Charles-Marie Widor William Thomas McKinley Gardner Read Vittorio Rieti Ezra Sims

Charles-Marie Widor

Works for Violin and Piano

Charles-Marie-Jean-Albert Widor (Lyon, 21 February 1844––Paris, 12 March 1937) was born to a family of organ builders, and showed early proclivities toward the organ.  His first studies were with his father, organist of Saint-François, Lyon.  At the suggestion of the great French organ builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, friend of the Widor family, young Charles-Marie went to Brussels to further his organ studies with Jacques Lemmens and composition with Francois-Joseph Fétis.  In the ensuing years, Cavaillé-Coll assumed a paternal role in guiding Widor's career.  Participation in inaugurations of many important Cavaillé-Coll organs (including Notre Dame, 1868, and La Trinité, 1869) brought the young musician increasingly before the public eye.  When the position of organist at Saint-Sulpice became available in January 1870, the church council, upon the urgings of Cavaillé-Coll, Camille Saint-Saëns and Charles Gounod, appointed Widor "provisionally" for one year—an appointment that endured sixty-four years!  Commanding the almost unlimited resources of the greatest organ in France planted a new mode of musical expression in the young composer's imagination.  Following César Franck's lead, Widor seized the multi-movement plan of the orchestral symphony and established the organ symphony as a new genre, eventually composing ten organ symphonies.  Aside from his renown as an organist and composer of organ music, Widor composed for a variety of chamber ensembles, solo piano, voice (over 70 mélodies), chorus (sacred and secular works), orchestra (symphonies, concertos, concert overtures), and the theater (operas, pantomimes, incidental music, ballets).

In 1890, upon the death of Franck, Widor became Professor of Organ at the Paris Conservatory.  He made sweeping changes in the methodology of the class, and is credited with  creating the most brilliant school of organists in the world, which included Henri Busser, Henri Libert, Henri Mulet, Charles Quef, Charles Tournemire and Louis Vierne.  This position was short lived; in 1896 Widor replaced Théodore Dubois as Professor of Composition.  During the thirty-one years of this professorship, Marcel Dupré, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Edgard Varèse, and Nadia Boulanger were counted among Widor's most illustrious students.  In 1910 Widor was elected to the Institut de France and in 1914 he was appointed Secrétaire Perpétuel of the Académie des beaux-arts, virtually the highest official musical position in France.  As administrator, Widor undertook to protect French art treasures during World War I, and, at the war’s conclusion, came to the benevolent aid of many destitute French musicians.  An articulate writer, prolific correspondent, and inspired visionary, Widor worked tirelessly at the Institut, and in 1921 he founded and co-directed the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau.  In his last years he fulfilled his dream of establishing branches of the Académie des beaux-arts in Madrid (Villa Velásquez) and in London.  Widor's lifelong love of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach culminated in his collaboration with Albert Schweitzer, beginning in 1911, on an edition of Bach's organ music.  With the deaths of Saint-Saëns in 1921 and Gabriel Fauré in 1924, Widor lived to see himself become the doyen of French music.  Honors were bestowed abundantly upon him; he was elected honorary member of foreign academies and orders all over Europe.  The French Legion of Honor named him "grand-officier," and the Municipal Council of Paris presented him with its highest honor, the "grande médaille d'or."

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In his finest works Widor exhibits superlative craftsmanship and unfailingly good taste.  Though sometimes criticized by his contemporaries for being too severe, serious or intellectual, Widor sought sincerity and integrity over popular appeal in his art.  He was a man of deep culture, a profound thinker and refined artist; these characteristics, nurtured by his pure classical training, Romantic sensitivities, and flair for aural color, fostered an oeuvre both grounded in tradition and given flight by original genius.

