Symphonie Antique for solo voices, chorus, orchestra and organ (op. 83)
(b. Lyon, 21. February 1844 – d. Paris, 12. March 1937)
When mentioned in conjunction with Charles-Marie Widor, the term “symphony” invariably conjures up his symphonies for solo organ – for the simple reason that today our knowledge of this once important composer is limited at best to his work as an organist and organ composer. In fact, organ music makes up only a fract-ion of his oeuvre, which covers virtually every genre, including the symphony proper, i.e. orchestral works drawing on the tradition of the classical-romantic symphony. To this genre he made no fewer than five contributions: Première Symphonie en fa (op. 16), Deuxième Symphonie en la (op. 54), Troisième Symphonie pour Orgue et Orchestre (op. 69), Sinfonia Sacra pour Orgue et Orchestre (op. 81), and Symphonie Antique for solo voices, chorus, orchestra and organ (op. 83). There is also a three-movement Symphonie in G minor for organ and orchestra (op. 42) consisting of orchestrated versions of movements from his organ symphonies. All these works arose during a period of French music history in which the romantic symphony reached its apogee. If the country of grand opera had long failed to produce a symphonic tradition of its own, interest in the symphony increased noticeably in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and lasted roughly until the First World War. The result was a large number of distinctive works in this field, only few of which, unfortunately, are heard in today’s concert halls.
Charles-Marie-Jean-Albert Widor was born on 21 February 1844 in Lyons to a musically renowned family and received his earliest organ lessons from his father. His extraordinary talent soon became evident, and in 1863, at the recommendation of the famous organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, he was sent to Brussels to study with the celebrated organist Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens and to learn counterpoint, fugue, and composition from François-Joseph Fétis. In 1870 he was appointed titular organist at the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris – a position he would hold for a total of sixty-four years. By the turn of the century Widor had written a large number of compositions in almost every musical genre: orchestral works, chamber music, organ works, piano pieces, operas, ballets, incidental music, and sacred works. Around 1880 he took up a secondary career as a music critic and essayist, thereby leaving behind a large number of his thoughts on music. He took over the organ class at the Paris Conservatoire in 1890 and the composition class in 1896. His prowess as an orchestrator is amply demonstrated not only by his own works but by his revised version of Berlioz’s Traité d’instrumentation, entitled Technique de l’Orchestre moderne (1904). It became the standard manual for French composers.
For the whole of his life Widor’s musical language remained beholden to the nineteenth-century tradition of late romanticism. As a result, after the turn of the century, he was increasingly regarded as conservative and a grand seigneur of French music, a living legend and the recipient of a long list of awards and distinctions. He died on 12 March 1937 at the age of ninety-three.
Symphonie Antique, Opus 83
The Symphonie Antique for solo voices, chorus, orchestra, and organ, op. 83, is the zenith of Widor’s output for the orchestra, towering above all its predecessors in the maturity and skill with which it handles counterpoint, orchestration, expression, and intricacy of construction. It follows entirely in the tradition of late-romantic gigantism: in addition to a large orchestra (triple woodwind, quadruple brass, large percussion section, harp, organ, and strings) it calls for a soprano, contralto, and four-voice chorus. With a duration of some fifty minutes, it is much longer than Widor’s other symphonies. The Symphonie Antique is a sort of summa summarum, a final culmination of the compositional devices he had acquired over a lifetime.
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