Louis Vierne

Louis Vierne was born, almost completely blind due to congenital cataracts, in Poitiers in 1870. He was sent to the Institution des Jeunes Aveugles (the Institute for the Young Blind) in Paris from 1880-90 and then remained in Paris and studied music with César Franck (1822-1890) and Charles Widor (1844-1937). This resulted in his winning a Premier Prix for organ at the Paris Conservatoire, and in 1894 he succeeded Widor, whose assistant he had been since 1892, as organist of Ste Sulpice. In 1900 he was appointed principal organist of Notre Dame. In 1932 he undertook a recital tour of the USA to raise funds to restore the Cavaillé-Coll organ. He lost both his son and his brother to the battlefields of World War I. In 1906 a street accident in Paris caused Vierne to fracture his leg badly, and it was briefly thought his leg would need to be amputated. The leg was saved, but his recovery, and the task of completely re-learning his pedal technique, took a full year. The composer and organist Marcel Dupré (1886-1971), was a pupil of Vierne, and notes that he did his composition on outsize manuscript paper, with “a very large crayon”. As Vierne’s sight deteriorated in later life he resorted to Braille for most of his writing. Other pupils included both Lili and Nadia Boulanger, Duruflé, Langlais and Messiaen. Vierne had an elegant, clean style of writing that respected form and his music is very clearly structured. His harmonic language was romantically rich, but not sentimental or theatrical, as was that of some of his contemporaries and predecessors, and his organ music in particular is very idiomatic for the instrument. The Messe Solennelle, written in 1900, for choir and two organs, possibly to impress his new employers, is his only sacred choral work. His other compositional output includes six significant symphonies for organ, some instrumental chamber music, a symphonic poem for orchestra, some secular songs and some music for the piano. Some of this remains unpublished. The government of France made Vierne a Chevalier de la Legion d'honneur in 1931. The nucleus of Vierne’s pupils form the French organ school as we know it today. Vierne died in somewhat dramatic circumstances. He suffered a severe stroke while giving his 1,750th organ recital at Notre Dame on the evening of 2 June 1937. He had completed the main recital, at which members of the audience claimed him to have been at his brilliant and virtuoso best. The closing section was to be two improvisations on hitherto unseen submitted themes. He read the first theme in Braille, and selected the stops he would use for the improvisation. He suddenly pitched forward, and fell off the bench as his foot came to rest on the low E pedal note of the organ. He lost consciousness as the single note echoed throughout the cathedral. Maurice Duruflé, who was turning pages for the recital, was at his side.

Maurice Duruflé

Maurice Duruflé was born in Louviers in 1902. At a young age he was sent to the choir school attached to the great Gothic cathedral at Rouen, which specialised in the singing of Gregorian chant. Whist this was to equip him with an excellent musical education, later in life Duruflé complained that his childhood had been “… one of imprisonment for up to eighteen hours a day, with endless choir rehearsals, piano lessons and church services”. Whatever his opinion of his schooling, he was a gifted musician and this early training later enabled him to enter the Paris Conservatoire to study composition. Shortly afterwards, having fallen out with his tutor, the celebrated Charles Tournemire (1870-1939), he took organ lessons from Louis Vierne, at Notre Dame, and composition lessons from Paul Dukas (1865-1935). He entered the Conservatoire again as a teacher of composition and organ in 1943 – a position he was to hold until 1969. Duruflé stands apart from many of his contemporaries – composers such as Bernstein, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Britten. A reserved and modest man, Duruflé was ill at ease socially, refused invitations to travel to give lectures and recitals, was reluctant to allow his work to be published, and was described as “out of touch” by students, colleagues, and biographers. He lived as a reclusive and private person and seemed unusually unsure and timid given his highly respected ability as a teacher and an organist. He lived in Paris between the two world wars, during one of its most chaotic and creative periods, and yet he showed no interest in ingratiating himself into the salons of the literary and musical elite. Eschewing change, he was a conservative in a radical world. However, his unexpected marriage at the age of fifty-one, to a highly gifted organ student some nineteen years his junior, provided happiness and a new-found joie de vivre. His wife brought him social ease, self-esteem and confidence, and together they toured Europe and the United States, giving organ duet recitals and performances to great acclaim. In 1974 they were both involved in a serious car accident, an event which cut short both their professional and social lives. Duruflé lost both of his legs and remained virtually housebound until his death in 1986. His wife was also seriously injured. The four motets (Ubi Caritas, Tota Pulchra es, Tu es Petrus, and Tantum Ergo) were published as a set of four, Quatre Motets sur des Thèmes Grégoriens op. 10, for choir a cappella in 1960.