Sunday, December 25, 2011

Getting to Know Franck and Vierne

Happy New Year to all! It promises to be an adventurous year, full of many challenges, changes, and decisions.  My strategy is to take them one step at a time. I go back to school on Sunday to complete the last semester of my senior year, giving my senior recital in April and graduating in May -- most certainly an idea that takes some getting used to.
I'm currently beginning work on my music history research paper (yes, one week before school starts the books for my research, which I ordered through interlibrary loan, finally decided to come in, haha). Nevertheless, already I am becoming intrigued. It's fascinating getting to know the character and personalities of the composers whose music I have been learning and performing over the past year -- Louise Vierne, Cesar Franck, Charles-Marie Widor. My paper is going to focus mainly on the work of the heavily influential Romantic organ-builder, Aristide Cavaille-Coll, a Frenchman who revived the art of organ-building and had a major impact on the compositions of the Romantic period. I'm just beginning to learn about him.
Cesar Franck,
French Romantic organist and composer
Meanwhile I am becoming acquainted with Vierne, Widor, and Franck. Franck and Widor both taught at the Paris Conservatory, and both were teachers of Louis Vierne, a late Romantic period composer and the organist at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Vierne idolized Cesar Franck from a very young age. He began studying composition with the organ professor prior to entering the Conservatory. No sooner had Vierne entered the Conservatory then Franck passed away, devastating the young Vierne. It was Widor who was selected to assume Franck's position after his death. Widor was a major contrast to the personality of his predecessor, though his skills as a teacher and his care and concern for his students were equal. Franck was challenging but very sweet, nurturing the individuality of each student and placing a great deal of emphasis on the art of improvisation. Widor, on the other hand, was much stricter, focusing on technique before even considering improvisation. Vierne grew to appreciate and love Widor, but Franck always held a special place in his heart. Here are some passages on the relationship between Vierne and Franck that I found particularly sweet. Vierne's uncle and aunt also worked at the Conservatory and had extolled Franck's virtues to their young nephew, while also keeping Franck posted on the progress of the budding musician. Vierne gives an account of his first meeting with Franck at age fifteen.

"How pale you are, my dear child. Do I frighten you so very much?" (Vierne had been born legally blind and was an extremely sensitive child).
"Oh yes, Monsieur Franck."
"Because you are a genius."
"Genius? Who told you that?"
"My Uncle Charles and everybody here. I heard you at Saint Clotilde when I was ten, and I nearly died from happiness."
"Because it was too beautiful. I wanted it never to end."
"As beautiful as that? And why did you think it beautiful?"
"Because it sang. It took hold of my heart. It hurt me and made me feel good at the same time. It transported me to a place filled with such music."
"In that place, my dear child, the music is better. Here, we learn. There, we shall know how. . . . Next year you will begin studying the organ. Apply yourself with all your might, and when the time is ripe I shall take you into my class at the Conservatory."

Louis Vierne, late Romantic composer
and organist at Notre Dame Cathedral
Uncle Charles had told Vierne of the beauteous music Franck made upon the organ, but even he could not prepare Vierne for the pain and rapture he felt when hearing the organist play at St. Clotilde. "Certain melodic turns, certain harmonies made me feel a kind of nervous malaise that was at the same time voluptuous pleasure. I could not keep back the tears." Vierne felt "A vague presentiment of the true purpose of music." At age 10 Vierne told his Uncle Charles, "It is beautiful because it is beautiful. . . . I do not know why. It is so beautiful that I would like to do as much and then die just after." (Vierne's words eventually came true, as he died moments after giving his last organ recital).

Upon Franck's death, Vierne struggled with the prospect of studying at the Conservatory without his beloved mentor. However, Vierne remembered, "To serve- [Cesar] Franck had once said, after an especially happy lesson- to serve always, in spite of everything, no matter what might happen, to love God, and next the love of God to love one's art, mindful of the good it could achieve, this Franck announced as his creed, which Vierne was to hand down in turn. 'These thoughts gave me courage. I was filled with elation at the idea of joining battle with routine, officialdom, the powers that be, of avenging the lack of appreciation, the jeers of which he had been the object.' To do less was cowardly betrayal."
This courage was tried and found true under the direction of Widor, Franck's successor. But Widor shall be left for another post. 

In the meantime, some exciting news -- I think I may be organistically related to J.S. Bach! I was doing a little digging, and some of my research demonstrates that I may be able to trace my line of organ teachers to Marcel Dupre and on to Vierne, Franck, and Widor, who if you follow his line of organ teachers far enough, reaches all the way to J.S. Bach! Oh joy! Rapture! 

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