Charles-marie Widor (1844-1937)

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01The Organ Prodigy20150511

Donald Macleod focuses on how as an emerging prodigy, Widor dazzled audiences at the organ

Donald Macleod explores the life and music of Charles-Marie Widor. In his lifetime, Widor was feted throughout Europe as a performer, teacher, and composer of ballets, opera, concertos and organ symphonies, Today he is largely remembered for just one work. This week, Dr John Near joins Donald Macleod to journey through the world of Widor, looking beyond his famous organ Toccata to explore the composer's chamber and orchestral music.

The young Widor emerged as an organ prodigy in the 1860s, with the support and encouragement of the famed organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. He was soon offered a post at the church of St. Sulpice in Paris, and became a pivotal figure in Parisian cultural and social circles. His performances at the organ, and his works for the stage and concert halls attracted many, including royalty. Widor also joined the teaching staff at the Paris Conservatoire, and taught many luminaries of the next generation, including Vierne, Kodály, Varese and Messiaen. Widor lived into his nineties and remained active into his final years, founding the Casa Vélazquez in Madrid for French artists to study Spanish culture.

Playing and building organs ran in the Widor family. Young Charles-Marie was first hoisted onto the organ bench at the age of four where his father would teach him the mysteries of the instrument. By the time he was eleven years old, Widor was awarded a scholarship to study at the Lycee in Lyon. He was able to earn his keep by playing the organ at mass and vespers at the city's Jesuit College. Widor would go on to compose much liturgical music during his long career, including his Mass Opus 36 for two choirs and two organs.

Supported by the organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, Widor was sent to study organ with Jacques Lemmens and composition with François-Joseph Fétis. After this burst of intense learning, Cavaillé-Coll utilised his protégé's now exceptional skills by sending Widor off around Europe to champion instruments manufactured by his mentor's firm. Later, Cavaillé-Coll helped Widor secure his first significant position as organist at the church of St. Sulpice in Paris, where he was to remain for sixty-four years.

02Widor Causes A Stir20150512

Donald Macleod on the controversy Widor's symphonic poem La Nuit de Walpurgis caused.

He was famed throughout Europe as a performer, teacher, and composer of ballets, opera, concertos and organ symphonies, although today he is largely remembered for one work, his Toccata for organ, this week Donald Macleod explores the life and music of Charles-Marie Widor.

Widor was dazzling Paris with his organ performances at the church of St. Sulpice. The social elite of the city would be allowed to sit in the organ loft with Widor and watch him perform, including the banker Frederic d'Erlanger, to whom the composer dedicated his Trio Opus 19. The Cavaillé-Coll instrument at St. Sulpice offered a rich palette to composers, and soon Widor started writing sets of symphonies for his instrument, although some commentators couldn't understand how you could composer a symphony for solo organ.

Mixing in the cultural circles of Paris was very important to Widor. He composed many songs during his career, and dedicated them to various aristocrats and artists. Widor was also socialising with the musical elite, including Liszt, and he attended one of the first performances of Wagner's Ring Cycle at Bayreuth. He was keen to push musical boundaries himself, and his symphonic poem La Nuit de Walpurgis, the witches' Sabbath, caused quite a stir. Some critics thought that Widor was going too far!

03Appointed To The Paris Conservatoire20150513

Focusing on Widor's work as a teacher and curtain calls taken with the Prince of Wales.

He was famed throughout Europe as a performer, teacher, and composer of ballets, opera, concertos and organ symphonies, although today he is largely remembered for one work, his Toccata for organ, this week Donald Macleod explores the life and music of Charles-Marie Widor.

Widor's music was becoming known internationally. His next big hit came with his ballet La Korrigane, The Goblin Maiden. The premiere at the Paris Opera was a huge success, and was attended by Edward, Prince of Wales who took curtain calls with the composer. On the recommendation of His Royal Highness, Widor received a commission to compose music for the Royal Philharmonic Society, marking the tenth anniversary of the Father Willis organ at the Royal Albert Hall. For this occasion Widor composed his Symphony Opus 42a for organ and orchestra.

In 1890 Widor returned to England for another Royal Philharmonic Society event, the performance of his Fantaisie in A flat major Opus 62. This work went down very well and remained popular throughout the composer's lifetime. In the same year, following the death of Cesar Franck, Widor was appointed organ professor at the Paris Conservatoire. He was met with hostility from some of his new students, but he soon won them over with his knowledge and abilities.

04Promoted At The Paris Conservatoire20150514

How a new position confirmed Widor's status as one of France's pre-eminent musical figures

He was famed throughout Europe as a performer, teacher, and composer of ballets, opera, concertos and organ symphonies, although today he is largely remembered for one work, his Toccata for organ, this week Donald Macleod explores the life and music of Charles-Marie Widor.

Widor had a number of huge hits under his belt, including not only organ music, but works for the stage and concert platform as well. A work of his which has stood the test of time along with his Toccata for organ, is Widor's Suite Opus 34 for flute and piano, composed in the mid 1880s. Although much of Widor's time was taken with teaching organ at the Paris Conservatoire, and his post at the church of St. Sulpice, he still received commissions from abroad, including a new work to be performed in Geneva, his Symphony No 3 Op 69 for organ and orchestra.

There was a turning point for Widor in 1895. His music started to take on a much more serious nature, and he became increasingly interested in Gregorian chant. It was during this period, just before the start of the twentieth century, that Widor's career took another significant turn, when he was appointed Professor of Composition at the Paris Conservatoire.

05A Musical Statesman20150515

Donald Macleod focuses on Widor's final years.

He was famed throughout Europe as a performer, teacher, and composer of ballets, opera, concertos and organ symphonies, although today he is largely remembered for one work, his Toccata, this week Donald Macleod explores the life and music of Charles-Marie Widor.

In the last thirty years of Widor's long life, he saw his own musical style become more out-of-date. He was far from giving up though, and with his appointment to the French Academy of Fine Arts, Widor had plenty to do. He now held the highest official post for a musician in France, and utilised his position to help artists in need. During the Great War he refused to leave Paris, feeling that he was honour bound to remain at the Institut and do what he could.

His composing activities were now much reduced. During the war he composed a solitary song Dormez, Mèlité, and in 1934 came his last work for the organ, Trois Nouvelles Pièces Opus 87. Yet Widor continued to work tirelessly, establishing a new French cultural institute in Madrid, and also London, and completing over 60 years as organist at St. Sulpice in Paris. One of Widor's final masterpieces, on a Mahlerian scale, was his Symphonie antique Op 83 for soloists, choir, organ and orchestra.

Les Pêcheurs de Saint-Jean (Marche de Noël)

Royal Scottish National Orchestra

Martin Yates, conductor

Cello Sonata in A major Op 80 (Allegro moderato)

Mats Lidström, cello

Bengt Forsberg, piano

Dormez, Mèlité

Michael Bundy, baritone

Jeremy Filsell, piano

Classique d'aujord'hui (Trois Nouvelles Pièces Op 87)

Ben van Oosten, organ

Symphonie antique Op 83 for soloists, choir, organ and orchestra (Moderato)

Domkantorei Altenberg

Gürzenich-Chor Köln

Deutsch-Französischer Chor, Köln

Andreas Meisner, organ

Paul Wißkirchen, organ

Radio Sinfonie Orchestra Pilsen

Volker Hempfling, conductor

Producer Luke Whitlock.