Louis Vierne was born in Poitiers, the capital of the Vienne department, nearly blind due to congenital cataracts, but at an early age was discovered to have an unusual gift for music. When he was only two years of age, he heard the piano for the first time: a pianist played him a Schubert lullaby, and after he had finished young Louis promptly began to pick out the notes of the lullaby on the piano.
After completing school in the provinces, he entered the Paris Conservatoire. From 1892, he served as an assistant to the organist Charles-Marie Widor at the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris. He subsequently became principal organist at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, a post he held from 1900 until his death in 1937.
Vierne had a life that was physically and emotionally very difficult, with severe spiritual trials that are reflected in much of his music. His congenital cataracts did not make him completely blind, but he was what would be called today "legally blind." Early in his career, he composed on outsized manuscript paper, using "a large pencil" as his colleague Marcel Dupré recounted. Later in life, as his already limited sight continued to diminish, he resorted to Braille to do most of his work.
He was deeply affected by a separation and subsequent divorce from his wife, and he lost both his brother René and his son Jacques to the battlefields of World War I. Though he held one of the most prestigious organ posts in France, the Notre-Dame organ was in a state of disrepair throughout much of his tenure at the instrument. He eventually undertook a concert tour of North America to raise money for its restoration. The tour, which included major recitals on the famous Wanamaker Organ in Philadelphia and its smaller sister instrument, the Wanamaker Auditorium Organ in New York City, was very successful, although the trip physically drained him.
A street accident in Paris caused him to badly fracture his leg, and it was briefly thought that his leg would need to be amputated. The leg was saved, but his recovery, and the task of completely re-learning his pedal technique, took a full year during one of the busiest times of his life. Despite his difficulties, however, his students uniformly described him as a kind, patient and encouraging teacher. Among his pupils were Augustin Barié, Edward Shippen Barnes, Lili Boulanger, Nadia Boulanger, Marcel Dupré, André Fleury, Isadore Freed, Henri Gagnebin, Gaston Litaize, Édouard Mignan, Émile Poillot, Adrien Rougier, Alexander Schreiner, and Georges-Émile Tanguay.
The government of France made Vierne a Chevalier de la Legion d'honneur in 1931.
Vierne suffered either a stroke or a heart attack (eyewitness reports differ) while giving his 1750th organ recital at Notre-Dame de Paris on the evening of 2 June 1937. He had completed the main concert, which members of the audience said showed him at his full powers ("as well as he has ever played"). Directly after he had finished playing his "Stele pour un enfant défunt" from his 'Triptyque' Op 58, the closing section was to be two improvisations on submitted themes. He read the first theme in Braille, then selected the stops he would use for the improvisation. He suddenly pitched forward, and fell off the bench as his foot hit the low "E" pedal of the organ. He lost consciousness as the single note echoed throughout the church. He had thus fulfilled his oft-stated lifelong dream -- to die at the console of the great organ of Notre-Dame. Maurice Duruflé, another major French organist and composer, was at his side at the time of his death.
Vierne had an elegant, clean style of writing that respected form above all else. His harmonic language was romantically rich, but not as sentimental or theatrical as that of his early mentor César Franck. Like all of the great fin de siècle French organists, Vierne's music was very idiomatic for his chosen instrument and has inspired most of the great Parisian organist-composers who followed him.
His output for organ includes six organ symphonies, 24 Fantasy Pieces (which includes his famous Carillon de Westminster), and Vingt-quatre pièces en style libre, among other works. There are also several chamber works (sonatas for violin and cello, a piano quintet and a string quartet for example), vocal and choral music, and a Symphony in A minor for orchestra.
In 2003 German progressive rock band Inquire recorded an 18-minute version of Vierne's Organ Symphony No. 3 in F? minor, for their album Melancholia, remarking in the liner notes that "this symphony marks the beginning of a new movement, what we call 'rock and roll'."
Performed by Marc Giacone
Matthias Flierl plays the organ of St. Jakob, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany ( Rieger/Austria, IV/69)
Performed on an organ by Ulrich Metzner
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