Charles-Marie Widor (21 February 1844 – 12 March 1937), along with fellow composer-organist César Franck, transformed organ repertoire from dull liturgical servant to full-fledged symphonic machine. Helped along by the organ-building genius of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, Widor was able to make increasingly larger demands on the instrument and the player.
His ten symphonies contain some superb music but, in truth, not all of their movements are of consistent quality, musically and aesthetically. So – here’s a quick guide to the six best movements to hunt out.
1. Toccata from Symphony No. 5
Let's begin with the French composer’s most famous piece, if not the most well-known piece in the whole organ repertoire. Symphony No. 5 is a beautifully constructed masterpiece, the opening movement a set of gorgeous variations, the second a charming, lyrical quasi-salon piece.
But it’s the Toccata that steals the show with its moto perpetuo right-hand (sometimes left-hand) figuration and punchy accompaniment chords. And that descending pedal melody, simple as it is, leaves the listener breathless.
2. Marche Pontificale from Symphony No. 1
Back to the start of Widor’s Symphony cycle for our second choice. The Marche Pontificale is a processional piece par excellence. To our minds, it makes an even better wedding exit piece than the Toccata from Symphony No. 5 (see above).
3. Marcia from Symphony No. 3
Symphony No. 3 also contains an outrageous march – packed full of pomp and ceremony. It’s the definite highlight in a symphony where the first movement doesn’t quite take off, the second movement Minuetto rarely strays from the slightly fey and the finale is a bit of a damp squib. But hearken unto the Marcia, and it’ll bring a smile to your face. Our YouTube clip features Daniel Roth at the console of Widor’s organ at St Sulpice, Paris.
4. & 5. Allegro and Intermezzo from Symphony No. 6
Forgive us if we skip Symphony No. 4 and head straight to No. 6, a symphony that has few weak spots. The first and final movements of No. 6 are staggering in their technical demands and sheer impact, and the Intermezzo is a thrilling gem. So we’re going to go with the first and third movements of this glorious work. First, here’s Olivier Latry kicking things off with a brilliant performance of the first movement from St Joseph’s church in Bonn.
And then we fly over to Michigan and hear Matthew Dempsey on the Skinner organ at the university’s Hall Auditorium for the Intermezzo.
6. Andante sostenuto from Symphonie Gothique (No. 9)
Finally, it’s to the Symphonie Gothique that we turn for a gorgeous slow movement – the Andante sostenuto. Gabriel Fauré could have written this, scored perhaps for piano and flute. It’s a wonderfully lilting, cantabile movement and, tantalisingly, its gorgeous hook near the start is never quite repeated. So – enjoy it while you can! Here’s Baptiste-Florian Marle-Ouvrard at the organ of St Eustache in Paris.