Les Cloches de Hinckley
by Louis Vierne [playing time 6:31]  [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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The Bells of Hinckley is the concluding movement of the fourth suite of Vierne's Pieces de Fantaisie. Unlike the "pure" music of Vierne's organ symphonies, these suites are intended to be more descriptive works, and Vierne gives many of them titles suggestive of a specific place or image (Hymn to the Sun, Gargoyles and Chimeras, and so forth). The finale of the third suite is the famous Carillon de Westminster, inspired by the ubiquitous mi-re-do-so carillon motive. Although the Westminster is arguably Vierne's most regularly performed piece, due in part to its modest technical demands, this piece is the superior work.

Vierne's inspiration here is the carillon in the British town of Hinckley, which lies between Leicester and Coventry and is, incidentally, not far from Bosworth (as in "Battle of"). Vierne must have heard the carillon during one of his performance tours of the UK in the 1920s. The work bears some structural similarities to the Westminster, beginning with the carillon as a quiet statement in the pedals, over an ostinato in the manuals, and gradually developing into a brilliantly pealing hymn to joy. However, this piece is more harmonically adventurous and simply more interesting than the Westminster. The carillon moves generally upward through the voices as the work proceeds, returning to the bass for the last statement. Meanwhile, the accompanying material shifts from strictly diatonic to strongly chromatic and back again. The work concludes with a brilliant blaze of rapid descending scales and some Viernian pesante chords.

Though this is an organ work, I have scored it with classical organ patches playing subordinate roles. Yamaha and Roland "continental organs" appear in the wandering chromatic lines in the middle, and again for the concluding ostinato, but much of the rest of it is scored with strings, winds, and choirs. Hopefully this underscores the rather ethereal nature of much of the piece.

This piece is quintessential Vierne, one of the best works in his Fantasy Pieces, and I hope you enjoy it.

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