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The French Connection: French Composers for Organ

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I’m not sure what it is about this time of year, but I always love listening to contemplative solo organ works when fall comes around. Of course, many probably think of Bach and his vast oeuvre of solo organ pieces, many of which we just added to our collection in braille. But instead I tend to gravitate towards masters of the French organ school from the turn and first half of the 20th century. Composers such as Olivier Messiaen, Louis Vierne, Maurice Duruflé, and Charles-Marie Widor play heavy in my rotation from the end of summer until around Thanksgiving. And, with Louis Vierne celebrating his 150th birthday today, it is fitting that I get to write about this topic. Here is a brief snapshot of two of the composers I mentioned (the others may make an appearance in a later blog post!), followed by a selection of their organ music available from the NLS Music Collection (note: the pieces listed are in braille format unless indicated otherwise).

Louis Vierne
Admired by many in the fin de siècle music scene in Paris, Louis Vierne was born in France in 1870, almost completely blind with congenital cataracts. Yet he went on to study at the Paris Conservatoire and then served as assistant organist to Charles Marie Widor at Église Saint-Sulpice. Later in his life, he was offered the prestigious post of principal organist with the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris—a position which he held until his death (at the organ, I might add) in 1937. A student of César Franck, he was also an accomplished teacher, tutoring students such as Nadia and Lili Boulanger, Maurice Duruflé, and Marcel Dupré. If that were not enough, Vierne was also a prolific composer: he wrote 6 organ symphonies, 24 fantasias, 1 orchestral symphony, and numerous organ and chamber pieces. Here are some pieces by Louis Vierne available in the NLS Music Collection:

Organ Symphony No. 1, op. 14 in D minor, bar over bar format (BRM30555)
Organ Symphony No. 2, op. 20 in E minor, bar over bar format (BRM04925)
Pièces de fantaisie, Suite No. 2, op. 53, bar over bar format (BRM24338)
Messe solennelle, op. 16, paragraph format (BRM21082)
24 Pièces en style libre, bar over bar format (BRM32179)

Nocturnes, op. 35 nos. 1-3: pour piano (LPM00859), large print format

Olivier Messiaen
It’s hard to believe that Messiaen was born a short 38 years after Vierne, and was taught by Charles-Marie Widor and Maurice Duruflé, as his organ music can sometimes sound worlds away from the more conservative style of those composers that preceded him. Messiaen entered the Paris Conservatoire at age 11 in 1919 and exceled in his studies, winning prizes for composition, music history, and organ performance and improvisation. He went on to a successful composition and pedagogical career, writing many pieces for organ in addition to works for orchestra, voice, piano,
and chamber ensembles. He is also one of the earliest composers to use electronic instruments in his compositions, as seen by his use of the ondes Martenot. He also held a position as the principal organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris until the 1990s.

Lecture French composer Olivier Messianen at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. Photograph, November 27, 1986. Public Domain.
Lecture French composer Olivier Messianen at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. Photograph, November 27, 1986. Public Domain.

Here are some pieces by Olivier Messiaen in the NLS Music Collection:

Apparition de l’Église éternelle, paragraph format (BRM23704)
Le banquet celéste, bar over bar format (BRM22426)
Verset: pour orgue pour la fête de la dédicace, bar over bar format (BRM23997)
La nativité du Seigneur, bar over bar format (BRM28715)
Les corps glorieux: sept visions brèves de la vie de resuscités, bar over bar format (BRM25085)
Diptyque, bar over bar format (BRM25091)
Messe de la Pentecôte, bar over bar format (BRM24690)
Quatuor pour la fin du temps, complete parts for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano in single line and full score formats (BRM35062)
L’Ascension, bar over bar format (BRM24582)

Joanna MacGregor at The Royal Academy of Music: Olivier Messiaen, Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (DBM03659), talking book format
The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross (DB 66411), talking book format
Classical Music Lover’s Companion to Orchestral Music by Robert Philip (DB 96691), talking book format

And, if you’re more in the mood for Bach’s organ works, here are links to the new organ transcriptions I mentioned at the beginning of this blog. These transcriptions are of the Bärenreiter Urtext, and are in bar over bar and line by line formats (note: each part contains multiple volumes, but only the first volume of each is linked here):

J.S. Bach Orgelwerke
Vol. 1 (BRM36795), Vol. 2 (BRM36800), Vol. 3 (BRM36838), Vol. 4 (BRM36839), Vol. 5 (BRM36889)

If you’d like to order hard copies of this material for loan, would like to download the materials from BARD and need some guidance, or if you would like to explore more materials of the NLS Music Collection and learn about our service, please email us at [email protected], or give us a phone call at 1-800-424-8567, extension 2. We are happy to help and look forward to hearing from you!

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