(b Lyons, 21 Feb 1844; d Paris, 12 March 1937). French organist, composer and teacher known primarily for his organ symphonies.
His mother was of Italian ancestry, and his paternal grandfather was an organ builder of Hungarian descent; his father was both an organ builder and performer who gave Widor his first lessons. The boy showed great ability and at the age of 11 became the organist at the lycée in Lyons. Upon the recommendation of Cavaillé-Coll, Widor went to Brussels, where he studied composition with Fétis and the organ with J.-N. Lemmens. Lemmens, who was the most recent member of a line of teachers connected directly to Bach, taught him traditional German interpretations of Bach to which he remained loyal for the rest of his life. He played the organ at St François in Lyons from 1860 and performed frequently in the provinces until 1870, when he was given a provisional one-year appointment succeeding Louis Lefebure-Wély at St Sulpice in Paris; there he remained for 64 years. In the 1870s he produced numerous compositions in various genres, and in 1880 his first stage work, the ballet La korrigane, was successfully produced at the Paris Opéra. At about the same time he became a music critic for the daily L’estafette, signing his articles with the pen name ‘Aulétès’. He also conducted the Concordia, a choral society which specialized in oratorios. On the death of Franck in 1890, Widor became professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire; six years later, when Théodore Dubois assumed direction of the Conservatoire, Widor replaced him as professor of composition. He was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1910 and became the permanent secretary four years later. During World War I he used his numerous contacts to obtain money for artists who had suffered misfortunes. In 1916 he introduced the idea of founding the Casa Vélazquez, a counterpart to the Villa Medicis, at which French artists could study Spanish culture. This project came to fruition at Madrid but the building was apparently destroyed in the 1930s. Widor continued to perform regularly until the age of 90; he was succeeded at St Sulpice by Marcel Dupré.
At the core of Widor’s varied compositional achievement lie the ten organ symphonies which, taking Franck’s Grande pièce symphonique and Alkan’s Symphonie from op.39 for piano solo as their starting-point, ambitiously combine the style of 19th-century orchestral and piano music with an exploration of the sonic possibilities of the Cavaillé-Coll organ. The op.13 set (nos.1–4, 1872) seems more like a series of suites, so eclectic is the range of styles; the op.42 set (nos.5–8, 1887) contrastingly displays Widor’s intellectual force and imaginative power, and produces a high level of argumentative cogency and formal unity within astonishingly large-scale structures. Although these works reflect the experience gained from composing his first two orchestral symphonies, Widor’s expertise in instrumentation led him clearly to perceive the essential differences between the organ and the orchestra. Indeed, he constantly warned against regarding the former as a substitute for the latter. The Fifth Organ Symphony (with the Toccata as its finale) is the most frequently performed today, while the Seventh and Eighth are comparatively neglected. Uncompromising in their demands on both player and listener, they reveal an unexpectedly austere and even harsh dimension of Widor’s personality not usually presented to the public. It is as if he were challenging the organ itself to the limits of its aesthetic potential. The Third Symphony (for orchestra and organ, 1894), however, is compromised by its obvious formal resemblance to Saint-Saëns’s own Third Symphony. Striving for international acclaim with this work, written for the opening of the Victoria Hall, Geneva, Widor adopted a strongly Central European manner and idiom for the celebratory orchestral music; but this unfortunately jars with the more hierarchical tone of the chorale-style writing for the organ. His last two organ symphonies are based on cyclically treated Gregorian themes, reflecting the Catholic ethos of the Schola Cantorum, founded by Franck’s disciples Bordes, d’Indy and Guilmant. But whereas the Gothique (1895) is deliberately archaic in style, the Romane (1900), with its Lisztian impressionistic textures, looks ahead to Tournemire’s L’orgue mystique.
Widor also set out to rival Saint-Saëns and Fauré in the fashionable salons of the capital. The songs and chamber music written for this ambience combine an easy tunefulness with more advanced tendencies, as in the Schumannesque mélodies Incantation and Contemplation, and there are a number of Victor Hugo settings which reflect contemporary taste.
His relatively lightweight scores for La korrigane (1880) and Conte d’avril (1885) enjoyed considerable popularity in various arrangements, while the opera Maître Ambros (1886) attracted critical attention as a semi-Wagnerian adaptation which also contained rousing Meyerbeerian crowd scenes. His apparent tendency to capitalize on the successes of others is exemplified in Les pêcheurs de Saint-Jean (1905), subtitled Scènes de la vie maritime: for d’Indy’s L’étranger (1898–1901) had been similarly set in a closed fishing community, and evoked the fury of the elements.
A rare insight into Widor’s private existence is glimpsed in the superb Piano Quartet in A minor (1891), inspired by his passionate affair with Countess Emmanuela Potocka; its expression of intimate erotic feeling in the slow movement is enhanced by the piano’s Lisztian flutterings and tremblings. Moreover, the use of a cyclic theme – psychologically meaningful as it is here – also suggests Widor’s fear of being left behind by new cultural trends: the rise of the post-Franckian movement.
When Widor succeeded Franck as organ professor at the Conservatoire in 1891, he had a tough time introducing his own methods, and attracted considerable envy and obstructiveness as he was regarded by many colleagues as an outsider. However, he surmounted these problems through force of character, and during his tenure he introduced rigorous technical discipline and a purportedly authentic style of playing Bach; his pupils included Tournemire and Vierne. In 1896 he became professor of composition, but here found himself in bitter rivalry with Fauré, who was more attuned to the contemporary cultural climate of symbolist art and poetry and thus attracted many outstanding students, including Ravel. Yet Widor’s solid expertise in counterpoint, fugue and orchestration, together with his profound knowledge of the Austro-German tradition, proved valuable to Honegger, Varèse, Milhaud and Dupré, and he remained in the post until 1927.
As his creative powers began to wane, Widor turned to writing textbooks, notably the excellent Technique de l’orchestre moderne (1904), full of detailed information, and examples from Wagner’s operas. In collaboration with his organ pupil Albert Schweitzer, a theologian from Alsace, he embarked on a complete edition of J.S. Bach’s organ works, in the form of an urtext with commentaries. From 1914 he devoted a great deal of his energies to his post as permanent secretary to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, establishing pockets of French culture in London and Madrid, and contributing moral support to the war effort. He had thus achieved his personal ambition of full integration into the heart of his country’s intellectual system, but at the cost of being regarded as a pillar of an antiquated establishment by the radical young postwar generation. Ultimately his reputation lies in his consummate mastery of the organ, which provided the greatest fulfilment of his compositional genius.
published in Paris unless otherwise stated
all first performed in Paris
La korrigane (ballet, 2, F. Coppée, L.F. Mérante), Opéra, 1 Dec 1880 (1880)
Conte d’avril (incid music, A. Dorchain, after W. Shakespeare: Twelfth Night), op.64, Odéon, 22 Sept 1885 (1891)
Les Jacobites (incid music, Coppée), 21 Nov 1885 (1885)
Maître Ambros (drame lyrique, 4, Coppée, Dorchain), OC (Favart), 6 May 1886, vs (1886)
Jeanne d’Arc (ballet-pantomime, 4, Dorchain), L’Hippodrome, 1890, vs (1891)
Les pêcheurs de Saint-Jean (drame lyrique, 4, H. Cain), OC (Favart), 26 Dec 1905, vs (1905)
Nerto (drame lyrique, 4, M. Léna, after F. Mistral), Opéra, 27 Oct 1924, vs (1924)