Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Widor - Organ Symphony No. 5 In F Minor, Opus 42

The meaning of a word or phrase can change over time, with the word symphony being an example.  A word with Greek roots, the meaning within ancient music referred to sounds that were consonant, that is, sounds that were pleasing to the ear. This meaning also went through many changes, with one being used to describe a musical instrument, especially one that could make more than one sound at the same time.  In the eighteenth century the word became to define a form of music that was written for an ensemble of many instruments, as Classical era composers lead by Haydn and Mozart codified what became to be known as a symphony.

But the changing of the definition did not remain static. Beethoven expanded the symphony to include more movements and even voices within the form.  Symphonies that more or less follow the basic principles of the form are still written, but there is much more freedom in form. 

The symphony for solo instrument is a style of writing that gives the impression of many instruments. Charles Alkan, French pianist and composer of the 19th century wrote what must be one of the first symphonies for solo instrument, in this case the piano, in 1857. Alkan's symphony is in his set of 12 Etudes In All The Minor Keys and is comprised of etudes 4-7, and while the composer wrote very much in a symphonic style, it takes a little effort on the listener's part to imagine the piano as an orchestra. 

Leading the renaissance of organ building in France in the 19th century was Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, whose family had been organ builders. He was an innovator that worked with composers to create a new type of Romantic organ that was capable of new sonorities and mixtures of sound. These organs with new designs and voices inspired French composers of the time to write music that would take advantage of them.

Widor was the composer that was the most prolific in the writing of oprgan symphonies as he wrote ten from 1872 until 1900. He was the organist at Saint-Sulpice in Paris that has Cavaillé-Coll's masterpiece, an instrument with five keyboards, 100 stops and 66,000 pipes. Cavaillé-Coll renovated and added to an existing organ that was built in the 18th century.

The impact of the French Romantic symphonic organ on composers was tremendous. Many French composers were also organists such as Camille Saint-Saëns, Gabriel Fauré, César Franck,, and many others. The organs of Cavaillé-Coll were subject to the changes of taste in the 20th century as a return to the sonorities of the Baroque style organ brought about by the organ reform movement in Germany. Some of his organs were changed to reflect this change, but the grand organ of St. Suplice in Paris remains essentially as the builder left it, as it had many qualities of the Baroque style organ retained during its makeover.

Organ Symphony No. 5 is in 5 movements:

I. Allegro vivace -  In the preface to one of the editions of the organ symphonies, Widor wrote:
Such is the modern organ, essentially symphonic. A new instrument requires a new language, another ideal rather than scholastic polyphony...It is when I felt the vibrations of the 6,000 pipes of the St. Suplice organ under my hands and feet that I began my first organ symphonies.
So it was Widor's intention from the start to create something new. And it was also Cavaillé-Coll's intent to have Widor become the organist at St. Suplice. The builder used his influence to help Widor get the training he needed so he could become the organist to realize the potential of his masterwork organ. As Widor's family were also organ builders that knew Cavaillé-Coll, it appears it was preordained for Widor to get the position. And once he had it, he kept it from 1870-1933.

Widor begins the symphony with a theme and variations movement instead of one in sonata form. There are a few variations on this theme, followed by a section with different material somewhat in contrast to the main theme. The next section develops the main theme, and leads to a restatement of the main theme with the full organ.

II. Allegro cantabile - A gentle accompaniment plays to the solo of an oboe stop that is joined a little later by a flute. The theme is repeated and slightly varied as the flute continues its commentary. A middle section is in different registration and mood until the oboe and the main theme return.

III. Andantino quasi allegretto -  The pedal begins the movement and plays an important part in keeping the music moving forward. The music has crescendo marks in the score, something that the symphonic organ could do by the aid of shutters that closed and opened around the pipes to decrease or increase the volume.  This feature, as well as the overall quality of sound and variety of stops, makes Romantic pipe organ music mostly unplayable on older organs. The important pedal part plays itself out and reverts to a simple accompaniment at the end.

IV. Adagio - Written in C major, this movement is the shortest of the five and travels in a slow mood and in a few keys before it ends in C major as it began.

V. Toccata - Widor wrote in many other genres besides organ music, and was an accomplished orchestrator, having written a book on instrumentation. But this is the piece that he is most well known. It is a favorite encore for organists and is used as a ceremonial piece, as in royal weddings. It consists of staccato sixteenth notes in the right hand throughout, with accent chords in the left hand. The theme itself, more like a motive than a melody, is in the pedals and played by the feet. it is in triple forte for most of its length, although effective use is made of volume variances in the middle of the piece when the music shifts from F major to D major. It has been recorded countless times, all too often at too fast of a tempo. The score calls for quarter note = 118, and since the music is in 4/2 time, the tempo is brisk to be sure, but shouldn't be excessive. But it makes an impression as a showoff piece at a rapid tempo, although the harmonic progression can be blurred because of that.

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