prelude) and fugue combinations, which were often in three or more distinct sections despite the bipartite name. The 19th-century organ sonatas and organ symphonies were heirs to those traditions.

The dividing line was basically the Rhine River. As a simplification, organ sonatas are German and organ symphonies are French. Solo sonatas, regardless of derivation, are readily understandable; a solo symphony is a more puzzling concept. It came about largely due to developments in organ building pioneered by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, who brought an array of new sounds and techniques to French organs, inspiring a genre of large-scale music to exploit the new resources of his instruments. Stop names adopted the names of orchestral instruments, and the division of organs into choirs of brass, woodwind, and string sounds made the organ symphony a natural idea, with the composer "orchestrating" the music just as with an ensemble.

Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937) was a pivotal exponent of this new genre. He was born in Lyons to a family of organ builders friendly with Cavaillé-Coll. On Cavaillé-Coll's recommendation, Widor went to the Brussels Conservatory, where he studied composition with François-Joseph Fétis and organ with Jacques Nicolas Lemmens, who stood in a line of teachers in direct descent from Bach. When the organist position at St. Sulpice in Paris (where Cavaillé-Coll had installed one of his greatest instruments) became open in 1870, the organ builder persuaded the church to offer Widor a one-year provisional appointment; he remained until 1934.

With a great instrument at his disposal and models such as Franck's Grande pièce symphonique, Widor began developing the organ symphony, issuing a set of four as his Op. 13 in 1872. "The modern organ is essentially symphonic," Widor said. "For this new instrument we must have a new language and a different ideal from that of scholastic polyphony."

His Sixth Organ Symphony (No. 2 of another set of four, issued as Op. 42 in 1887), was also inspired by a Cavaillé-Coll organ, but not a church instrument. For the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1878, the French government built the imposing Trocadéro with its enormous festival hall, complete with a new Cavaillé-Coll organ. The series of inaugural recitals included Widor and the premiere of the Sixth Symphony (August 24), as well as performances by Saint-Saëns, Franck, and others.

Widor cast his Sixth Symphony in a grand, five-movement arch - three bravura demonstrations in the tonic key separated by two tonally remote, lyrical introspections. The opening Allegro contrasts, then combines, an aggressive march with quicksilver streams of triplets. Widor may have disdained "scholastic polyphony," but he is not above employing canonic devices or stressing his main tune with Lisztian thematic transformations. After a dramatic semitone drop into F-sharp minor, Widor ends the movement in G major and with a characteristic cadential figure.

The Adagio is a slow reverie in B major for the organ's string sounds. A slithery solo introduces a demonstrative outburst in A-flat major, structurally parallel to the drop in the first movement.

The Intermezzo is the capstone of the arch, and an A-B-A movement itself. Breathless toccata sections surround a surprisingly placid little fugue in E-flat major. Widor again ends the movement in G major.

The Cantabile fourth movement is a sort of shepherd's song in D-flat, the melody first presented on the organ's oboe pipes. The Finale is another vigorous march, parallel to the first movment, in G major rather than G minor, although it doesn't find its tonal footing until the final page. It closes with a stentorian cadence that also echoes the first movement.

- John Henken is the Philharmonic's Director of Publications.