Commencing with his very successful ballet, La Korrigane, the decade of the 1880s saw Widor gain widespread renown as a composer.  For his Sonate pour piano et violon, opus 50, composed in 1881, the Académie des beaux-arts awarded Widor the Prix Chartier, a handsome sum of five-hundred francs.  As indicated in the title of the work, the piano takes the lead through the greater part of the sonata.  Although Classic in form, proportion and key relationships, the sonata exhibits clear Romantic tendencies by its heightened drama, dynamics, texture, chromaticism, and Brahmsian rhythmic play of two against three.  Indeed, the powerful key of c minor and resolution to C major recalls Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Brahms's First Symphony.

The Sonata’s first movement, Allegro con fuoco, is in sonata form and opens with a descending perfect fourth, an interval — whether descending or ascending — that is integral to much of the melodic material in the sonata.  The bold first theme cedes to a dancelike second theme, which commences with an ascending fourth, in the relative major.  The development section utilizes the first theme and includes a section in canon, the technique so loved by Franck.  The recapitulation is signaled dramatically by the expansion of the fourth to two octaves and by heightened dynamics and texture.  After some chromatic diversions around the Neapolitan, a powerful coda in C major ends the movement.

In the second movement, Andante, the piano again leads by introducing the opening hymnlike theme in E-flat major, which commences lyrically with an ascending fourth.  Initially in chorale style, the accompaniment soon breaks into a texture of Chopinesque grace, and the violin follows with its statement of the theme.  A transition, based around a descending fourth, leads to a second theme of a quiet and poetic nature.  The development features material from the transition and from the first theme.  At the recapitulation, the piano returns with the themes as the violin weaves its obbligato through the florid texture of the piano accompaniment.

The third movement, Allegro vivace, is a theme and variations organized within a large A-B-A-coda form.  The C-minor theme has a strong peasantlike dance character, perhaps owing to Widor's Hungarian ancestry.  Again, the piano leads and the violin opens with an ascending fourth.  The variations build to a con fuoco transition, setting up a brief piano cadenza —further evidence that Widor thought of the piano as the primary instrument.  The sharply contrasting B section in G major, Moderato, is hymnlike and reminiscent of the chorale texture of the second movement; the conjunct motion of the melody's contour is broken by two expressive leaps, a fourth and a ninth, with the piano leading and the violin echoing the tune.  The return of the A section brings further variations on the dance theme.  The same con fuoco that preceded the cadenza returns to lead into the coda, a grand statement of the B section’s chorale tune in E-flat major in the piano with violin obbligato.  A final brief C-minor reference to the dance theme resolves to C major.

Romance en mi pour violon (avec accompagnement de piano), opus 46, dates from 1889 with a revision in 1912, the later version being heard on this recording.  Widor can be numbered among those composers who maintain a fatherly interest in the improvement and currency of their older works.  Usually composing quickly, Widor sometimes regretted having published works that would have benefited from further consideration.  A scrupulously conscientious composer, he never hesitated to revise his work, often numerous times, over the course of his long life.  Aptly titled, this idyllic Romance, in song form, falls into that genre of chamber music best categorized as salon music.  Pure melody dominates as the violin sings its "song without words."

Cavatine pour violon et piano, opus 57, dating from 1887, draws its main theme from the fifth movement (Adagio) of the composer's monumental Eighth Symphony for solo organ, opus 42, completed a year earlier.  Widor must have loved this theme greatly, for he clothed it in new raiment yet a third time, still retaining the key of F-sharp major, for the second movement (Adagio) of his Symphonie Antique (pour orchestra et choeur), opus 83 (1911), a work he may well have considered his greatest masterpiece.  The title Cavatine suggests a short aria, and the outer A sections of this song form are deeply expressive.  The long-breathed melody with its characteristic three-note motive is one of Widor's most eloquent; it is fashioned of wide, expressive leaps, and compact chromatic turns.  The melody of the central B section is more motivic, being constructed of chains of sigh motives and their permutations, as in the Adagio of the organ symphony.

