The Last Chapter: Widor on Organ Performance Practice and Technique

This month we have two major University of Rochester Press publications coming out on French organist and composer Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937): the paperback release of the acclaimed Widor: A Life beyond the Toccata and Widor on Organ Performance Practice and Technique, both by John R. Near. We would like to thank Dr. Near for sharing this brief history of his lifelong work on Widor and to especially congratulate him on the completion of this exceptional second volume.

When I set off on my Widor quest in 1982, could I have imagined that it would still be ongoing in 2019 and perhaps beyond? What began as a doctoral dissertation became a fascinating lifelong adventure into a life and work that still seems endless. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of how it has unfolded:

  • 1984, “The Life and Work of Charles-Marie Widor” (DMA diss., Boston University)
  • 1991–97, critical edition of The Symphonies for Organ, opp. 13, 42, 70, 73 (A-R Editions)
  • 1993, “Charles-Marie Widor: The Organ Works and Saint-Sulpice” (The American Organist, February)
  • 2002, critical edition of Symphonie pour orgue et orchestra, op. 42[bis] (A-R Editions)
  • 2011, Widor: A Life beyond the Toccata (University of Rochester Press)
  • 2017, critical edition of Bach’s Memento and Handel’s Célèbre Largo (Crescendo Music Publications)
  • 2019, “Lost Work by Widor is Found” (The American Organist, February); Widor on Organ Performance Practice and Technique (University of Rochester Press); “A Most Courteous Competition” (The American Organist, May)
Charles-Marie Widor playing the organ, February 1924.

In 1982, my intention was to satisfy an academic requirement and enrich my professional field. Widor came to the fore as I combed through possible topics, and I initially planned to deal with him as an organist and composer of organ music. I have always relished Widor’s organ music; I think of it not so much as music for the organ as music of the organ. It rises organically from the instrument as if born of a loving parent; and for Widor the soaring tone of the organ was a “sound singing eternity to the stars.” But I knew little about Widor when I began. As I started my research, I quickly discovered an Everest that I could not scale without considering the whole of his life and work. I soon fell in love with the subject. It seemed strange to me that since his death in 1937 hardly anyone had taken notice of his work, with the exception of a handful of organ pieces. In recent years, however, we have witnessed a mighty resurgence of interest in Widor’s music—both the organ and non-organ works.

Nearly three decades of research and writing culminated in the biography, Widor: A life beyond the Toccata. As the book grew in dimensions, I realized that my intended last chapter, “Widor’s Maxims on Organ Performance Practice and Technique,” was irrelevant to the biographical content and much too weighty a subject to include. It would have to wait for a future time.

When occasionally I have felt that I have done all I can concerning Monsieur Widor, I have been urged on by his oft repeated dictum: “You have the duty to do a thing if you are sure it is necessary to the general interest!” With that in mind, I had to complete the last chapter, now under a slightly shortened title. The intervening years since the biography have allowed me to assemble, flesh out more fully, and meditate upon Widor’s prolific, heretofore largely unexplored writings on organ performance practice and technique. He speaks authoritatively on these topics in his Preface to Jean-Sébastien Bach—Œuvres complètes pour orgue. Although seemingly aimed toward the interpretation of Bach’s organ works, his maxims are clearly to be applied beyond Bach’s music to his own, following his overt declaration, “The art of organ playing has not changed at all since Johann Sebastian Bach.” That Widor included a few examples from his own organ music among those of Bach provides further conclusive evidence. The 130-page Bach Preface details just about every pedagogical aspect that teachers and performers need to know in order to bring about historically informed interpretations vis-à-vis Widor. I have translated all relevant portions deemed applicable to Widor’s organ music and his circle of followers, as well as statements that reflect his approach to performance style and artistic awareness. Correlative source material that clarifies and augments topics in the Preface is added in commentary sections.

To his gifts as a fine composer, superb organist and eloquent writer, Widor also brought a complete understanding of the organ—its history, design, mechanical properties, and idiomatic capabilities. Translations of his three seminal writings about the organ are included among the appendixes.

For all who hold a passion for the organ music of Widor and the coterie of composers inspired by his example, Widor on Organ Performance Practice and Technique must assume profound significance. It provides an essential link to better understanding Widor’s music as well as all that falls under the umbrella of the French Romantic organ school of which he was a founding principal.

This guest post was written by John R. Near, Professor Emeritus of Music, Principia College. His publications include Widor: A Life beyond the Toccata and
Widor on Organ Performance Practice and Technique, available from the University of Rochester Press.

Widor on Organ Performance Practice and Technique
by John R. Near
Hardback / 9781580469449 / £37.50 or $45
Widor: A Life beyond the Toccata
by John R. Near

Hardback / 9781580463690 / £45 or $67.50
Paperback / 9781580469593 / £22.50 or $37.46
eBook for Handhelds / 9781580468985 / £14.99 or $18.74

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