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Charles-Marie Widor (Composer)

Widor was born in Lyon, France 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-Nicolas Lemmens for organ technique and with Francois-Joseph Fetis, director of the Brussels Conservatoire for composition.

In 1870, with the combined lobbying of Cavaille-Coll, Charles Gounod and Camille Saint-Saens, the 26-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; he later gave up his post in organ to become 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 (The Vatican City, Rome). This piece is simply known as "Widor's Toccata". Although the Fourth Symphony also opens with a Toccata, it is in a dramatically different (and earlier) style. The Toccata from Symphony No. 5 is the first of the toccatas characteristic of French Romantic organ music, and served as a model for later works by Boellmann, Mulet, and Dupre. 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. Many organists play it at speed whereas Widor preferred a more controlled articulation to be involved. He recorded the piece, along with his Symphony Gothique at St. Sulpice in his eighty-eighth year. The tempo chosen for the Toccata is extraordinarily slow; whether this is his actual preference, or merely the result of very advanced old age, is unknown.

Widor had several students in Paris who were to become famous composers and organists in their own right, most notably Louis Vierne, Charles Tournemire, Darius Milhaud (who was to later strongly influence jazz pianist Dave Brubeck), Marcel Dupre, Alexander Schreiner, and Edgard Varese. Albert Schweitzer studied with him, especially from 1899, and master and pupil collaborated on an annotated edition of J. S. Bach's organ works published in 1912-14: Widor, whose own master Lemmens was an important Bach exponent, encouraged Schweitzer's theological exploration of Bach's religious music. 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 its 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 sixty years, as many as eight different editions were issued for some of the symphonies." (ref. Near)

Widor's organ works include: ten Organ Symphonies, three Symphonies for orchestra with organ, Suite Latine, Trois Nouvelles Pieces, and six arrangements of works by Bach under the title Bach's Memento (1925). The organ symphonies are his most significant contribution to the organ repertoire.

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 its nadir during the nineteenth 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 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 organs built by Eberhard Friedrich Walcker and 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.

With the Opus 42 symphonies, Widor shows his mastery and refinement of his contrapuntal technique, while exploring to the fullest the capabilities of the Cavaille-Coll organs for which these works were written. The Fifth Symphony has five movements, the last of which is the famous Toccata. The Sixth Symphony is also famous for its opening movement. The Seventh and Eighth Symphonies are the longest and most obscure of Widor's Symphonies. The Seventh Symphony contains six movements, and the Eighth Symphony has seven.

The ninth and tenth symphonies, respectively termed "Gothique" (Op. 70, of 1895) and "Romane" (Op. 73, of 1900), are much more introspective. They both derive thematic material from plainchant. The second movement of the Symphonie Gothique, entitled "Andante sostenuto", is one of Widor's most-beloved pieces. The third movement of Symphonie Romane is entitled Cantilene and is the only piece in his symhonies and possibly all his Organ works to be written on 4 staves. In general, however, although these symphonies are considered to represent the pinnacle of Widor's development as a composer, they are not as well-known as the fifth and sixth symphonies.

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