Charles-Marie Widor

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Charles-Marie Widor

Charles-Marie Jean Albert Widor (born February 21, 1844 in Lyon , † March 12, 1937 in Paris ) was a French organist , composer and music teacher . His best-known work is the Toccata from the 5th Organ Symphony .



Charles-Marie Widor's great-grandfather, the stonemason Jean Widor († 1777), lived in Switzerland, but he was most likely originally from Hungary . His son of the same name, Jean Widor (1775–1854), left Switzerland and moved to Alsace , where he worked for the Callinet organ building workshop . His son François-Charles Widor (1811–1899) was also introduced to the organ building trade, but mainly received training as an organist, pianist and composer. He settled in Lyon in 1838 , where he worked as an organist, pianist, composer and music teacher and acquired an excellent musical reputation that reached as far as Paris. His brilliant ability to improvise is praised in traditional press reports.

François-Charles Widor married Françoise-Elisabeth Peiron - a descendant of the inventor families Montgolfier and Séguin . This marriage came from Charles-Marie Widor.

Youth and advancement in Lyon (1844–1870)

Widor was born into a musically renowned family and received his first organ lessons from his father. During his school days at the humanistic Collège des Jésuites in Lyon, his extraordinary musical talent was shown, especially in organ playing, so that at the age of eleven he became organist of the Chapel of the Collège and was able to represent his father at the Saint-François church. In addition to his musical inclinations, he was also interested in classical languages ​​and painting. The famous organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll had been friends with the Widor family for many years when he recognized Charles-Marie Widor's musical talent and recommended the 14-year-old to the renowned organist Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens in Brussels - a proposal that Widor then responded to also received. After he had finished high school, he left for Brussels in early 1863, where he received intensive organ lessons from Lemmens and counterpoint, fugue and composition from François-Joseph Fétis . Widor's first compositions, some of which later found their way into organ symphonies , also date from this period . After his return to Lyon, Cavaillé-Coll continued to support the young Widor, among other things by organizing concerts in his organ-building workshop in Paris every two weeks, at which Widor was able to present himself as a composer and organist. Due to his frequent stays in Paris he came into contact with important personalities of the French and European musical culture. B. Camille Saint-Saëns , César Franck , Giacomo Meyerbeer , Gioachino Rossini and Charles Gounod . After that, Widor's reputation as an organ and piano virtuoso and composer spread. Concert tours also brought him abroad, so he played in the context of the first international exhibition in Porto (Portugal) in 1865, whereupon he was awarded the Portuguese Ordem de Cristo . According to Widor, his first composition for orchestra was created as part of this exhibition in Porto: a commissioned work for the end of the exhibition. Widor presented an overture for organ and orchestra (obviously the Grande Phantasia ), which was well received but was destroyed by the composer a few years later. In 1867 he performed a concerto for piano and orchestra in Lyon, where he himself participated as a soloist. Apparently he had already composed this concerto as a teenager, but this work has also been destroyed by him. Only the slow movement of the concerto has entered the fourth organ symphony as a transcription for organ. Compositions from this early period can hardly be found today. Widor either destroyed them afterwards or they are lost. Widor's earliest opus that can be identified today is the piano work Variations sur un thème original op.1 for piano from 1867, a cycle of variations on a consistent harmony scheme, which already shows Widor's melodic and contrapuntal talent and suggests his involvement with Bach's Goldberg Variations leaves.

The road to the championship in Paris (1870–1900)

The masterpiece by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, in the church of St-Sulpice de Paris. Widor was the organist there for 64 years.

Three major events determined Widor's life around 1870: the move from Lyon to Paris (late 1860s), his appointment as titular organist of Saint-Sulpice in January 1870 and the Franco-German War of 1870/71. The position as titular organist , which he initially only occupied temporarily, he finally held for 64 years. The Cavaillé-Coll organ (1862) in Saint-Sulpice offered opportunities for an orchestral richness of sound that inspired Widor to create his organ symphonies. Adapted to the symphonic sound of the organ, the first series of the Symphonies pour orgue (nos. 1 to 4) was created as op.13 by 1872. Widor published another series of four organ symphonies (nos. 5 to 8) in 1887 as op.42. The last two organ symphonies were created later: Symphonie Gothique op. 70 (1894) and Symphonie Romane op. 73 (1899).

Between 1873 and 1880 a large number of compositions for orchestra and chamber music ensembles, organ works and sacred works were written: the first symphony for orchestra op.16 (1873), the piano concerto No. 1 op.39 (1876), a violin concerto (1877) and the violoncello concerto op. 41 (1878). Widor seized every opportunity to present his own works to the audience, preferably participating as an organist, pianist or conductor. When Franz Liszt was in Paris in 1878, Widor was given the opportunity to hear him play extensively and to get to know important works of German piano literature. The symphonic poem composed in 1880 based on Goethe's Faust : La Nuit de Walpurgis op. 60 shows that Widor was not averse to Liszt's musical language and the New Germans . This obviously very bold work drew the indignation of the Parisian critics, and it was followed by another performance A thorough reworking in London in 1888 did not bring about any appreciable improvement in the criticism's favor - it was only in a further Paris performance in 1907 that approval was greater.

Around 1880 - the 36-year-old composer had now become a respected musician - Widor also began working as a music critic and essayist (initially under the pseudonym Auldétès as a music critic in the Estaffette magazine , then from 1891 as the editor of the Le Piano Soleil magazine ) whole series of his thoughts on music have come down to us. Widor had great success as the conductor of La Concordia and La Concordia instrumentale , a Parisian amateur choir company including orchestra, which Widor had co-founded and with which he performed the great classical and modern oratorios - especially Bach's cantatas and oratorios, making him an important one Contributed to the reception of Bach's music in Paris. "The Parisian performance of the St. Matthew Passion by the Concordia under Widors' direction in 1885 was decisive for the master's public recognition. " Widors Chant séculaire (op. 49, 1881) for soprano, choir and orchestra was written for this ensemble .