Suite Florentine pour violon et piano is a reworking and expansion of an earlier work, the opus 76 Suite pour violon et piano (d'après la musique de Scène écrite pour la Sulamite, pièce en vers du Vte de Borelli).  The Suite, opus 76, published in 1903, has three movements: Cantilène; Berceuse; Danse de la Bavadère [Indian dancing girl].  These movements relate to the first, third, and possibly fourth movements of the revised and enlarged Suite Florentine, dedicated to "Sa Majesté la Reine Hélène d'Italie" for a performance at the Élysée Palace on 20 February 1919.  Of the four movements, now titled in Italian, the Cantilena, rich in vocal lyricism and Romantic spirit, sings directly to the heart of the listener.  In contrast, Alle Cascine (a Florentine park) tells a story of simple pleasure and childlike playfulness.  Morbidezza, meaning softness and titled Berceuse (Lullaby) in the earlier version, passes as sweetly as a dream.  Tragica commences with a strong folk dance rhythm; the lyrical center section sways gently before the return of the initial dance which builds excitingly to a whirling conclusion.

Among the composer's most serious works, the Sonate pour violon et piano, opus 79, was published in 1907 with its companion Sonate pour violoncelle et piano, opus 80. In a letter dated 14 December 1906, Jules Massenet wrote to Widor, using the familiar French "tu" form: "I strongly embrace you great friend!  I think that, since such a work is dedicated to me, I am going to have desires also to write beautiful and profound music!  Ah!  I want: to my friend Massenet." Widor revised the work towards the end of his life and a new edition was published in 1937, the version heard on this recording.  A cyclical work, the sonata reveals two main melodic ideas that are developed and transformed through the three movements.

The sonata-form first movement, Allegro, sets the markedly dissonant tone for the whole sonata.  Although the tonal center of each large section is clear, the tense chromatic language keeps it from being conventionally defined.  The D-minor first theme is dark, angular, and sinewy.  Commencing with a minor second followed by a minor third, the theme evolves in an anti-lyrical, declamatory manner.  This character is emphasized when the violin takes up the theme, first in its penetrating upper tones and then as it plunges into its bottom register; juxtaposition of register plays a notable role in defining the mood of this sonata.  The contrasting second theme in 12/8 is calm, flowing, and pastoral, and brings welcome lyricism to the movement for the first time; although F major is the suggested key area, there are many non-harmonic tones that prevent it from gaining a firm tonal footing.  The piano leads the way into the development section, where chromaticism is stretched toward atonality, as in the sinister, marchlike section just before the recapitulation.  As in Beethoven, the coda serves as a second development as the first theme sounds in the piano against a string of powerful, double-stop Ds in the violin.  Piano trills on seconds and thirds emphasize the first theme's opening intervals, thus sounding the melody harmonically.  The movement ends strongly, asserting the key of D major.

The second movement, Andante, is in song form.  Although the key signature is G major, the dialogue between the piano’s left and right hands in the mysterious opening measures sounds almost atonal.  Strong dissonant chords are immediately juxtaposed, further deflecting the G-major tonal center towards B minor.  The entry of the violin provides a disjunct contrapuntal dialogue with the piano.  Melodic fragments, especially the intervals of a second and third, recall the first movement.

The third movement, Moderato-Allegretto-Allegro-Moderato-Allegro, is a fantasia, commencing in the style of a Bach unaccompanied violin partita; indeed, this movement contains the most virtuosic violin writing in the sonata.  In cyclic fashion, the thematic material is a highly transformed reworking of the principal themes of the first movement.  The music fairly bristles with the intervals of a second and third —whether in their original form, inverted, or intervallically retrograded.  The second theme no longer has the lilting pastoral flavor of the first movement, but is an energetic expansion of its former self.  The brilliant coda gathers momentum and dashes to a climactic ending in D minor.

It is interesting that the autograph manuscript of this work, dated 7 October 1906, resides in the Musikaliska Akademiens Bibliotek in Stockholm, Sweden.  As Perpetual Secretary of the Academy of Fine Arts at the Institute of France, Widor worked tirelessly for various indigent causes.  On the manuscript's cover is written, "for the sale to the diplomatic mission of France, in Stockholm, for the profit of French orphans of the war—Paris, 10 February 1921."

—John R. Near © 1999

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