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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous

In Church with Widor

by the editorial staff of The American Organist magazine

This article, which appeared in the August 2005 edition of The American Organist magazine, is reprinted with the kind permission of the editor, Anthony Baglivi.

Widor at the Saint-Sulpice organ On the feast of the Assumption ... the afternoon service in Saint-Sulpice ended with a Laudate Dominum by Gounod. When the last echo of the chancel organ had died away, Widor took six notes from the final line of the Gounod music and announced them boldly in octaves with full organ, both manuals and pedal, and then followed such improvisation as I has never heard before and have seldom heard since, not even by himself (Widor). Those who know him only by his symphonies, brilliant as they are, can form no idea of the wonderful force, brilliancy, and spontaneity of his improvisations.

One day a pupil of his who did not speak much French requested me to ask him how he had learned to improvise so wonderfully. Widor promptly replied: "By writing. When I stop writing I cease to be able to extemporize well."

S. Wesley Sears, August 15, 1904

The only extending form of improvising I heard him do was the toccata form — something like his famous Toccata in F. He always brought the music to two climaxes of power during the piece, and I could never describe to you the thrill of those mixtures and the smooth 32' pedal reed — and he ended softly. He usually employed a Gregorian theme from the liturgy of the Mass.

Edward Shippen Barnes, 1921

He was in great form ... improvising on the Gregorian tones of the Mass being sung at the other end of the church, playing a Bach fugue at the offertory, and finally at the close of the service turning the full power of the organ loose in a brilliant toccata improvised on the phrases which he had just heard from the choir. I had never before heard a master improvise. It seemed incredible at the time, and although I soon learned that improvisation had reached a high plane among French organists, Widor's feats, even now, still seem incredible, not because they were spectacular, but because they were such profoundly good music.

Alexander Russell, 1907

The postlude at the close of the service was generally an improvisation on one of the plainsong themes of the day. Widor was one of the greatest of improvisers, and on several occasions I have heard him improvise movements of such splendor as to rival the greatest movements of his symphonies.

A.M. Henderson, 1937

He played ... one of his nine symphonies. It was gloriously beautiful. The organ is the largest in Paris, with five keyboards, and in the chancel there was a choir of two hundred men. The music is still throbbing in my head and vibrating all through me — the long swelling chords, the low deep tones, the blending voices, the chanting priests, the incense, the light, the holiness of it all! I shall remember this morning always.

Florence Adele Sloan, Sunday, May 13, 1894

The choir and gorgeously robed priests were filing in ... and the small organ in the choir already in full blast. Then a priest intoned a few words, and suddenly the great instrument all about us crashed and thundered, lifting one clear off one's feet and removing all sense of gravity. Then the organ down in the choir answered, and again Widor pressed down the five banks of keys and we were riven with vast peals of sound. The ritual proceeded at the altar, while organ answered to organ, rumbling and rolling through the long nave and wafting up into the one hundred-and-eighty-foot arches of the clerestory. The music was all Gregorian, upon the tones of which Widor harmonized freely.

The Mass ended, the priests and choir formed a sort of recessional, a sortie it is called, and Widor began ... a canon or plainsong moving along in the midst of swirling arpeggios of the left and righ hands alternately. I looked at the pedals, for the air moved along as majestically as if double octaves were being played: but no, the pedal was occupied solely with foundation work. I looked again at his hands in amazement, for the rippling fingers were carrying four-octave arpeggios and that powerful air must come from somewhere! And then I saw that the wonderful hands were not only carrying the whirling arpeggios but also supporting one another in giving out the legato theme of the piece. Always the right or left thumb or forefinger would pass along the note amid the rush of the figuration. And then the sonorous pedal trumpets took it up, but the hands merely added a counterpoint besides the rollicking arpeggios rolling up from the bass, six notes to the beat! And all this was a mere improvisation — harmony and all. I looked at the author of it expecting to see Promethean fire starting from his brows. He was simply calm and earnest about it, and now and then found time to drop a word to a friend seated at his side.

Warren H. Miller, 1910

Copyright © 2005 The American Guild of Organists.
Reprinted by permission of The American Organist Magazine.

While the wondrous improvisatory skill, the huge five-manual pipe organ, and the 200-voice choir may not be present in our sanctuaries, we must remember that we are part of that very same Catholic Church which impelled Widor on his monumental musical inspirations. The ritual, the liturgy, and most especially the chant are exactly the same as empowered Charles-Marie Widor in the Parisian Church of Saint-Sulpice at the turn of the 20th century.

Be proud of your tradition! Hold fast to the music that has endured and which continues to inspire musicians and faithful Catholics in liturgy. However meager our musical contributions may be, particularly when compared to those of Widor, we must make them boldly, prayerfully, and in continuity with a host of holy organists who have served the Church well. They deserve our admiration, our gratitude and even our imitation, to whatever degree possible. Play well! Play proudly! Widor is listening.

— Gary D. Penkala, 2005

See the CNP articles: Pipe Organ on the Net
and Chants Occurence

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