(b. Poitiers, 8 October 1870 – d. Paris, 2 June 1937)
Marche Triomphale pour le Centenaire de Napoléon I, op.46
One of the largest commemorative projects of the early 20th century undertaken by the French was the May 1921 celebrations to mark the centenary of Napoleon’s death. This was the occasion for a plethora of government-sponsored solemnities, processions, lectures, exhibitions and public eulogies. Several composers were commissioned to write music for the events, including Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) and Louis Vierne (1870-1937).
Principal organist of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris since 1900, Louis Vierne composed the Marche Triomphale pour le Centenaire de Napoléon I (op. 46) for a commemorative service at the cathedral which took place on 5th May 1921. As well as a packed cathedral, there were around 80 distinguished guests up in the organ tribune, and Vierne recalls how difficult the conditions of this first performance had been, especially as the tribune was also to hold a small brass ensemble and percussion. The Marche Triomphale is scored for organ, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones and timpani, an unusual combination of instruments which is identical to that of Charles-Marie Widor’s 1916 Salvum Fac Populum Tuum (op. 84), a work Widor (1844-1937) conducted for the Armistice Day service at the cathedral on 17th November 1918 with Marcel Dupré (1886-1971) at the organ. Vierne may very well have had Widor’s Salvum Fac at the back of his mind when he composed his Marche Triomphale, as Widor had been his mentor and teacher of improvisation, plainsong and performance at the Conservatoire for many years. Vierne had been most disappointed to miss this occasion, only returning to Paris in April 1920, having been away from the French capital since 1916 undergoing protracted treatment for his eyes in Switzerland. Though Vierne was born blind, he had had some sight restored to him when he was 6 years old but in 1915, glaucoma had threatened to make him lose it again. In October 1918, he had just undergone treatment for a secondary cataract of his right eye, and had then to keep to a darkened room for six months. During Vierne’s absence from Notre Dame, Marcel Dupré had assumed his post as organist of the cathedral. On his return to Paris in 1920, Vierne lamented the state of the organ, writing to a friend that it was ‘filled with dust, dead bats, and swallows, and is perishing from mildew and dry rot’ (quoted in Smith: 268). During the war, though the cathedral had been spared by the bombs, the stained glass windows had been removed to safety. Water had got into the mechanism and mould was eating into the structure. One of the larger pipes even broke loose and fell onto a group of worshippers. Until 1924, there was also no electric blower and Vierne was dependent for wind supply on the six men who were employed to activate the pumps.
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