Charles-Marie Widor

1844 1937

Charles-Marie Widor

Composer

Biography

Charles-Marie Widor was a late 19th century organist and composer from France. He is most well-known for his works for organ, most particularly his organ symphonies. Though disregarded by the postwar generation as old-fashioned, his organ works still maintain their value.

Widor was born in 1844 in Lyons, France to parents of both Italian and Hungarian ancestry. Widor’s father and paternal grandfather were both organ builders. His father was also an organist and taught Widor his first organ lessons.

Widor’s excellent ability on the organ led him to the position of organist at the lycée in Lyons, at age 11. Upon the recommendation of Cavaillé-Coll, Widor went to study in Brussels. There he studied composition with Fétis and organ with J.-N. Lemmens, who can be traced through a direct line of teachers to J.S. Bach. Under Lemmens’ tutelage, Widor learned the traditional German interpretation of Bach’s music; he advocated for this style his whole life.

From 1860, Widor worked as the organist at St François in Lyons. He also performed regularly throughout nearby provinces until 1870. Widor received a provisional appointment at St Sulpice in Paris as the successor of Louis Lefebure-Wély. His success can be noted based on his 64 year stay there.

During the 1870s, Widor composed prolifically and in many different styles.  His first stage work was the ballet,La korrigane (1880), which was premiered very successfully at the Paris Opéra. During this time he also became a music critic forL’estafette, under the pen name ‘Aulétis’.

His activities as a conductor also gained steam with his appointment as conductor of the Concordia, a choral society specialized in oratorios. Widor eventually turned to academia, becoming the professor of organ at the Paris Conservatory in 1890, following the death of Franck. In 1896, he also took up the position of professor of composition at the school, after Théodore Dubois gave up the position to be director.

Widor was concerned with the social affairs and education of musicians beyond the school and was elected to the Académie de Beaux-Arts in 1910, where he became a permanent secretary. To support musicians who had suffered tragedy and misfortune during World War II, Widor used many of his contacts gained from his secretary position to obtain money to help them. Widor was also interested in founding a counterpart to Villa Medicis, where French artists could study Spanish culture. This became the Casa Vélazquez in Madrid, which was destroyed in the 1930s.

Widor’s performance career lasted until the age of 90, when he was succeeded by Marcel Dupré at St Sulphice. Widor died in Paris in 1937.

As a composer, Widor’s greatest works are his ten organ symphonies. With these works he was able to combine the traditional 19th century orchestral sounds with piano music. Works in particular that are representative of these styles and were used to create this new fusion include Franck’sGrande pièce symphonique  and Alkan’s Symphonie from op. 39 for piano solo. He also explored all of the sound possibilities on the Cavaillé-Coll organ from the church. Though he was greatly inspired by orchestral music, Widor was always aware of the differences between the organ and the orchestra, in the manner of orchestration.

Several of Widor’s pieces stand out, such as Op. 13 (nos. 1-4, 1872), which contains an immense range of styles. In Op. 42 (nos. 5-8, 1887), Widor shows his “intellectual force and imaginative power.”

Widor’s Fifth Organ Symphony (1879), which interestingly features a Toccato for its final movement, is currently his most frequently performed work. Contrastingly, both his seventh and eighth organ symphonies (both 1885) are commonly overlooked. This is likely due to their demanding nature, not only for the performer, but also the listener. These works challenge the aesthetic limits of the organ and feature a harshness not present in his other works.

For the opening of the Victoria Hall in Geneva, Widor was commissioned to write a symphony. In an attempt to gain international popularity, Widor leaned towards a central European style and of writing for the orchestral parts. The result was his Third Symphony (for orchestra and organ, 1894), which is modelled after Saint- Saëns’ Third Symphony. The combination of his chorale-style for the organ and the central European style does not work well in this composition.

Widor’s last two symphonies are reminiscent of the style taught by the Schola Cantorum, founded by several students of Franck, including Bordes, d’Indy and Guilmant. Both of these works use Gregorian themes in a cyclical manner.

Several other works during this time include Gothique (1895), which has an archaeic feel and style, andRomane (1900), which features components of Impressionism, such as texture, as developed by Liszt. This work is a precursor toL’orgue mystique from Tournemire.

In addition to symphonies and works for organ, Widor composed songs and chamber music for the salons, genres in which he viewed Saint-Saëns and Fauré as fierce opponents. His songs, though requiring advanced technique, are very melodious and easy to listen to. Widor’sIncantation and Contemplation feature a style similar to that of Schumann, while his settings of Hugo Wolf works are very contemporary sounding. Some of Widor’s lighter score includeLa korrigane (1880) andConte d’avril (1885), which was very popular and made available in various arrangements.

Widor’s opera, Maître Ambros (1886), received much criticism for its Wagnerian influence. It also contained many crowd scenes reminiscent of Meyerbeer. His Piano Quartet in A minor (1891) offers a more personal look into his personality and was inspired by his affair with Countess Emmanuela Potocka.

Widor was appointed to the Paris Conservatory as the successor to Franck, however his ideas and methods were frowned upon and he was poorly regarded by both students and colleagues in the first years. Fauré was also teaching composition at the conservatory, and they had a bitter rivalry, as Fauré was more in touch with the contemporary happenings and was able to attract high quality students such as the likes of Ravel. Eventually, Widor was able to introduce a raised level of technique and an authentic approach to performing the music of Bach. His students included Tournemire and Vierne.

Widor’s invaluable expertise in the fields of counterpoint, fugue, orchestration, and Austro-German playing traditions greatly influenced composers such as Honegger, Varèse, Milhaud and Dupré.

In his later years, Widor wrote textbooks such as the well-respected, Technique de l’orchestre moderne (1904) and compiled, together with pupil Albert Schweitzer, a complete edition of J.S. Bach’s works, complete with commentary. He also began to spend much more time on his secretarial duties for the Académie de Beaux-Arts, through which he was able to establish areas of French culture in both London and Madrid.

Towards the end of his life, Widor’s fear of being left behind came true and his style was replaced by new trends, such as the post-Franckian movement. The postwar generation was not interested in his style anymore, and he was considered old-fashioned. It is primarily his works for organ, in addition to his mastery of the instrument, that his reputation is built upon.

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