Final, from Symphony #6, Op. 59
by Louis Vierne [playing time 7:01]  [Download the MP3]

Louis Vierne (1870-1937)
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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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Composed in 1930, Vierne's Sixth is his final organ symphony (evidently he planned but never wrote a seventh). It uses the cyclic, five-movement scheme he had perfected, and like much of his later writing, it is deeply chromatic. The concluding movement of this work is a triumph not only musically, but as a personal conclusion by Vierne to his cycle of organ symphonies, the foundation of his output.

After a brief, chromatic introduction (sounding the notes D#-E-E#-F# in both hands and the pedal), the opening theme appears, a brilliant syncopated fanfare, marvelously harmonized:

This is then immediately restated over an ostinato that will appear throughout the piece:

At 2:16, the secondary theme appears, first in the pedal, with the ostinato transferred to the manuals. In contrast to the machine gun-like chords of the main theme, this is a more lyrical idea.

After the initial statement in the pedals, it is picked up by the manuals over luminous accompaniment (3:01), and then treated as a chorale (3:50) before a brief development that heralds the return of the main theme at 4:41.

From here to the end, over five densely notated pages, Vierne writes some of the most glittering passages in the entire organ repertoire. To appreciate these final minutes of his symphonic output fully, read the biographical sketch at right. After a life that can only be described as tragic, how uplifting it is that Vierne finishes his last symphony in this fashion. Hear how he takes the troubled, crawling theme from the first movement,

and transforms it into a triumphant affirmation, with the secondary theme soaring overhead and the accompaniment sweeping like waves through the manuals (5:01):

Listen to the unbridled joy of titanic fragments of the main theme interleaving phrase by phrase with the secondary theme, now no longer the quiet alto of the central section but a radiant double choir (5:41),

to the broken suspended chords that hint at a return to the tonic B Major (6:01):

and to the concluding flourishes (6:41).

The savagery of Vierne's darker music makes this work all the more affecting, and in a way, I'm glad his Seventh symphony never got written. How better for a composer who suffered so many setbacks to conclude than with such a thrilling, upbeat work? Great music transcends mere sound, and in Vierne's Final we find a gentleman's hope springing eternal, a lesson from the French master that we can defeat our demons and, to judge from the closing major sixths, that we can do so with a smile.

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