Chorale, from Symphony #2, Op. 20
by Louis Vierne [playing time 7:10]  [Download the MP3]

Louis Vierne (1870-1937)

The great French organist and composer Vierne was an exceptionally unlucky fellow. Born nearly blind in 1870, he struggled throughout his life with his handicap and repeated operations. At 36, he toppled into a hole in a Paris street and grievously broke his leg, leading to a lengthy convalescence. He was cuckolded by his wife and a colleague in 1909 after 10 years of marriage. His young son Andre died shortly thereafter of tuberculosis, and his brother Rene and son Jacques were both killed in the Great War. He suffered repeated bouts of illness. His music has his heart on its sleeve, and his six organ symphonies are a study in descent into despair, reaching a nadir in the Fourth, which Vierne composed shortly after Andre's death and as World War I erupted around him. Some of his works, such as the Final from Symphony #4 (1914) and the B flat minor Toccata from the second suite of the Fantasy Pieces (1926), tread a dark boundary between the tragic and the savage. Vierne died as he had wished: he suffered a massive stroke while giving a recital on his beloved instrument at Notre Dame on June 2, 1937. He fell forward onto the keys and pedals, sending a ghastly sound into the nave. He left the world a corpus of magnificent organ music, one of the essential components of the repertoire.

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Vierne published his second symphony in 1902, during a relatively happier time in his life, and the work is neither as dark or as intensely chromatic as his later writing.

Vierne's six symphonies are cyclical, exploiting a theme or themes throughout the work in different guises, and (with the exception of Symphony #1) are constructed in five movements. This is the second movement of Symphony #2, and in keeping with the cyclic nature of the work, it cleverly inverts the thematic material of the first movement. The secondary theme of the opening movement becomes the lyrical, strictly diatonic, hymn-like opening:

At 2:42 in the present track, a more troubled and chromatic section begins, presaging just a hint of the fury of Vierne's later works. A modified form of the main theme from the first movement enters at 3:00:

Vierne explores these ideas in a variety of ways and then, after a splendid crescendo exploiting pedal points on F in the lowest note of the manuals (5:21) and then on an ominous E in the pedal (5:32), he achieves a brilliant and lengthy modulation to the second inversion of the tonic, moving the E pedal point to a broken pedal point on E flat (5:54), completing another of those long chromatic developments he loved so much, and allowing the formerly contemplative chorale to now sing forth in a resounding hymn to joy.

My orchestration uses strings and bassoon in the opening pedal, and soft brass and choirs for the statements of the chorale. I use reeds and flutes for the manuals in the middle sections, and delay the entrance of a full organ patch until near the end. For the final minute, I tossed in a few patch and panning treats I hope you enjoy.

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