Louis Vierne

Louis Vierne's Fifth Symphony Released

Forty minutes of hyperchromaticism

  1. Grave (00:00)
  2. Allegro molto marcato (06:55)
  3. Tempo di scherzo ma non troppo vivo (14:22)
  4. Larghetto (18:40)
  5. Final: Allegro moderato (28:34)

“Les années folles”, the Crazy Years, is a French term for the 1920s. And nowhere were those years crazier than in Paris, where everyone and everything converged to make the French capital the undisputed centre of the artistic world.

Louis Vierne, who was the organist at Notre Dame, wrote his Fifth Symphony in 1923-24. At around 40 minutes, it’s his longest symphony. It’s also his most tragic and Wagnerian one; its subject is the human condition. It’s difficult not to see his own life, which was beset by innumerable difficulties and sorrows, reflected in the Tristan-like psychological progression of the Fifth.

Jean Huré wrote the following in 1925 when Vierne’s Fifth Symphony was published:

And so, I came to Vierne’s Fifth Symphony. I had some concern, I admit. Was the composer going to repeat himself? I dared not wish it. In effect, it seemed impossible that he could remain faithful to his remarkably personal instrumental “style”, and at the same time find undiscovered means of expression.

I read through the work carefully. Vierne has achieved what seemed to me the impossible. In addition to which he has created an unexpected style. He has deliberately abandoned that freshness of inspiration, that charm and tenderness that made his previous symphonies so attractive. There is now—except in the Final—a gripping harshness, bitterness, and severity.

Vierne portrays the conflict between two very different themes. One diatonic descending by thirds, the other chromatic and anguished.

The first movement is like a tormented, painful prelude. Chromaticism dominates, incessant, obsessive, implacable, and incoherent. It is all solidly constructed.

The second movement presents the development of the two themes, transformed, inverted, and distorted. It is mysterious and almost a fantasy, like an unwanted recurring nightmarish dance driven by a terrifying wind.

The Scherzo, also entirely chromatic, is a fiercely ironical, pitiless, satanic, and fantastic, caricature of earlier scherzos by the same composer.

There is nothing soothing about the Larghetto. No sooner does a little gentleness and serenity seem to bring some calm, than a contradiction arises: the random intrusion of the chromatic element that brings back the anguish of a soul in distress. Only in the last three measures does little hope appear.

Then, as in so many of Beethoven’s works, the Final suddenly bursts forth, unbridled, joyous, wild, and larger than life. This time the diatonic theme triumphs within the structure of this find of instrumental writing. (If I encourage every musician to read through this work, I think it wise to warn the unsure, and those who do not practice technique daily, not to attempt to play this Final. It is tremendously difficult). In vain—and it was necessary for the unity of the work—the chromatic theme tries to make its way into this festive sound. It is snatched at, disguised, swept along in a circle, transformed, and forced to laugh, this time without bitterness. It is the victory of joy over pain.

The organ is the four-manual Ruffatti organ in Uppsala Cathedral, Sweden.

Assistant: Patrick Lindblom. Sound and video recording and editing: Pär Fridberg.

organ Louis Vierne symphonic organ music Uppsala Cathedral Ruffatti Andrew Canning Pär Fridberg

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