Program for March 3, 2017

Dr. William Sullivan opens the weekly series for the spring with a program entitled When Widor met Wagner. This program will consist of:

Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde – Richard Wagner (1813-1883) transcribed by Archer Gibson (1875-1952)

Organ Symphony No. 10, op. 73 “Romane” – Charles Marie Widor (1844-1937)

  • I. Moderato
  • II. Choral
  • III. Cantilène
  • IV. Finale


The two works on this program may seem an odd pairing. Actually, Wagner’s opera Tristan and Widor’s venerable Romane organ symphony have more in common than you may imagine.

Music was only one component of Richard Wagner’s ideal of a Gesamtkunstwerk, an artistic creation synthesized from multiple disciplines, including music, literature, the visual arts, ballet, and architecture. Wagner’s mature operas are so distinct in this way that they are often referred to as “music dramas,” to delineate his esthetic goals from those of his more traditional contemporaries. At the same time, he was not adverse to extracting orchestral pieces from the operas and performing them as stand-alone works. A number of these, such as the Liebestod, made their way into the organ library, such as the transcription we hear today by Archer Gibson. In the earlier decades of the 20th century, it was fashionable for millionaires to have large pipe organs in their homes and Gibson was widely sought after and paid quite handsomely to provide command performances for the Sloanes, Schwabs, Fricks, Tiffanys, Vanderbilts, and Rockefellers.

The largest part of Widor’s works for organ are the ten “symphonies”. Both the genre and the use of the orchestral term for that genre originated with him, although one could make a case that there is a vestigial influence here and there from the organ suites that were a ubiquitous portion of earlier 18th-century French organ literature. The first eight symphonies were published in two sets, 1872-87 and followed a sequence of keys beginning with C Minor. Unlike the traditional orchestral symphony of four movements, these had five to eight movements, and Widor himself referred to his earlier efforts as “collections” or “suites.” They started big and ended big and exhibited more-or-less predictable key relationships and occasional thematic relationships between movements. The seventh and eighth are quite massive and elaborately worked out, showing closer affinity to what one may expect in a late romantic orchestral symphony. We can find instances of Beethoven’s piano style (as well as Schumann’s) in Widor’s thematic approach and in the use of certain techniques (e.g., enharmonic interpolation), yet nowhere is there evidence of an attempt to transfer the Beethovenian symphonic architecture to the organ in whole.

This all changed in 1895 and 1900 when Widor published two more symphonies, in which the composer came to terms with a traditional four-movement structure that we associate with the term “symphony.” Although the sequence of keys continued (we have traversed the scale and are back to C-minor and D-Major), the numbering did not, out of respect for Beethoven’s ninth. Instead, they were given titles after the architectural style of the two churches to which they were dedicated and in which the Parisian organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll had installed the two greatest instruments of his last years: the gothic abbey church of Saint-Ouen, Rouen, whose organ Widor inaugurated in 1890, and the romanesque basilica of Saint-Sernin, Toulouse. Curiously, both organs have peculiarities that prevent these two symphonies from being played on them exactly as written.

By means of thematic fragmentation, derivation and transformation, the Gregorian Easter gradual, Haec dies quam fecit Dominus (“This is the day the Lord hath made”) weaves its way throughout fabric of the first, second, and fourth movements of the Romane. The third movement is much like a contemplative improvisation on the Easter sequence Victimae paschali laudes (“Praises to the paschal Victim”). The magnificent Finale reprises the Haec Dies theme as well as material from the other three movements, almost like Leitmotifs from a Wagner opera, which brings us to an external reference that permeates the entire work, at times almost disturbingly: Tristan und Isolde. Widor knew Wagner’s operas very well and was one of the few French musicians to attend the premiere of Der Ring des Nibelungen (the “Ring” cycle) at Bayreuth in 1876. When Wagner’s music finally became the rage in Paris in the following decade, it was said that one could hear dozens of love-deaths and Valkyrie rides emanating from the opera houses of the same city that shut down Tannhäuser after three performances back in 1859 because Wagner defied tradition by placing the traditional ballet in Act I instead of Act II.

We can only speculate in what way Widor consciously or unconsciously made a semantic connotation between plain-chant from the Roman liturgy commemorating the Resurrection of Christ with Isolde’s “love-death” transfiguration. Widor was a man of refined culture and education; there must have been more to it than the fact that he was just mimicking something within his grab because it sounded interesting. Nevertheless, the result is profound, thought-provoking, sublime, and unforgettable.

For the musicologists in the audience, the composer and I are aware of the fact that the versions of the Gregorian chants quoted in the Romane follow the Parisian Graduale rather than the 1896 Liber Ursualis in which the scholars of the Abbey of Saint-Pierre de Solesmes re-established the medieval readings proclaimed official by Pope Pius X in 1903. The discrepancies are relatively minor.

Wm. S.

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