Guilmant (1837-1911) - Symphony No. 1 for Organ and
start of the nineteenth century, French interest in the organ as an instrument
of music (as opposed to worship) began to emerge from the doldrums in which
it had languished for over a hundred years. This revival, led by the organist/composer
Alexandre Boëly and the organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll,
advanced on two complementary fronts: instruments became more versatile
and easier to control, with an enormously expanded range of sonorities,
whilst the music written for them became more sensual, expressive, and
grandiloquent. The outcome was the sound that most of us casually connect
with the “King of Instruments”. However, striking the nail’s head with
his usual pinpoint accuracy, Berlioz had already observed that “The organ
is Pope, the orchestra Emperor”, thereby adding a political slant to his
Deum in which he asks that they be placed in opposition!
such as Widor, Franck and Vierne, who exploited the abilities of these
organs soon divided into two camps. Firstly there were those who regarded
this enriched French organ as a sort of “one-man orchestra”. To prove their
point they developed a new form which by its very name invited comparison
with the orchestra. The “organ symphony” was a practical demonstration
of the instrument’s “orchestral” potential.
there were those who, following Berlioz, felt that the organ was really
a distinct - and distinctive - instrument. In passing, I do wonder
how their opinions might have been affected by the current evolutionary
product of the organ principle, the dreaded - but rapidly becoming less
dreadful - computerised synthesiser. Alexandre Guilmant, siding
with this camp, pointedly called his essays in the new form “organ sonatas”.
Only when he arranged the first of these specifically for organ and orchestra
did it become a “symphony”. The “symphony for organ and orchestra” was
a practical demonstration of the distinctive characters of its protagonists.
these days hardly a household name, in his lifetime Guilmant was something
of a “pop star”, capitalising on his novelty value as the first French
“concert organist” by making frequent and successful tours abroad. In England,
for example, his regular “dates” attracted audiences of over 10,000, which
by anybody’s standards was packing them in. His compositions were also
very popular but, in common with many a “pop star” since, when Guilmant
left the scene so did his music. Is this our loss, or should we let sleeping
I’d say the former. Although it’s written with a keen ear for the contrasted
colours of the organ and orchestra, any “innovation” in this symphony is
limited to expanding the Romantic repertoire for the Romantically-expanded
organ, which amounts more to “catching up” than real innovation. The shadow
of the organ’s ecclesiastical origin looms large in Guilmant’s use of chorale
and Gregorian melodic styles, whilst the three-movement outline, in the
“Italian Style” of fast-slow-fast, and use of dotted rhythms suggest another
shade - that of the Baroque. However, much as it might appear to be mere
ladling of new wine into old bottles, this is no pallid reflection of the
past, beefed up as it is with considerable injections of block-busting
“pizzaz” in the grand, grand manner of Gounod. If, like me, you are bowled
over by the latter’s tuneful and rudely robust Saint Cecilia Mass,
you’re simply going to love this!
Introduction and allegro. Largo e maestoso - Allegro - Tempo primo.
In the imposing introduction, the organ and orchestra trade punches like
two heavyweight Baroque boxers. The two main subjects, one dancing vivaciously,
the other a seductive, sinuous melody, soon oust any residual aroma of
Church and Baroque respectively. The development, triggered by fugato strings,
bounces verve against allure, eventually thundering into a climactic reprise.
Pastorale. Andante quasi allegretto opens with the organ playing a
liquid, silvery melody in the form of a leisurely fugue with chorale undertones.
As the variations unfold into a ternary layout, the musical lines continually
play against one another, something like rapid ripples running over the
slow flow of a broad stream. It is exquisite, making it easy to sympathise
with the first performance audience who demanded, and got, an encore.
Finale. Allegro assai - Andante maestoso - Tempo primo. This is another
ternary layout, though the exact form is hard to tell because it feels
as if the entire melodic material sprouts from the opening welter of exciting
activity. Following a pause, the central section again plays on that same
contrast of long-breathed chorale and excitable chatter. It comes as no
surprise that the closing section grows into a grandiose procession, a
festive coda replete with fanfaring brass, in which I for one cannot help
but notice a faint (probably accidental?) allusion to the tune of “On Ilkla
Moor bar t’At”. Let’s call that the icing on a very rich cake, shall we?
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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