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8.557614 - GUILMANT: Organ Works
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Félix-Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911): Organ Works

Félix-Alexandre Guilmant is considered, along with Charles-Marie Widor, as one of the founders of the nineteenth-century French Romantic school of organplaying. As a composer, editor, musicologist and publisher he made significant contributions to the organ repertoire. His teaching led to a vast improvement in the technical abilities of organists as well as in the quality of organ performance in general. He was a worldrenowned performer and improvisor who inspired a greater appreciation of the organ and its music amongst the general public.

Guilmant was born on 12th March, 1837, at Boulogne-sur-mer. His parents were Jean-Baptiste Guilmant (1793-1890) and Marie-Thérèse Poulain (1798-1867). In 1849 he received his first organ lessons from his father, who was organist of St Nicolas Church in Boulogne and an occasional organ-builder. He progressed so rapidly that he was able to deputise for his father at St Nicolas at the age of twelve. In 1853 he became organist at St Joseph’s Church in Boulogne, and in 1857, at the age of twenty, was appointed choirmaster at St Nicolas and a teacher at the Boulogne Conservatoire. He also studied the violin and viola and was elected a member of the Boulogne Philharmonic Society.

In 1860 Guilmant heard a recital in Rouen given by the Belgian virtuoso Jacques Lemmens (1823-1881). While in Rouen he played for Lemmens, who then suggested that he come to Brussels for further study. Under the tutelage of Lemmens he learned the Bach tradition, studied improvisation, and acquired a fluent and immaculate technique. In 1862 he was invited to take part in the dedication of the new Cavaillé-Coll organ at the Paris Church of St Sulpice, performing with, among others, César Franck and Camille Saint- Saëns. In 1862 he began work on the first of his publications for the organ, L’organiste liturgiste, Op. 65, which was to comprise ten volumes by the time of its completion in 1899.

In 1871, at the age of 34, he was appointed organist at La Trinité in Paris, where he was to remain for 31 years. In 1874 Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 42, the first of his eight sonatas was published. The sonatas appeared at regular intervals until 1906, when Sonata No. 8, Op. 91, was issued. It was during this period that Guilmant began activities as a teacher, eventually attracting students from all over the world.

For the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris, he was invited to perform a series of recitals on the magnificent new Cavaillé-Coll organ installed in the Palais du Trocadéro. These recitals were immensely popular and did much to develop a worldwide audience of admirers. The series also demonstrated to the public that the organ was capable of being a concert instrument in its own right, not solely for use in church. After the exposition ended, Cavaillé-Coll’s instrument was originally to have been dismantled but, owing to the success of Guilmant’s recitals and to his own strong recommendations, it was retained and Guilmant embarked on a series of historical recitals each year from 1879 to 1897. This series did much to popularise the organ and its music from all historical periods and all countries.

Guilmant’s reputation as a virtuoso began to spread outside France and he became the first French organist to tour Great Britain, Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy, Sweden, The Netherlands, Hungary, Russia and Scotland. In 1893 he was invited to America to perform at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, making an extensive concert tour after his appearance at the fair.

In 1894, along with Charles Bordes (1863-1909) and Vincent d’Indy (1851-1931), Guilmant founded the Schola Cantorum in Paris, a school for the training of church musicians. He was to teach there one day a week until his death in 1911. In 1896 he succeed Widor as Professor of Organ at the Paris Conservatoire. He enjoyed great success as a teacher, developing his own method based upon the Lemmens tradition of training, and eventually was to produce more Premier Prix winners than any of his predecessors. These laureates included Louis Vierne, Charles Tournemire, Joseph Bonnet, Nadia Boulanger and Marcel Dupré.

In 1898, upon his return from his second American tour, Guilmant was forced to resign his post at La Trinité owing to changes which were made to the organ during his absence and without his authorisation. In protest against this unfortunate incident, his former pupil and assistant at La Trinité Louis Vierne arranged for Guilmant to be appointed an honorary organist at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 1902.

In 1899, William Carl, a former student and longtime friend, founded the Guilmant Organ School in New York City for the training of church musicians. Guilmant consented to be president and the students at the school were taught in the Guilmant method, thus assuring that his influence would be felt far beyond Paris after his death.

Guilmant undertook his final American tour in 1908, performing forty recitals at the St Louis Exposition. The organ at the Exposition was then the largest organ in the world. It was later acquired by Rodman Wannamaker and installed in his Philadelphia department store, where it remains to this day. A tour of 24 recitals followed immediately after the exposition ended.

In his later years Guilmant bought a home, which he named the Villa Guilmant, in the Parisian suburb of Meudon. In the music room Cavaillé-Coll installed a three-manual, 28-stop organ on which Guilmant frequently performed at evening soirées and continued his teaching activities, attracting organists from all over Europe and America. Several honours came his way including that of Chevalier of the Legion of Honour (1893), an honorary Doctorate from Manchester University in England (1910), and the institution of a prize at the Paris Conservatoire, to be given each year to the outstanding student in the organ class. In 1909 his wife died, and on 30th March, 1911, after a brief illness, Guilmant himself died at the Villa Meudon. The funeral was held in the music room, and he was laid to rest in Montparnasse cemetery in Paris.

