* Olivier Messiaen's O Sacrum Convivium
* Louis Vierne's Messe Solonelle
* Quatre motets pour le temps de penitence by Francis Poulenc, and
* Charles-Marie Widor's Messe a deux choeurs et deux orgues
Charles-Marie Widor is best known for the Toccatta, the finale from his Fifth Symphony for Organ. The Mass for Two Choirs and Two Organs was originally written in 1878 for a choir of Baritones – the Chorus of the seminary next door to St Sulpice in Paris, the church where he was Organist for sixty-four years.
Interested to know more? Read on ...
In the middle of the nineteenth century the sorry state of church music in Paris was a source of bitter controversy. The passion for opera and ballet that dominated the musical life of the city had become firmly entrenched even in the churches!
But behind the scenes, times were changing and the mastermind of the changes was the great organ-builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, who built or rebuilt most of the organs of Paris (and many in the provinces) during his long career, including La Madeleine (1846), Saint-Sulpice (1862) and Notre-Dame (1868).
In Northern Europe the true tradition of organ-playing, centred round the music of Bach, still survived, and Cavaillé-Coll arranged for two young Frenchmen to go to Brussels to learn this tradition from the Belgian organist Lemmens. When the two protégés—Alexandre Guilmant and Charles-Marie Widor—returned to Paris, they had mastered a technique of organ-playing that placed them in a different league from all their contemporaries. Cavaillé-Coll arranged for Widor to be installed as titulaire of Saint-Sulpice, and at last his great masterpiece was in the hands of a real musician with the technique and the intelligence to play it in the style it deserved.
Widor employed a number of gifted pupils as his Assistant, the most notable of these was Louis Vierne, who filled this role for eight years, from 1892 until 1900, when he entered and won a competition for the post of Organist of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. It was here that he was to make his name, and here that he died at the console, in the middle of a recital on 2 June 1937. But his small output of choral music dates from his years at Saint-Sulpice.
A massive baroque church, the interior lined with arcades of Roman arches and Corinthian columns beneath a heavy vaulted roof, Saint-Sulpice is magnificent.
The ritual here was celebrated with great ceremony, for this was the official parish of the Catholic Church in France. The main Seminary of Paris was situated in the adjoining square, and the presence of a choir of some two hundred Seminarians.
Concealed behind its ornate and monumental façade, with carved columns echoing the stonework below, the Grand Orgue occupies the whole of the upper west wall of the church. Occupying pride of place in the middle of the gallery, the enormous semi-circular console was kept immaculately polished; the whole loft was covered with luxurious red carpet, and a cupboard behind the organ was transformed into a tiny but elegantly furnished ‘salon’ where Widor would entertain his guests before and after Mass, or during the sermon.
The traditional musical establishment of a large French cathedral or wealthy parish church is very different from its Anglican counterpart, where the Organist and his full-time Assistant are both also professional choir-trainers, and organ and choir function as a single liturgical unit in the chancel. In France these responsibilities were divided, geographically as well as professionally. The Titulaire du Grand Orgue, presiding from his organ-loft or tribune at the west end, was the most distinguished member of the musical staff. At the other end of the church, and often a considerable distance away, the maître de chapelle trained and conducted a professional choir of boys and men (numbering about forty in Widor’s time), with
its own choir organ and its own organist.
With the aid of an excellent choirmaster and choir organists of the calibre of Gabriel Fauré (from 1871 to 1874) and André Messager, the liturgical music at Saint-Sulpice in Widor’s heyday was much admired: ‘… the most beautifully religious it is possible to imagine’, according to an enthusiastic contemporary, ‘… an incessant exchange between grand and chancel organs, choir and priest … Widor plays a strain; it is taken up, as if continued, by the chancel. Again, this time the grand organ echoes, again the other responds, the great sweep of the vocal ensemble merging absolutely, now uniting, then separating, imploring, majestic, tender, prayerful! …’
Widor was a cultivated all-round musician; a popular figure in the salons of Paris, he wrote quantities of elegant and idiomatic chamber and piano music and songs, not to mention symphonies, ballets and a number of operas. But his mission at Saint-Sulpice was to establish a dignified style of choral and organ music which would satisfy his own high standards without alienating the congregation. The music must be monumental, as befitted the setting, and all picturesque effects must be rigorously excluded. When Widor was an old man, Vierne confessed that there was still no other organist who could match ‘his authority, his sense of grandeur, his imperious mastery’, and these qualities are already evident in the choral works. Vierne also described Widor’s style as ‘plus décoratif qu’émotif’, implying perhaps a lack of real substance, and a comparison of their respective settings of the Mass is instructive in this respect. Widor’s setting is designed to reinforce the splendour of the liturgy without extending it to an inconvenient length, and concision is achieved through minimal repetition of the words (indeed, the Benedictus verges on the perfunctory). The work impresses by its sheer magnificence, but Vierne’s Messe Solennelle is undoubtedly of greater musical interest.
This contrast can be explained to some extent by Vierne’s own background. The revolution in musical standards had taken another great step forward in 1872, when César Franck became Professor of Organ at the Conservatoire. Hypersensitive, almost blind, but highly talented, Vierne was already a student in the Organ Class when Franck died in 1890, to be replaced by Widor. At the end of the decade Vierne began to flex his compositional muscles in earnest in his First Organ Symphony (1898), and then in his Messe Solennelle for choir and two organs (1899). With the aid of propulsive rhythmic figures in the accompaniment of Kyrie, Gloria and Sanctus, which give the music a continual sense of forward momentum, Vierne allows himself more time than Widor, more time for thematic development, and more time for imaginative expression. Perhaps the influences are still slightly undigested; the shadow of Widor looms large over some sections, while passages such as the central ‘Christe’ of the first movement are strongly reminiscent of Franck. But there is no doubt that the whole work is animated by real inspiration; following the awesome solemnity of the Kyrie and the triumphant Gloria and Sanctus, the mysterious antiphonal harmonies of the Benedictus sound a completely new note in the French church music of the time, and the long-breathed phrases of the Agnus Dei, again echoing from choir to Grand Orgue, bring the whole work to a wonderfully serene conclusion.