Vierne at Saint Thomas
The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys
Pro Organo CD 7244
Produced in collaboration with Saint Thomas Recordings
Digital Audio Producer / Engineer, Post-Production, Mastering and Photographs:
Frederick Hohman, Zarex / Pro Organo, South Bend, Indiana, USA
Messe Solennelle recorded on 24 May 2006
Première Symphonie recorded on 8 June 2010
Organist of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris for almost 40 years, Louis Vierne was the great romantic among the French composers of his time. At birth Vierne was officially classified as blind, but an operation during childhood enabled him to retain a limited amount of vision for most of his life. His naturally sensitive and introspective character was intensified by his near-blindness: he described his own personality as ‘hypersensitive, the source of intense joy and inexpressible pain’, and summed up his artistic creed in this revealing declaration – ‘I do not believe that a musician who, as a man, is incapable of love or suffering, will ever create anything of real beauty.’ Although he was deeply influenced by the unique ambience of the cathedral, Vierne’s music remained essentially secular in inspiration, reflecting the turmoil of his own highly-charged emotions. He wrote some beautiful vocal, orchestral, piano and chamber music, but it is his compositions for his own instrument – and particularly his six great Organ Symphonies – that form the core of his creative output.
Vierne came from a well-connected musical family; when he was nine years old, they took the frail youngster to Sainte-Clotilde in Paris to hear César Franck playing the organ. The emotional intensity of Franck’s music overwhelmed him; he nearly fainted, and had to be carried out of the church. But this experience confirmed his vocation, and he vowed to devote his life to music: ‘The good Lord, who has taken my eyes, will surely help me’. At the Institut des Jeunes Aveugles (The School for the Blind) Vierne’s exceptional musical talent was nurtured and developed throughout nine years of intensive study, and in 1889 he was admitted as an ‘auditor’ to Franck’s organ class at the Conservatoire. It was from Franck that he learnt to appreciate the power of music as a medium for expressing feeling and emotion, but the great musician died in 1890, and it was from Franck’s successor Widor that Vierne learnt the mechanics of his craft as composer and organist – mastery of musical forms, clarity of structure, and understanding of the highly specialised style of playing demanded by a large organ in a resonant building, a style characterised by grand rhetorical gestures, massed registrations, and spacious
Widor was organist at the church of Saint-Sulpice, where he presided over one of the most famous organs in the world, and the largest in France. Vierne became his assistant here in 1892, and stayed for eight years until his appointment to Notre Dame in 1900 (the second-largest organ in France). The new century had only advanced a few years when Vierne fell victim to the first of the accidents, illnesses, and personal tragedies that were to blight the remainder of his life, and which left their mark on all his later music. But the major works on this disc both date from the earlier period at Saint-Sulpice in the closing years of the 19th century, when he was in his late twenties. The female voice was always one of his greatest inspirations (the three serious relationships in his life were all with singers), and in 1898 he became engaged to 18-year-old Arlette Taskin, the daughter of a well-known opera singer. During the engagement Vierne completed his First Organ Symphony, and composed some songs for his fiancée. The marriage ceremony took place at Saint-Sulpice in April 1899, with Widor playing excerpts from the Symphony. The young couple premiered the songs soon after the wedding, and during their honeymoon in the summer Vierne began work on a much more ambitious project, a Messe Solennelle for choir and two organs.Saint-Sulpice was the official parish of the Catholic Church in France, and the liturgy here was celebrated with great ceremony. The main Seminary of Paris was situated in the adjoining square, and the presence of a choir of some 200 Seminarians lent a uniquely grandiose character to the liturgy. Concealed behind a monumental facade, with carved columns echoing the stonework below, the Great Organ occupies the whole of the upper west wall of the church. Early in 1898 the American organ-builder Ernest Skinner came up to the organ-loft during a service. He was expecting to hear Widor, but he found a young man playing, and he was completely overwhelmed: ‘It seemed to me that I had never heard such glorious music in my life. This young man was Louis Vierne, who at that time was Widor’s assistant. There was a nobility and grandeur in his chord sequences that I had never before heard, nor have I heard anything like it since.’
