1870 — 1937
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Louis Vierne was a French composer and organist who spent the majority of his career in Paris. Despite his physical and mental health issues, Vierne wrote a number of works throughout his lifetime and is best known for his organ compositions. He was also an acclaimed performer and improviser, and was known for his brilliant technique and skill as an organist. He held the position of titular organist at Notre Dame for a long portion of his life and the reputation of the cathedral flourished as a result of Vierne’s work and music. Sadly, after the composer’s death in 1937, the cathedral of Notre Dame gradually fell into the depths of neglect for some time after he was succeeded.
Vierne was born in Poitiers on 8 October 1870. He was born blind with a congenital cataract condition; however his sight was partially restored at the age of six when he started to vaguely see people and objects, and began to read very large print. He had displayed an unnatural talent for music from a very young age; it is said that from the age of two, he could pick out the particular notes of songs on the piano by ear. He began his studies in piano and solfège when his sight began to improve.
At the age of ten, Vierne’s family moved to Paris and one year later, in 1881, he had enrolled as a boarding student at the Institution Nationale des Jeunes Aveugles. Here he furthered his education in music by beginning to study the violin and harmony as well as continuing his studies in piano and solfège.
By 1886, Vierne began to take organ lessons with Louis Lebel. He showed great aptitude for the instrument and quickly became quite advanced. Two years later in 1888, Vierne began to study harmony withCésar Franck, who served on juries at his school. A short time after this, he attended Franck’s organ class at the Paris Conservatoire, where he became a full-time student starting between late 1890 and early 1891. Franck died in 1891 and was succeeded by Charles-Marie Widor. One year later, Vierne had become Widor’s assistant at the Paris Conservatoire and even filled in for Widor playing organ at St. Sulpice. By 1894, Vierne had won first prize in organ at the Conservatoire. He continued to assist the organ class, even after 1896, when Widor’s successor, Guilmant began his position. Vierne taught some excellent students during this time, including Joseph Bonnet and Henri Mulet. They were among many of Vierne’s students to later become leading organists. On 21 May 1900, Vierne was given the position of titular organist at Notre Dame. He was the first to receive the title since the death of Louis-Claude Daquin in 1772.
Although, Vierne held a prestigious title and was regarded as a successful musician, he experienced quite a harsh life and things often did not work out very well for him. He worked at the Conservatoire for nineteen years, unpaid, in the hope of taking over the position of professor of organ after a number of years. After Guilment’s death in 1911, Vierne was sure he would be appointed to replace him, however his hopes were distinguished as Eugene Gigout, a senior Parisian organist and the Conservatoire director’s close friend was instead given the position. This occurred again in 1926, when Gigout was succeeded by Marcel Dupré, a past student of Vierne’s. Vierne was naturally frustrated following such harsh decisions made against his favour and he often suffered from depression as a consequence of his perceived lack of career prospects. Additionally, because much of his work was unpaid, he often faced financial difficulties which only added to his frustration. He was almost always supported by wealthy patrons, however, who had taken interest in his work as a composer and performer.
Vierne’s ill-health added yet another stressful element to his life. His sight and general health had begun to deteriorate as a consequence of his extreme depression and this naturally slowed down his progress. He was held back even further after he badly fractured his leg in an accident, requiring him to re-learn how to use the organ pedals. It was roughly a year after the accident before he was capable of professionally performing again. Vierne also experienced many personal issues and events which added to his poor state of mental health. In particular, he was deeply affected by the divorce of his wife and the deaths of his brother, René and his son, Jacques during the First World War.
Because of Vierne’s poor sight, composing his works was quite a slow and taxing process. He wrote his music on large sheets of paper on an easel. When his scores were completed, his brother, René would then copy the music for him. Madeleine Richepin, Vierne’s lifelong friend, also aided the composer by copying his music for him, particularly after his brother’s death. Vierne wrote music for various instruments and ensembles, however he is best known for his organ works. Vierne's24 pièces de fantasie are among some of the most important organ works of the 20th century. Among his most popular works include his24 pièces en style libre and his renowned six symphonies.
Vierne’s six symphonies are undoubtedly among his most successful and acclaimed works. They are regarded by scholars to be among the most important and significant of Vierne’s works and have been studied and performed worldwide.
The First Symphony of the six is one of his more popular creations and was composed between 1898 and 1899, around the same time as hisMesse solennelle op. 16 was completed. The six-movement work is believed to be dedicated to Guilmant and is likely to have been influenced by his tutor, Franck. Beginning with a prelude and fugue and emulating the style of Bach, the first two movements are spacious and exciting, based around simple themes and ideas. The third movement is much more sensitive and melodic, featuring lyrical themes on the oboe. Thescherzo is similar to the previous movement in terms of the lyrical melodies that feature throughout, however it is also an impressive example of symphonic writing. The fifth movement,Andante, is a dynamically soft and expressive movement which calms the listener in preparation for the exhilaratingfinale which follows. The final movement is exciting and dramatic and is often considered one of Vierne’s most adventurous works. The movement features fast moving arpeggios in the higher register which provide the harmony. The melody is for the most part, delivered by the lower notes, an innovative technique which was possibly influenced by the works of Wagner.
His other five symphonies are also considered to be among his finer works, particularly his sixth, which is thought to be his most harmonically advanced symphony. HisOrgan Symphony no. 2 op. 20 was written in 1902, specifically for the organ of Notre Dame cathedral, resulting in outstanding reviews. A critic's remark, dated 23 February of the same year, enthuses: “Last Saturday, the Société nationale gave its 308th concert […]. We were treated to something very interesting; it was here that on Saturday we heard extracts from a symphony for the organ by M. Vierne, where a most generous of musicality was united with ingenious inspiration drawn from the unique tone of this instrument. A certain J.-S. Bach, our kindred father, would have been very pleased with M. Vierne.”
During his final years, Vierne’s health was seriously deteriorating he suffered a severe heart attack during an organ recital at Notre Dame. After thirty seven years of service as organist at Notre Dame, the cathedral would suffer musically for many years, as a consequence of the composer’s death.
Louis Vierne has been since celebrated as an innovative and hard-working organist, composer and teacher. His music is influenced by many diverse composers of various eras, from Bach to Wagner. One can often find hints of Debussy in the music of Vierne, particularly inMes Souvenirs, which was composed during his later years. His music, especially his works written for organ, has had a major influence on later composers of the 20th century and have left a lasting impact on scholars and composers to this day.