The Kennedy Center

From Symphony No. 4 in G minor, Op. 32

About the Work

Louis Vierne Composer: Louis Vierne
© Peter Laki

Louis Vierne, who was almost completely blind from birth, served as the organist of Notre Dame in Paris for 37 years. He enriched his instrument's repertoire with numerous outstanding works, including six monumental "organ symphonies"-a genre made famous by Vierne's teacher Charles-Marie Widor-in which the organ emulates the multiplicity of sound colors available in a large orchestra. The organ symphony expanded the formal possibilities of organ music beyond preludes, fugues, fantasies and other genres connected to the Bach tradition, making the organ, perhaps for the first time, a fully secularized instrument. Conceived on a symphonic scale, these works are also closely related to the Romantic piano tradition, as they require the keyboard dexterity of a virtuoso pianist.

Vierne's Fourth Symphony was written in 1914; interestingly, it was first performed and first published in the United States. The world premiere was given by Francis Snow in Boston on November 7, 1917, and the score was printed by G. Schirmer in New York the same year.

We shall hear the last two movements from this five-movement symphony. The lyrical melody of the "Romance" unfolds over an unchanging bass note of the kind that is usually called a "pedal point" except that here it is played on the manual while the melody itself is in the pedal. The straightforward major tonality of this theme is followed by a chromatic passage, quoting a characteristic turn from Wagner's Prelude to Tristan and Isolde; this leads into a more animated middle section whose tonality becomes extremely volatile. The main melody then returns in the ethereal register of the voix céleste.

The last movement is an intensely chromatic toccata where a continuous triplet motion wanders between the manuals and the pedal, right up to the grandiose and truly symphonic conclusion.