Symphony No. 1

Pour Orgue et Orchestre, Op. 42, Alexandre Guilmant

The organ is King of the instruments.


In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Paris sparkled with music. The founding in 1860 of the Concerts populares by Jules Pasdeloup offered an expansion of the musical audience to include the rising bourgeoisie and “the lower classes.”  Les Concerts Colonne founded in 1872 was focused on presenting French music: various concert halls were built… music became integral to Parisian life and national pride. The Societe des Grandes auditions (founded to promote “art music”) and even the department store Bon Marche gave free public concerts with “resident musicians” and musical education.

Along with all of this, the traditional Opera flourished, the Conservatory and its Concerts du Conservatoire maintained a strong presence, and even the zoo offered regular public concerts. French composers such as César Franck, Gabriel Faure, Henri Duparc, Offenbach and Saint -Saens were acclaimed and venerated. This was the environment which Alexandre Guilmant entered when he moved to Paris in 1871, where he was appointed to la Trinite church. He stayed there 30 years and then went “on the road” as a performing organist. He was the first major French organist to tour the United States in 1904, where he produced a series of 40 concerts. He also became a popular performer throughout Europe, and one critic likened him to “a pop star.” In England, his concerts sometimes attracted over 10,000 people. (Paul Serotsky)

By this time, organs had evolved to such an extent in their tonal abilities, their design and their capacities that Cesar Franck exclaimed, “My organ: it is an orchestra!” A significant amount of credit therein is due to the French organ builder, Aristide Caville-Coll, whose development of tracker action, of additional stops allowing the orchestra to sound like different instruments  (such as flute, oboe or trumpet) the coupling of keyboards, and changes in pneumatic pressure tolerance made the organ a dramatic source of power, inspiration, dynamic strength via the swell box, and harmonic coloration.  Sometimes these splendid instruments were called symphonic organs.

Although the Baroque period (1600-1750) had lavished enormous attention on the organ, the idea of big symphonic style compositions offered new vistas and growing stature for the organ in the concert hall. Noted French composers/organists were Cesar Franck, Charles-Marie Widor, Marcel Dupre, Fleury, and Felix-Alexandre Guilmant.

Guilmant had the good fortune to have had access to one of the “modern” instruments of his friend, Caville-Coll.  He remained singularly devoted to organ composition, pedagogy, organ construction and performance during his lifetime.  He was especially noted for his spectacular ability to improvise.

Symphony No. 1 began as one of his eight organ sonatas to which he simply added orchestral parts and retained the opus number 42. It premiered on August 22, 1878 in the Palais du Trocadero. Opus 42 begins loudly with organ and orchestra matching one another in grand alternating assertions… “Like two heavyweight boxers exchanging punches.” (Paul Serotsky) The main first theme begins as a solo pedal statement from the organ; the second theme is soft, sweetly lyrical in contrast, again with soloist and orchestra separated for the most part, however sharing in thematic subject matter. Guilmant follows traditional sonata-allegro format with a development (both forces are joined herein) and recapitulation.

The relaxed second movement, titled Pastorale, moves in lilting 12/8 meter and employs the flute stops of the organ in a delicate, slowly moving fugal presentation. Guilmant was exceptionally well trained in Bach fugue repertoire. Eventually he adds the voix celeste  (celestial voice) in a heavenly conclusion. A pianissimo orchestral chord from the strings closes the scene. At the first concert, the audience demanded, and received, a repeat of this movement.

The third movement immediately provides a full-blown display of organ virtuosity within fast moving sixteenth notes, reminiscent of French toccata style. As in the first movement, Guilmant includes a contrasting lyrical second theme, which eventually yields to the energy of the opening. The final segment offers a brilliant display, marked by trumpets and timpani, and a huge, climactic unification of forces for a sensational closing.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016

See all Program Notes

Program Notes