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Guilmant (1837-1911) - Symphony No. 1 for Organ and Orchestra

At the 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 Te Deum in which he asks that they be placed in opposition! 

The composers, 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. 

Secondly 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. 

Although 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 dogs lie? 

On balance, 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! 

1. 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. 

2. 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. 

3. 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? 
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© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


 

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