Widor’s Toccata

Gargoyles on the facade of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Gargoyles on the facade of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

 

Let’s finish the week with the awesome power of one of the world’s largest pipe organs…the five keyboards, 109 stops, and nearly 8,000 pipes of the grand organ at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Olivier Latry is performing the virtuosic Toccata from Charles-Marie Widor’s organ Symphony No. 5 in F minor, written in 1879.

Born into a family of organ builders in Lyon, Widor became assistant to Camille Saint-Saëns at L’église de la Madeleine in Paris at the age of 24. In 1890, he succeeded César Franck as organ professor at the Paris Conservatory. His ten symphonies for solo organ are part of a French “organ symphony” tradition which began with Franck’s 1863 Grand pièce symphoniqueYou can hear Widor’s complete Fifth Symphony here.

In the most climactic moments, this instrument (or beast) growls with a stunning, guttural intensity. At the same time, in the upper register, the sound takes on a shimmering sparkle. Listen to all the layers of rhythm that thrust the piece forward, from the rapid arpeggios to the deep pedal tones. It’s an exhilarating ride that descends into muted darkness, then re-emerges and breaks out into an earth-shattering recapitulation. Following the final chord, you’ll get a sense of Notre Dame’s eight and a half second acoustical delay.

Trio Wanderer’s Fauré Recording

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Recently, I’ve been listening to Trio Wanderer’s exceptional 2010 recording of Gabriel Fauré’s Piano Quartets. The members of the all-French trio (violinist Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian, cellist Raphaël Pidoux and pianist Vincent Coq) first performed together as students at the Conservatoire de Paris in the early 1990s. Their background includes studies with the Amadeus Quartet and with Menahem Pressler of the Beaux Arts Trio. Here, they’re joined by violist Antoine Tamestit. The buoyant, suave sense of French style, a wide array of rich tonal colors, and remarkable clarity and balance make this recording stand out.

The soul of the music also comes to life on this disk. Trio Wanderer’s performance captures the sparkling, mercurial spirit of Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 15 (below). This music has the same unexpected harmonic twists and turns we hear in Fauré’s famous Sicilienne et BerceuseIt floats along, evolving and changing shape, like wispy clouds against an otherwise clear blue sky. It’s filled with musical conversations (listen around 0:36 and 1:22). Glistening splashes of color emerge from the piano’s arpeggios and running passages. From the opening bars, there’s an unrelenting sense of forward motion. But listen carefully and you’ll catch rare and fleeting moments of simplicity and repose (for example, at 3:44 and at the end of the first movement at 8:57).

Notice the subtle change in color and atmosphere in the middle of the Scherzo (12:06). Here, we seem to enter a darker, veiled, nocturnal world. Then, there’s the haunting moment at the end of the Adagio when, just as the movement seems to be winding down, we discover that it has more to say (20:43). A final statement of lament follows.

Throughout the final movement, notice the way the forward motion is interrupted occasionally by a harmonic “brick wall” (22:34, 26:22). Each time, we bounce back quickly. But listen for the moment at the end of the movement where the motion completely stops…

  1. Allegro molto moderato (0:00)
  2. Scherzo. Allegro vivo (9:25)
  3. Adagio (14:52)
  4. Finale. Allegro molto (22:06)

Gavotte from “Mignon”

"Mignon" postcards were popular in Europe after Ambroise Thomas' 1866 opera.
“Mignon” postcards were popular in Europe after the premiere of Ambroise Thomas’ opera in 1866.

If you’re a Suzuki violin student, you know the charmingly quirky Gavotte from “Mignon” by the transcription in Book 2. You may be less familiar with the piece’s composer and origin.

Mignon was a wildly successful 1866 French comic opera by Ambroise Thomas (1811-1896), longtime director of the Paris Conservatory. The three-act opera is based on Goethe’s novel, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Its soap opera-like plot centers around a passionate romantic rivalry between two contrasting female characters: the seductive and unscrupulous Philine and the sweet, loving Mignon (who was kidnapped by Gypsies as a child and later discovers that she is the daughter of a wealthy gentleman). 

The Rondo-Gavotte, Me voici dans son boudoir, is sung in Act 2 by Frédéric, a young nobleman who is infatuated with Philine. He stands in her empty dressing room, overcome with excitement and anticipation at the prospect of seeing her. Although originally written for a lyric tenor, the aria is now also commonly sung by sopranos. Here is a performance by Marilyn Horne:

Other notable arias from Mignon include Non conosci il bel suoi and the final love duet, Ah ! son felice, son rapitaHere is the overture.

Sarasate’s Violin Transcription

By 1919, Mignon had enjoyed 1,500 performances at the Opéra-Comique in Paris where it opened. The opera’s popularity inspired this virtuoso showpiece, Romance et Gavotte de Mignon op.16, by Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate. Here is a recording by Tianwa Yang. You’ll hear the familiar Gavotte melody around the 4:40 mark:

Suzuki’s “Mignon”

From a pedagogical perspective, Suzuki’s transcription is valuable for both bow arm and left hand violin technique. Staying mainly in the middle of the bow, the eighth notes allow the student to listen for short but “ringing” staccatos, feeling a sense of springy connection and release with the bow (toh, toh). Later, as the student becomes more advanced, the sixteenth notes can become a brushy spiccato. Eighth notes in measures 38 and 42 can lift with a feeling of the elbow pushing the bow towards the Frog. Frequent re-takes with the bow should be timed so as not to cheat the preceding quarter notes. In the four note trills in measure five, a small amount of bow should be used with quick, precise energy in the left hand.

In the middle section, finger placement of the low B-flats and Fs should be practiced slowly and carefully, maintaining relaxation and correct shape of the left hand. The B-flat major scale is helpful for intonation in this section. The student gets great practice alternating between F-sharps and Fs and Bs and B-flats in this piece.

Most importantly, Gavotte from “Mignon” is about capturing an immaculate French style. Precise (never rushing) rhythm and a feeling of flow and motion to the ends of phrases are essential to this sense of style.