The traditional musical establishment of a large French cathedral or wealthy parish church is very different from its counterpart in English-speaking countries, where the organ and choir usually function as a single liturgical unit in the chancel. In France these responsibilities were divided, geographically as well as professionally: the Titulaire des Grandes Orgues presided from his organ-loft at the west end, while the choir sang from the chancel at the other end, with their own accompanimental organ and organist. The liturgical music at Saint-Sulpice in Widor’s early days was much admired: ‘... the most beautifully religious it is possible to imagine’, according to one enthusiastic contemporary, ‘... an incessant exchange between grand and chancel organs, choir and priest... Widor plays a strain; it is taken up 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!.’ This is the context for which Vierne composed his grandiose setting of the Mass. Like the First Symphony, the Mass is full of echoes of Franck and Widor, but there is real individuality here too, and genuine inspiration. In the first three movements the lyrical choral lines are supported by repeated rhythmic motifs in the accompaniment which give the music a dynamic sense of direction and forward momentum. 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 bring the whole work to a wonderfully serene conclusion.
The Mass was premiered at Saint-Sulpice on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in December 1901. By this time Vierne had already moved to Notre-Dame, and in 1905, the Separation of Church and State in France created a crisis for church musicians. Funds were decimated overnight: at Saint-Sulpice the Seminary moved out of Paris, and at Notre-Dame the choir was reduced to four paid men and a motley collection of choirboys from the local school. The indefatigable choirmaster, Abbé Rénault, gradually built up the choir again and they learnt the Kyrie of Vierne’s Mass. But as Vierne ruefully noted in his memoirs, ‘we never ventured any further’…
In between the movements of the Mass John Scott plays two excerpts from the 24 Pièces en Style Libre which Vierne composed some years later in 1913. Designated ‘for organ or harmonium’ and written on two staves without an obligatory pedal part, hundreds of similar collections of simple service music were published by the French organists of the time, but (as Rollin Smith writes in his definitive study of Vierne’s life and work) ‘none has the universal appeal, inspiration, originality or sustained
interest of Vierne’s miniatures.’ Like Bach in his two anthologies of 24 Preludes & Fugues, and Chopin in his Preludes, Vierne used each of the 12 major and minor keys in this set of 24 pieces. These two selections are both related to the tonality (C# minor/E major) of the Mass. Madrigal, in E major, is a gently flowing song-without-words. The popular Berceuse in A major is a miniature of exquisite and memorable simplicity; the rocking contour of the melody follows the rhythm of the traditional French
lullaby, Dodo, l’enfant do.
It was Widor who encouraged Vierne to follow his own example by composing Symphonies for the organ; Vierne wrote six altogether, and by the time he reached the last, in 1930, he had
developed the genre out of all recognition, transforming it into a vehicle for conveying whole worlds of complex emotion. As he grew older his harmonic language became more and more chromatic, and there are passages in the Sixth Symphony that verge on atonality. The First is more conventional, and very much in the Widor mould – a suite of concert pieces in contrasting styles, exhibiting the same instinctive flair for texture and tonal color that has characterised French organ music all through the ages, from the golden age of the French Baroque to the present day. But in this, his first major work to appear in print, Vierne also laid down his credentials as a composer of unusual imagination and individuality. In the words of Jean Langlais, ‘The tradition of Widor is rejuvenated and considerably extended with a more modern and colorful harmonic technique… Architecture and poetry are the two predominating qualities of this prophetic Première Symphonie, a milestone in the history of organ music.’
The brooding Prélude exhibits a masterly control of tone and texture, starting slowly and quietly, and building up to a thunderous climax. The Fugue that follows is more conventional (“My God, it’s heavy-handed!”, Vierne said many years later), but it is cleverly constructed with a wealth of contrapuntal devices, ending with a grand flourish. Next comes a delicately registered pièce de salon in the form of a Pastorale, in which the solo Oboe and Flute of the opening are contrasted with chords for the Vox Humana in the central trio section. If this movement contains more than an echo of Widor, the featherlight scherzo (Allegro vivace) is pure Vierne – a balletic moto perpetuo, with an expressive canon in the middle. The fifth movement is a serene and gently passionate Andante for soft string and foundation stops. The main theme of the Finale begins with the same notes as the French National Anthem, and Vierne used to call it ‘my Marseillaise’. With its canonic second subject and persistent timpani-motif in the bass, this exhilarating toccata maintains an unflagging rhythmic momentum, even in the quieter central section. Its infectious energy and melodic appeal ensured that it became a popular favorite as soon as it was published, and so it has remained ever since.