Guilmant was active his entire professional life as a composer, editor and publisher of organ music. His output for the organ is so vast that he can be described as one of the most prolific of composers for the instrument. In addition, his life-long interest in the organ music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries bore fruit in four major publications of early organ music: École classique de l’orgue (25 volumes 1893-1903), Répertoire des Concerts du Trocadéro (25 volumes 1892-1897), Concert historique d’orgue (1892) and, with the musicologist André Pirro, Les archives des maîtres de l’orgue des XVI, XVII, et XVIII siècles (ten volumes, 1892-1910). Guilmant originally published much of his music himself and his wife played an important role in the sale of it, eventually establishing a small music store in Meudon.

Guilmant’s organ music can be divided into two large groups: concert works and those written for church service. Foremost amongst the concert works are the eight sonatas (1874-1907), Pièces dans différents styles (25 volumes, 1870-1881), L’organiste pratique (twelve volumes, 1870-1881), 18 nouvelles pièces, Op. 90 (c. 1904) and Sept morceaux (1894-1899). The works written for church use are often based upon Gregorian melodies and include L’organiste liturgiste, Op. 65 (ten volumes, 1884-1889), Soixante interludes dans la tonalité grégorienne, Op. 68 (1884-1911), and Noëls, Op. 60 (four volumes, 1883-1896).

The Grand Chorus in G minor, Op. 84, was published in 1898. It is typical of the numerous marchtype pieces which Guilmant wrote for various festive, ceremonial, and liturgical occasions. The opening theme alternates with a trio and a short fugato before ending with a dramatic flourish.

The Caprice in B flat major, Op. 20, No. 3, is from the collection Pièces dans différents styles which contains many of his most popular works. The piece features the ingenious effect of alternating manuals of equal colour. The Trio section couples the manuals together and in the final section the right hand must hop between the Great and Choir divisions while the left hand plays a counter-melody on a solo reed stop. Another popular work from this collection is the Allegretto in B minor, Op. 19, No. 1, a wistful piece which features the Oboe and Clarinet stops in dialogue.

The Lamentation in D minor, Op. 45, No. 1, was inscribed by Guilmant to the memory of his friend Abbé Henri Gros, who was killed during the bombardment of Paris during the unrest following the end of the Franco- Prussian War in 1870. It is a magnificent elegy which builds to a shattering climax, ending quietly with a harmonized Gregorian hymn.

Offertoire sur ‘O filii’ pour la fête de Pâques, Op. 49, No. 2, is a set of variations on the well-known Easter hymn. Guilmant treats the theme in a very original manner by having a central set of variations framed by a toccata-like treatment of the theme.

The Lento assai (Rêve) is the fourth movement of Sonata No. 7 in F major, Op. 87, which was published in 1902. Guilmant was a passionate admirer of Claude Debussy and never missed a performance of the composer’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande. Unusual for Guilmant are the startling whole-tone harmonies heard at the beginning of the movement, perhaps reflecting his admiration of Debussy’s style.

The music of Handel played an important in role in Guilmant’s repertoire and he was the first to play the organ concertos on his series at the Trocadéro in 1878. Several works use themes by Handel, the most popular being the Marche sur un thème de Haendel, Op. 15, No. 2. It uses the theme from the chorus Lift up your heads from Messiah. A solemn, introductory march is followed by a spirited fugal development which builds to the final massive statement of Handel’s theme.

The collection L’organiste pratique contains pieces of varying styles, marches for various occasions, lyric pieces, and virtuoso works such as the Scherzo symphonique in C major, Op. 55, No. 2. The form of the work is of symphonic proportions. A modified rondo with two trios moves to a development section, and a virtuosic coda gives a final apotheosis to the main theme.

In France, the noël has been an ever popular form of Christmas carol. Noëls usually depict charming and evocative vignettes of the shepherds, and were often sung in the home during the seasons of Advent and Christmas. In the eighteenth century a number of composers made arrangements of noëls for the organ, including Lebègue, Daquin and Dandrieu. Guilmant, through his work in editing early music, was very familiar with this repertoire and his studies led him to publish twenty arrangements of melodies from various countries in Noëls, Op. 60. The melodies in the collection are treated in a variety of styles including variation, march, offertory, and those in which the melodies are treated in a more restrained, expressive style as in the Noël languedocien.

The Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 42, published in 1874, has remained one of the composer’s most popular works. It was later transcribed by the composer as Symphonie no. 1 pour orgue et orchestre, Op. 42. The sonata-form finale, Allegro assai, uses two themes, an opening toccata-like figure and a second chorale-like theme which provides contrast to the toccata. After an extended development, involving a gradual shift from minor to major, the chorale theme finally emerges triumphant in the massive final section.

Robert Delcamp


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