Widor: A Man of the World 

Guest post written by John R Near, author of Autobiographical Recollections of Charles-Marie Widor

Studying the life and work of Charles-Marie Widor initially came from my quest to find a relevant doctoral dissertation topic in 1982. With the completion of my dissertation, I realized that there was yet much to be accomplished to bring Widor’s life work the recognition it so richly deserved. That realization has resulted in forty years of researching and writing about this great French musician. It became a mission—a sort of calling—that has included editing critical editions of his ten seminal Symphonies for Organ, his tribute to the Cantor of Leipzig (Bach’s Memento), and the first edition of his Symphony in G Minor for Organ and Orchestra. The years have been filled with writing numerous articles, giving symposium talks, authoring his biography (Widor: A Life beyond the Toccata, 2011), participating in a documentary DVD (Widor: Master of the Organ Symphony, 2015), and presenting his definitive writings on performance (Widor on Organ Performance Practice and Technique, 2019). From some 300 critical reviews, articles, prefaces, and various other writings by Widor, I selected and translated fifteen for inclusion in a book I co-authored with Rollin Smith (Voices of French Organists’ Experience, 2022). Finally, I believe translating, editing, and annotating Autobiographical Recollections of Charles-Marie Widor (2024) brings my work full circle. 

As a student, I had performed some of Widor’s organ works, yet I knew very little about him. When I began my dissertation, I found that no one had investigated in any depth his life and works since his death in 1937. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians had recently been published (1980), and amongst its twenty volumes only a slim two columns of text by musicologist Félix Raugel acknowledged Widor. Not having other researchers’ footsteps to follow was advantageous; it meant that I had only primary sources with which to work—many of them written by those who personally knew the maître or who had been his students. What I quickly discovered was a Frenchman of world outlook—a man far more diverse than the renowned organist that has defined his life into posterity. Here was a comprehensive musician, a man of exceptional culture and erudition. 

Born on February 21, 1844, under the reign of King Louis Philippe and living to the cusp of World War II, Widor’s long life destined him to become a notable historical figure. After relocating from his provincial native town of Lyon to Paris—the “City of Light”—he entered a new world and soon became extremely well connected in various social, political, professional, and artistic circles, eventually moving with ease among the intelligentsia, presidents, politicians, royalty, nobility, artists, patrons, and even military personnel. The borders of his life extended far beyond the famous organ gallery at Saint-Sulpice, where he reigned a legendary sixty-four years at the great organ of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. Widor actively participated on the world stage as a renowned performer, composer in nearly every genre, Paris Conservatory professor, leader in the French Bach revival, co-founder and first director of the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau, writer, critic, journalist, conductor, music editor, scholar, member of the Institut de France, and correspondent member of four foreign academies. After his nomination as secrétaire perpétuel (permanent secretary) of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1914, he virtually became the cultural ambassador of his country, initiating the Institute’s Casa Velázquez in Madrid and the Maison de l’Institut à Londres (London). 

I was fortunate to have found and had close personal contact over many years with the last family members who knew him, who enthusiastically supported my work, and who gave me unrestricted access to the trove of archives contained in the large armoire in their dining room. Upon first opening its doors, I encountered hundreds of precious documents, letters, photographs, news clippings, and rare memorabilia that were packed inside; among them were the original hand-drawn and colored plan of the Saint-Sulpice Cavaillé-Coll console, signed photos of prominent people, and the sole typescript of Widor’s “Souvenirs autobiographiques.” It has been forty years in the trenches of Widor research that finally brought me to the task of preparing for publication this 103-page document—the last fruit of his labor, hurriedly dictated in 1936 only months before his death on March 12, 1937, at age ninety-three.  

I am forever grateful to have been blessed with such an enriching life-occupation beyond my chosen profession as an organist and professor of music history. I could never have dreamed how the study of Widor’s fascinating life and work would deeply involve me in French language and culture, bring me into contact with many great individuals, and grace my life with fulfillment beyond measure. 

JOHN R. NEAR is Professor Emeritus of Music at Principia College, Elsah, IL.

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