Seeing as Schoenstein & Co. have installed for St. James’ this magnificient symphonic organ, it seems appropriate to showcase two organ symphonies. While the company’s inspiration for their instrument lies primarily in the builders of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century America and England the two symphonies heard are both of French composers from the same period. Even though the organs that both of these composers played in France are considerably different in style than the organ for St. James’, the listener will quickly realize that this music is wonderfully suited for this organ. In fact, both Widor and Vierne knew and loved American organs, and French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll created a French version of the symphonic organ that incorporated some of the same elements as its English and American counterparts, including enlarged swell (récit) divisions and large scale foundations. In both cases, it is about expanding the range and possibilities of tonal color.
Charles-Marie Widor's earlier symphonies are more like suites or collections of pieces, but with the opus 42 symphonies, including the Sixth, Widor shows his mastery and refinement of contrapuntal technique while exploring to the fullest the capabilities of the Cavaillé-Coll organs for which these works were written.
Louis Vierne’s 6ème Symphonie, op. 59 was his last major work and was written in the summer of 1930 near Menton on the French Riviera. The work received its world prèmiere in New York, played by Carl Weinrich and dedicated to the memory of Lynwood Farnam, organist at the Church of the Holy Communion (now the Limelight Marketplace). Farnham had previously prèmiered Vierne’s 5ème Symphonie in New York City in 1925. The first performance in France was given by Maurice Duruflé at Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, on 3 June 1935. This is a cyclical symphony, as are Vierne’s Second, Fourth, and Fifth. The improvisatory features of this symphony and the dark but beautiful melodies show Vierne’s influence from Franck; the counterpoint and virtuosic passages show his influnce from Widor. Formally and tonally the 6ème Symphonie is the pinnacle of the French Organ Symphony; the dark sections are darker than any other and the bright and cheery ones happier than those works that have preceded.