© David Gammie 2011
THE SAINT THOMAS CHOIR & CHOIR SCHOOL
The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys is considered by many to be the leading ensemble in the Anglican choral tradition in the United States. Directed since 2004 by John Scott, formerly Organist and Director of Music at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the choir performs regularly with period instrument ensembles, Concert Royal and Sinfonia New York, or with the Orchestra of St. Luke's as part of its own concert series. Its primary raison d'être, however, is to provide music for five choral services each week. Live webcasts of all choral services and further information including recordings of the choir may be found at www.SaintThomasChurch.org
Supplementing its choral services and concert series over the past three decades, the choir has toured throughout the United States and Europe with performances at Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral in London, Kings College, Cambridge, Windsor, Edinburgh, St. Albans and the Aldeburgh Festival. In 2004, the choir toured Italy, and performed for a Papal Mass at the Vatican. During 2007, the choir performed Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion for the opening concert of the Mexico Festival in Mexico City as well as at Saint Thomas Church. More recent concerts have included the Bach Mass in B Minor; the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610; a Henry Purcell anniversary concert; Rachmaninoff Vespers; the U.S. premiere of John Tavener’s Mass; a concert of American composers featuring works by Bernstein and Copland as well as a composition by Saint Thomas chorister, Daniel Castellanos; the first modern performance of Richter’s Missa Hyemalis, the world premiere of Scott Eyerly’s Spires and a concert of music by Benjamin Britten. Most recently the choir has been invited to perform in the Thomaskirche at the Leipzig BachFest on June 15, 2012.
The Men of the Saint Thomas Choir are professional singers; the Boy choristers attend Saint Thomas Choir School. Founded in 1919, it is the only church related boarding choir school in the United States, and one of only a few choir schools remaining in the world. The Choir School offers a challenging pre-preparatory curriculum, interscholastic sports, and musical training for boys in grades three through eight. The Choir School is committed to training and educating talented musicians without regard to religious, economic, or social background. Choristers are sought from all regions of the country. Details of admissions procedures
and audition requirements are available at www.ChoirSchool.org.
JOHN SCOTT Organist and Director of Music
John Scott was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, where he became a Cathedral chorister. While still at school he gained the diplomas of the Royal College of Organists and won the major prizes. In 1974 he became Organ Scholar of St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he acted as assistant to Dr. George Guest. His organ studies were with Jonathan Bielby, Ralph Downes, and Dame Gillian Weir. He made his debut in the 1977 Promenade Concerts in the Royal Albert Hall; he was the youngest organist to appear in the Proms.
On leaving Cambridge, he was appointed Assistant Organist at London’s two Anglican Cathedrals, St. Paul’s and Southwark. In 1985 he became Sub-Organist of St. Paul’s Cathedral. In 1990 he succeeded Dr. Christopher Dearnley as Organist and Director of Music.
As an organist, John Scott has performed in five continents, premiered many new works written for him, and worked with various specialist ensembles. He is a first-prize winner from the Manchester International Organ Competition (1978) and the Leipzig J.S. Bach Competition (1984). In 1998 he was nominated International Performer of the Year by the New York Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. He is a Past President of the Incorporated Association of Organists. He has been a member of a number of international competition juries, including those in Manchester, Dublin, Chartres, Dallas, St. Albans and Erfurt. Recent highlights of his career have included recitals in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Notre Dame in Paris, the Aarhus Organ Festival in Denmark, Cologne Cathedral, Disney Hall in Los Angeles and London’s Royal Albert Hall. In addition to his work as a conductor and organist, John Scott has published a number of choral compositions and arrangements and he has jointly edited two compilations of liturgical music for the Church’s year,
published by Oxford University Press.
In 2004, after 26 years at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, John Scott moved to take up the post of Organist and Director of Music at Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, New York, where he directs the renowned Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys. He was awarded the LVO (Lieutenant of the Victorian Order) in The New Year’s Honours of 2004 – a personal gift from HM Queen Elizabeth II, in recognition of his tenure at St Paul’s Cathedral. In 2007, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Nashotah House Seminary in Wisconsin.
At the time when the choral portion of this CD recording was made, Jeremy S. Bruns served as the Associate Organist at Saint Thomas Church, where he trained and conducted the Junior Choir, coordinated the Sunday Organ Recital Series, and held primary responsibility for service playing. In addition to having toured with the choir, Mr. Bruns accompanied the choir in a service of Choral Evensong for broadcast on BBC Radio.
Mr. Bruns studied with David Higgs at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, earning his Master of Music in performance and literature and the Performer’s Certificate. He has won prizes in major organ competitions, including the 2003 Dallas Intern’l Organ Competition.
Mr. Bruns has peformed numerous recitals with engagements in notable venues throughout England and America. Mr. Bruns appears as organ accompanist throughout the Messe Solennelle in this recording.