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Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 42

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Felix Alexandre Guilmant
Program note originally written for the following performance:
Organ Recital: Paul Jacobs, organ: presented by the National Symphony Orchestra Wed., Feb. 5, 2014, 8:00 PM
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Alexandre Guilmant was one of the greatest French organists of the late 19th century. His principal teacher was his father, Jean-Baptiste, a descendant of an organ-building family and organist at the church of St. Nicolas in Boulogne. Alexandre's progress as a performer was so rapid that he was substituting for his father by the time he was a teenager, and he succeeded him in the post at St. Nicolas in 1857, by which time he had written several sacred works for use at the local services. Except for some lessons in 1860 with Nicolas Lemmens, professor of organ at the Brussels Conservatory, Guilmant received no further formal training. From 1857 until 1871 Guilmant taught at the Boulogne Conservatory, but performed frequently enough in Paris, most notably at St. Sulpice and Notre Dame, to establish a reputation in that city. In 1871 he was appointed organist at Ste. Trinité in Paris, a post he retained for almost thirty years. Guilmant was a frequent recitalist, both in Paris and on international tours to England, America, Russia, Spain, Holland and Belgium, helping to popularize the large Romantic organ whose most celebrated builder was the Frenchman Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. With Vincent d'Indy and Charles Bordes, he founded the Schola Cantorum in 1894, and taught there for two years before moving on to the Paris Conservatoire to succeed Widor. Among his pupils were Nadia Boulanger, Joseph Bonnet, Marcel Dupré and René Vierné. Manchester University bestowed an honorary doctorate on him in 1910. Guilmant was also one of the prime movers in the revival of interest in French organ music of earlier eras. The ten volumes of his Archives des maîtres de l'orgue des 16e, 17e, et 18e siècles, published between 1898 and 1914, are one of the most important sources for this music.

Guilmant was a prolific composer for the organ, numbering among his works eight sonatas (comparable in style and scale to Widor's "organ symphonies"); two symphonies for organ and orchestra; three Masses; many motets, Psalms and Vespers; ten books of liturgical music; and some 25 volumes of independent organ pieces. Guilmant's eight organ sonatas, composed between 1874 and 1906, were conceived to exploit the power and range of colors of his beloved Cavaillé-Coll organ at Ste. Trinité. (He resigned his post there when a priest authorized changes and repairs to the instrument by another firm to save money without his knowledge or consent while he was touring America in 1898.) The Sonata No. 1 in D minor, composed in 1874 and reworked as the Symphony No. 1 for Organ and Orchestra four years later, begins with a massive introduction whose deliberate tempo, somber mood and sharply dotted rhythms recall the opening section of the old French Overture form. The pace quickens for the main theme, a long, muscular melody presented in the pedals; the second subject is a gliding, halcyon strain in a brighter tonality. Both ideas are treated with considerable ingenuity, separately and in tandem, in the development section. The recapitulation of the main theme is condensed and decorated with a running commentary of scales and arpeggios, while the subsidiary subject returns in a grand setting before resuming its earlier restrained character. The movement closes with a full-throated coda built around closely compressed entries of the main theme. The outer sections of the Pastorale are based on a gentle, flowing, scalar theme; the movement's central episode contains a series of hushed chord streams draped with phrases of the main theme. The finale is in two large formal chapters, each comprising a dynamic first section in the style of a virtuosic toccata and a chorale-like passage whose phrases are joined by fragments of the toccata theme. For the reprise, the toccata section is condensed to allow the Sonata to culminate in a triumphant statement of the chorale theme.