Choir members have loved their introduction to Louis Verne as we have rehearsed his Messe Solennelle to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth. The work for mixed choir and two organs was composed in 1899 and first performed at Saint-Sulpice in Paris in December 1901, where Charles-Marie Widor played the main organ and Vierne the choir organ.
The work is a personal favourite of Accompanist James Orford who has shared his enthusiasm for the composer – and the Messe Solennelle in particular – in a Zoom talk. James says: "I completely fell in love with the work the first time I heard it."
Mostly known as an organ composer, and following in the footsteps of French Classical composers such as Couperin and Charpentier, Vierne's principal oeuvre consists of six organ symphonies. In writing these, he pushed the boundaries of organ music and the capabilities of the organ to create new musical forms. But despite the importance of the organ in Vierne's work, he also wrote orchestral, chamber and piano music, with – says James – a substantial difference in style between the various types of composition, and a real understanding of the instruments he was composing for.
By way of example, James played for us Aubade (I) from the Suite bourguignonne:
Vierne was born in Poitiers in Western France. He had congenital cataracts which made him nearly blind but he showed an unusual gift for music at an early age. From October 1880 he studied with the blind piano teacher, Louis Specht, at the Institution Nationale des Jeunes Aveugles (National Institute for Young Blind People) in Paris. When Vierne first heard César Franck at the organ of Sainte-Clotilde, it was a profound experience for him: “I was left speechless and went into a kind of ecstasy.”
He was taught by César Franck and, after Franck's death, by Charles-Marie Widor. In 1892 Widor appointed him as his assistant at the great Cavaillé-Coll organ in Saint-Sulpice and, in May 1900, he was unanimously elected by a prominent jury as organist of Notre Dame Cathedral – he was the first person to hold this title since 1762 – and held it until his death in 1937.
On 2 June 1937 Vierne was giving his 1,750th organ recital in Notre Dame together with Maurice Duruflé. After the main concert, he embarked on the first of two improvisations. As he started the first, he suffered a heart attack – it was only when the same note continued playing for an extended period that the audience realised something was wrong. The funeral service was held in Notre Dame Cathedral on 5 June – but his organ remained silent.
Recognising the composer's great achievements and enormous reputation, the government of France made Vierne a Chevalier de la Legion d'honneur in 1931.