The pipe organ has had several lives over its five-century history, the grandest as a symphony orchestra substitute, starting in the second half of the 19th century.
We have a chance to hear a live performance tomorrow of the French composition that heralded this great, golden chapter in the instrument’s history: the Grande pièce symphonique. The 30-minute work will be performed by Simon Walker, one of Toronto’s bright young organ virtuosos, at St James Cathedral, at 1 p.m.
The size of symphony orchestras had grown steadily in the early 19th century as composers sought a wider dynamic range and greater options for colouring their musical ideas.
French composer César Franck (1822-1890) was inspired by a new toy — in time for Christmas, 1859, he was appointed the first titular organist at the brand-new Sainte-Clothilde basilica in Paris, fitted with a brand-new organ by the king of French organ builders, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll — to write a piece of equivalent symphonic scale, which he finished in 1862.
(Every titular organist at that church since has been similarly inspired to write great music.)
The imprint of Franck’s style is clear. To give a piece of music coherence, he would establish musical themes, which would return later. So, no matter how much the flow of a section appears to digress, Franck puts in tidy markers along the way to remind us that we really are going somewhere.
The piece is less demanding from a finger-and-pedal technique point-of-view than it is conceptually. The organist has to plan out which stops (sounds) will provide the appropriate colour as well as clarity (the musical textures get murky very easily), and also keep the momentum going.
Here is the wonderful French organist Marie-Claire Alain getting it right at the Cavaillé-Coll organ of Saint François-de-Sales Church in Lyon:
To give us a recent impression of Franck’s organ at Sainte-Clothilde, here is Olivier Penin improvising during Communion last winter: