About this Recording
8.223193 - WIDOR: Piano Trio, Op. 19 / Piano Quintet, Op. 7

Charles-Marie Widor (1844–1937)
Quintet in D minor • Trio in B-flat major


Those who knew him characterised Charles-Marie Widor as a man of captivating personality. Behind a facade of natural reserve, he was both witty and warm-hearted, energetic yet spiritual. He took a lively interest in literature and in all the arts, and he was a well-informed and entertaining companion. The musicians with whom he was personally acquainted spanned the generations from Rossini to Milhaud. Among his closest colleagues he counted Gounod, Delibes, Massenet and Saint-Saëns. As a teacher he was both exacting and dedicated, and his efforts proved of enormous importance: among the organists he trained one can cite Charles Tournemire, Marcel Dupré and Albert Schweitzer; among his composition students the names Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud stand out. As a composer he cultivated those values that have long been prized in France and associated with French art of all kinds: logic, clarity, moderation and balance. In sophistication and consummate mastery, his music can best be compared to that of Saint-Saëns. In 1914 Widor was appointed permanent secretary of the Académie des Beaux Arts, one of the highest honors that can be accorded a French musician.

During a long and prolific career Widor composed in all genres. He has to his credit two ballets (La Korrigane and Jeanne d’Arc), three operas (Maître Ambros, Les Pêcheurs de Saint-Jean and Nerto) and incidental music to Conte d’Avril and Les Jacobites. He wrote two symphonies for orchestra and three for organ and orchestra, the symphonic poem La Nuit de Walpurgis, an Ouverture espagnole and five concerted works, including concertos for piano and cello. He also composed music for piano solo, sacred and secular vocal works and a large body of chamber music. Why, then, has all this fallen into neglect?

The answer is simple. Mention the name Widor, and what comes to mind? Organ music, of course. Widor’s achievement here is so towering that all else has been eclipsed in its shadow.

It is natural that his earliest musical experiences would involve the organ. His grandfather, an Alsatian of Hungarian descent, was an organ builder. His father carried on the family profession and became a performer as well. From him Widor received his first musical instruction. He continued his studies in Brussels with Jaak Nikolaas Lemmens, a distinguished organist and teacher who traced his musical lineage directly to Bach and passed on to him the authoritative, German tradition of Bach interpretation. While in Brussels the young Widor further expanded his musical horizons by studying composition with the renowned François-Joseph Fétis.

Returning to Paris, Widor succeeded Léfébure-Wély in 1870 as organist at Saint Sulpice and held that position for sixty-four years, yielding it at age ninety to Marcel Dupré. He assumed Franck’s post as professor of organ at the Paris Conservatory in 1890 and took over Théodore Dubois’s duties as professor of composition six years later.

As an organist Widor displayed prodigious virtuosity. One of his favorite pupils, Louis Vierne, described his playing as lively but unhurried. His sense of rhythmic exactitude brought both clarity and power to his playing. He was highly skilled in improvisation, and during the 1870s, when Fauré was choir organist at Saint Sulpice, the two composers would engage in lively competition. Looking upon the modern organ as a kind of self-contained orchestra, Widor recognised that its potential far exceeded the boundaries of the older German polyphonic style, and he set about to create a new repertoire that would draw upon the vast and glorious tonal resources that were just waiting to be tapped. In doing so he created a new genre the French organ symphony and a whole school of composition.

Widor composed ten symphonies for organ solo. The earlier ones would be more correctly designated as symphonic suites for organ, for such is their pattern of movements in the form of preludes, marches, pastorals, intermezzos, toccatas and fugues. Only in the final three, each in four movements, is a truly symphonic cohesion attained. The symphonies exerted a profound influence on subsequent French organ music and established a school notable for its tonal beauty and brilliant effect. Their example has been emulated many times, especially by French and Belgian composers, though seldom equaled. But there is a negative twist: so renowned are the organ works that it comes as a surprise that Widor wrote anything else.

Though overlooked today, Widor’s contribution to chamber music is a considerable one. The chamber works include two piano quintets, a piano quartet, a piano trio, two violin sonatas, a cello sonata, Soirs d’Alsace for Piano Trio, and several suites and smaller pieces for various instrumental combinations.

In the chamber music Widor displays a melodic elegance that is characteristically French. There is often an appealing delicacy of texture and color, though a sense of vigor infuses much of the music, and in the passages of power, there emerges a fullness of sonority that is decidedly romantic. Since Widor became one of France’s greatest organists, it is not at all surprising that his keyboard writing shows considerable virtuosity and that his harmonies are rich and full.

The 1980 edition of Grove shows the Quintet in D Minor as composed in c.1890. That rather equivocal date would place it among the earliest of Widor’s chamber works, contemporaneous with Franck’s string quartet and Chausson’s Concert. Dedicated to Charles Gounod, it calls for the customary forces of piano, two violins, viola and cello, and it follows the established four-movement pattern. Owing to the complexity and brilliance of the piano part, which is richly arpeggiated and harmonically luxuriant, the strings often playa supporting role: their writing is more of the “orchestral” than the “conversational” kind more characteristic of chamber music’s intimate expression.

The opening Allegro has a martial quality. The wide-ranging dynamics, meticulously indicated in the score, heighten the coloristic and dramatic mood. The Andante’s outstanding feature is its melodic elegance; here an interplay of the instruments creates a greater feeling of intimacy. The tonality shifts to the bright key of A major in the spirited scherzo, Molto vivace. Much of this movement is played pianissimo, and the alternately plucked and bowed strings produce an effect of rapid delicacy. The finale, Allegro con moto, begins with a vigorous theme, announced in unison. The second theme appears on the cello, accompanied by arpeggio figures on the piano. After skilful polyphonic development—here one may recall Widor’s training in the Bach tradition the quintet comes to a solid, resounding conclusion.

Though it bears a higher opus number, the Trio in B-flat major is probably the earliest of Widor’s published chamber works. Composed in 1875, perhaps fifteen years before the D minor Quintet, it too is a work of generous proportion.

With harmonic support from the piano, the unison strings announce the opening theme of the Allegro. There follows a recitative-like idea for violin and cello with interruptions by the piano. Characteristically, the second subject displays a sense of elegance.

In its employment of a siciliano rhythm, the second movement, Andante con moto quasi moderato, harks back to the baroque dance suite. D’Indy was to make a similar bow to the past when he composed his Suite dans le style ancien in 1886. The impression is one of delicacy and carefully gauged nuance, though its tranquil mood rises to moments of power. Against an accompaniment of strings played pizzicato and arco, the piano announces the well-defined theme of the scherzo, Vivace. An animated instrumental dialogue ensues. Curiously, the trio makes a false entrance in the G minor of the scherzo before modulating to E-flat major. A feeling of youthful vitality and freshness infuses the fluent rondo theme of the finale, Presto. With each reappearance this theme loses none of its light swiftness. Its vitality characterises the trio as a whole and marks this earliest of Widor’s chamber works with an easy sense of confidence and mastery.

David Nelson

Close the window