[Embellishments logo]
Embellishments Contents
Music Publications
A-R Home

The Complete Organ Symphonies of Charles-Marie Widor

Edited by John R. Near

[Charles-Marie Widor] Born in Lyon to a family of organ builders, Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937) showed early his proclivities toward the organ. The renowned French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, friend of the Widor family, was highly impressed by the young boy's talent and arranged for him to study organ in Brussels with Jacques Lemmens and composition with François-Joseph Fétis, director of the Brussels Conservatory. In the ensuing years, Cavaillé-Coll took an almost paternal role in guiding Widor's career. In 1870, when the position of organist opened at Saint-Sulpice, Paris--where Cavaillé-Coll had installed his magnum opus of 100 stops in 1863--he, Saint-Saëns, and Gounod banded together to influence the church council to appoint the 26-year-old Widor. The appointment endured 64 years.

Commanding the almost unlimited resources of such a great instrument planted a new mode of musical expression in the young composer's thought. Following Franck's example of a few years earlier, Widor seized the multi-movement plan of the orchestral symphony, translated it to the organ, and established the organ symphony as a genre with his first four Symphonies pour orgue, opus 13 (1872). He continued to develop the form in the next series of four Symphonies pour orgue, opus 42 (1878-87). In the monumental Symphonie VIII, with a performance time of about an hour, Widor pushed organ technique to the limit and exhausted the tonal possibilities of the instrument. Turning to plainchant for melodic material in his last two organ symphonies, Symphonie gothique, opus 70 (1895) and Symphonie romane, opus 73 (1900), Widor sought to instill an unequivocal sacred character into his organ music. Aside from his renown as an organist and composer of organ music, Widor composed prolifically for other media. His published works include music for a variety of chamber ensembles, solo piano, voice (over 70 mélodies), chorus (motets and a mass), orchestra (five symphonies, a symphonic poem, and concertos), and the theater (four operas, a ballet, a pantomime, and incidental music). While some of this music is beginning to make a comeback, especially on CD, it is Widor's magnificent organ music that has remained his most prominent legacy.

For many composers the compositional process ends when the music has been committed to paper and published. Widor, however, continued to revise his music throughout his long life. But just how many times and to what extent has not been known until the editor's recent research on this matter. Disentangling the publication history of the organ symphonies presented a formidable challenge because of the scarcity of single and complete editions in the various versions and because of the disparate locations of the scores. Each new discovery had to be meticulously compared with others to determine its chronological position. Missing and incorrect information, such as the dates of composition, added to the difficulty of the task. Ultimately, it was discovered that over a period of about 60 years, as many as eight different editions were issued for some of the symphonies. In each edition, revisions range from the replacement of an entire movement to the modification of a single pitch, rhythm, or other small detail.

So many revisions gave rise to numerous problems as the printing plates were reworked over such a long period of time. To fit new material into the space constraints of the previous edition, the French publisher re-engraved whole measures and even systems: errors can be found in unrevised portions of the new editions simply because they were re-engraved carelessly. Through oversight, a few ambiguities were created when, for instance, directives effective in an earlier reading but not in the new one were negligently allowed to remain in the score. Such ambiguities can be resolved only by examining the variant readings in previous versions.

As the deterioration of the printing plates increased, many fine details--such as stems, dots, accidentals, and so forth--progressively faded or disappeared from the scores. During Widor's lifetime, a few attempts to fix the plates only compounded the errors. Previous correct editions were evidently not consulted by the engraver as he imposed fallacious stemmings and other details onto the score. In Widor's personal last copies, he began to correct some of the engraver's faulty work. Even worse corruptions appeared after the mid-1940s when incorrect pitches, accidentals, rhythms, stemmings, and directives were inflicted upon the scores. This is the defective version that is presently available in the French editions and the inexpensive American photo-reprint editions--one of which claims to be a reprint of the first edition while it actually represents the fourth.

It is the goal of the A-R edition to present the final version of each symphony as Widor intended to leave it for posterity; the corrections Widor made to the last published version, found on his personal scores, are included. Along with the main text, each volume includes one or more appendices containing selected principal variants--those so substantially revised as to be effectively new pieces or those so musically worthy that the performer should have a complete printing from which to read. Movements excised from the symphonies are reinstated in the appendices. Other minor revisions are discussed in the Critical Commentary for each symphony when they help clarify problematic areas or otherwise bear directly on the version under consideration. It is possible to reconstruct an early version for study or performance. Yet in reprinting the excised movements and many other movements in their early versions, the editor does not intend or wish to undermine Widor's lifelong efforts to leave each symphony in a definitive form. Although with each new revision he imposed his more mature style on early compositions and thus risked violating their initial integrity, the composer's artistic conscience must be respected and the final version accepted as Widor left it. It would be wrong to perform a symphony in a conflation of movements from different versions.

The preface to Symphonie I of the Widor edition includes essays on the place of organ music in Widor's oeuvre, his musical heritage, his development of the organ symphony, the first performances and publications, the sources, performance guidelines, and a technical description of the organ of Saint-Sulpice. Numerous specially conceived editorial policies are presented. Such ambiguous issues as staccato dots and wedges are resolved. Widor's "Avant-propos"; is given in a new English translation, side-by-side with the original French. The edition is useful for performers and scholars to investigate many important issues regarding Widor's revisions and to gain insights into the final version. It is hoped that new light will be shed on the grand legacy that Widor bestowed upon organists.

[John R. Near] John R. Near is Associate Professor of Music and Chair of the Music Department at Principia College, Elsah, Illinois. He began his research on Widor in 1982 for his doctoral dissertation at Boston University, The Life and Work of Charles-Marie Widor (1985).