This month sees the 175th birthday of composer and organist Charles-Marie Widor, born on Feb. 21, 1844, in Lyon, France. Widor’s profession was, seemingly, predestined: his father was an organ builder and accomplished amateur organist who introduced the young Charles-Marie to the instrument. That combination of engineering and artistry marked Widor’s later prominence; his influential composing, performing, and pedagogy was in no small part an engagement with cutting-edge technology.
The technology came courtesy of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, a friend of the Widor family who built some of the largest and most technically advanced organs of the 19th century. Cavaillé-Coll designed organs of unprecedented power and richness. He boosted the pressure of the air passing through the pipes, allowing more stops to sound simultaneously; he invented new stops, recombining and revoicing pipes to imitate reed and string instruments. He put this array at the player’s fingertips with exceptionally immediate and responsive control.
Cavaillé-Coll helped steer Widor’s education and early career; in 1870, with Cavaillé-Coll’s help and recommendation, the 25-year-old Widor was appointed — on a provisional basis — as organist at Saint-Sulpice in Paris, a most prominent post. (He kept this “provisional” job until 1933.) From this perch, Widor began to evangelize for Cavaillé-Coll’s innovations. When, in 1890, Widor succeeded the legendary César Franck as organ professor at the Paris Conservatoire, the new style became the mainstream: An entire generation of composers and performers absorbed Widor’s demands for technical virtuosity (a mastery of the organ works of J.S. Bach, for instance, went from a goal to a prerequisite) and instrumental color.
Widor’s compositions also leveraged Cavaillé-Coll’s new designs. Where previous composers would have written organ sonatas, Widor wrote organ symphonies, 10 of them, exploiting the new instruments’ orchestral sweep and timbral variety. In a preface to the score of the symphonies, Widor explicitly credited Cavaillé-Coll with inspiring his ambition. “The modern organ is essentially symphonic,” Widor wrote. “The new instrument requires a new language.”
While Widor’s works remain in the organist’s repertoire, among the wider public, he is known largely for a single piece: the “Toccata” finale from his Organ Symphony No. 5, a staple of wedding recessionals, recital encores, and festive church occasions. That, too, was an advertisement for Cavaillé-Coll’s romantic organ. The Toccata is often heard performed at a sprint, a whirl of fleet fingers and feet. But Widor himself disdained such indiscriminate speed, instead performing (and, late in life, recording) the Toccata at a much more deliberate pace. The slower tempo shows off all the sonic layers — the velvet purr of the flutes, the sharp tang of the mixtures, the gradual, explosive bloom of a 32-foot pedal reed stop. The goal, always, was a showcase for both art and technology.