• 1844 — 1937
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With an active performing career spanning eight decades, and an impressive class of students that included Darius Milhaud, Albert Schweitzer, and Marcel Dupré, French organist and composer Charles-Marie Widor maintained a lifelong position as one of the country's most prominent and influential musicians. Born in 1844, Widor was given his first lessons by his father, a well-known organ-builder and amateur performer. By age 11, Widor's skill had manifest itself so strongly that he was able to successfully compete for the job of organist at the lycée in his hometown of Lyons. A few years later the young musician traveled to Brussels, where he came under the tutelage of organist J.N. Lemmens, a well-known teacher at the Brussels Conservatory, whose own teacher could boast of having studied with a student of J.S. Bach. Therefore, the venerable German tradition of Bach interpretation formed the backbone of Widor's work with Lemmens. By 1870 Widor had earned a one-year position as replacement organist at St. Sulpice Cathedral in Paris; the appointment was such a success that Widor held on to the position until just four years before his death 67 years later.
During the 1870s Widor's career as a composer for media other than the organ began to take shape. Between the time of appointment at St. Sulpice in 1870 and the turn of the century, he produced three full symphonies, two ballets, a number of chamber works, and some sacred vocal music. Widor joined the organ faculty of the Paris Conservatoire in 1890 (replacing César Franck), and by 1896 had also been appointed professor of composition. During the early years of the twentieth century, Widor divided his time between his work at St. Sulpice, his duties with the Conservatoire, and activities on the administrative staff of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Widor's strength and dexterity on the organ remained basically unimpaired until his retirement from St. Sulpice in 1933, at which time his student Marcel Dupré took over. Widor died four years later at the age of 93.
Widor was, by all accounts, one of the most formidable organists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His dedication to the music of Bach in particular, earned him the respect of several generations of musicians worldwide. Widor's student Albert Schweitzer, who helped Widor edit Bach's complete organ works, did much to publicize Widor's ideals. Widor was considered by many to be the greatest improviser after César Franck, and Gabriel Faure, another gifted improviser and friend of Widor's, is known to have challenged Widor to improvisational "duels" on a number of occasions. Not surprisingly, Widor's compositions for organ have outlasted his other works. The ten Symphonies for organ are particularly powerful, especially the Symphonie Gothique (1895) and the Symphonie Romaine (1900), in which the composer's knowledge of plainchant, and his penchant for delicate contrapuntal textures come to the fore in a most rewarding way.