In the following years he devoted himself increasingly to theater compositions, with which Widor was also successful. The ballet La Korrigane, completed in 1880, z. B. became one of Widor's greatest successes. The ballet pantomime on Joan of Arc, for which he was commissioned in 1890 and which was staged in a colossal staging, is one of his stage works, which became very popular. In addition, other instrumental works such as the second symphony in A major op. 54 for orchestra (1882) were created.

The last decade has been a time of great honors, compositional successes and privileges for Widor. In London in 1890 he conducted his Fantaisie for piano and orchestra op.62, which had already premiered on February 23, 1889 in the Colonne Concerts in Paris. In 1893 he also wrote the five-movement suite pittoresque for orchestra and the Third Symphony op.69 for organ and orchestra. With the founding of the Concerts de l'école moderne in 1893, an association that endeavored to perform new compositions, he showed commitment to contemporary music. There were two milestones in his work as a teacher in the 1890s: On December 1, 1890, he replaced César Franck as organ professor at the Paris Conservatory , with Widor fundamentally redesigning the teaching, and on October 1, 1896, he received the Head of the composition class at the Conservatory. His students included well-known composers and organists such as Nadia Boulanger , Louis Vierne , Arthur Honegger , Charles Tournemire , Hans Klotz , Darius Milhaud , Marcel Dupré , Edgar Varèse and Albert Schweitzer . However, it can be stated that he neither as a composer nor as a teacher in the narrower sense had a style or even school-building effect, as he did as an organ teacher. Widor is therefore considered to be the founder of the "French organ school".

Maturity and finale (1900–1937)

The last phase in Widor's life is marked by declining productivity in the compositional area and a shift in activities to music and culture. The following orchestral compositions from the last few decades should be mentioned: Choral et Variations for harp and orchestra op.74 (1900), piano concerto No. 2 op.77 (1905), Sinfonia Sacra for organ and orchestra op.81 and Symphonie Antique for solos, choir , Orchestra and organ (1911). The world premiere of the opera Les Pêcheurs de Saint-Jean in 1905, on which he had worked for at least ten years, was not only a great success in France but also in Germany - Widor himself conducted several performances in Frankfurt am Main.

His works as well as his revision of the Traité d 'instrumentation by Hector Berlioz under the title Technique de l'Orchestre moderne , published in 1904 under the title Technique de l'Orchestre moderne , prove that he was a good instrumentator - a manual that became standard even for great composers like Ravel .

After the First World War, Widor's appearances became increasingly rare. He was increasingly accused of a conservative stance, because his musical language is indebted to the late romantic tradition of the 19th century. At the beginning of the 20th century it was no longer up-to-date and was perceived as such by the critics. Widor became the Grand Seigneur of French music, a living legend. The list of honors Widor received in his life is long. In 1892 the French Légion d'honneur appointed Widor Chevalier, later Officier (1922), Commandeur (1929) and Grand Officier (1933). He also became a member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin (1907), a member of the Belgian Royal Academy of Fine Arts, a member of the Swedish Royal Music Academy (1910, together with d'Indy and Debussy ), a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts , Member of the Institut de France and since 1914 permanent secretary of the institute.

In 1920 the 76-year-old Widor married the 36-year-old Mathilde de Montesquiou-Fezensac and withdrew further into private life. With the Trois Nouvelles Pièces op.87 he said goodbye as a composer in 1934, and in the same year his farewell concert took place in Saint-Sulpice: The elderly master conducted for the last time - his third symphony for organ and orchestra with the orchestra la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire and Marcel Dupré as organist. At the second farewell concert in his honor a few weeks later, where his two piano concertos and his Fantasia for piano and orchestra were performed, he was no longer involved. Then Widor retired from public life and died on March 12, 1937 at the age of 93. Although he was not a clergyman, he was honored to be buried in the crypt at Saint-Sulpice.

A saying by Widor passed down by his pupil Albert Schweitzer shows Widor's attitude towards the organ as an instrument: "Playing the organ means revealing a will filled with the gaze of eternity."

And in general Widor uttered the words: "It is the feeling of the sublime and the infinite, for which words always remain an inadequate expression and which can only be truly portrayed in art."


His compositions include numerous organ works, including ten organ symphonies , a musical genre that he created. He also wrote masses (including the Mass op.36 for two choirs and two organs, adapted to the performance possibilities in Saint-Sulpice) and numerous works of other genres ( operas , ballets , vocal music , chamber music and orchestral music). However, only his organ works are still played regularly today. Widor's organ symphonies are now part of the concert repertoire in Germany. The spread of Widor's organ works has contributed significantly to the fact that more and more new organs in the French-Romantic-symphonic style are being built in Germany.

Organ symphonies

His ten organ symphonies , composed in the last third of the 19th century, transfer the form and sound of the orchestral symphony to the organ. With this name, Widor is not primarily concerned with an imitation of the romantic orchestra, but rather with establishing the organ as an equal body of sound.

The prerequisite for this are the innovations in organ construction by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811–1899), who inspired the composers of his time to work with his instruments based on a “symphonic” sound aesthetic.

Cavaillé-Coll also played a key role in Widor's career by sending him to Brussels to study with Joseph Fétis (1784–1871) and Jaak-Nicolas Lemmens (1823–1881) at the age of 19, and in 1870 as organist at the Paris church of Saint- Sulpice, whose organ he built in 1862 as his opus maximum .

The organ music that followed Widors makes ideal use of these prerequisites: his training allows him to expand the technical limits of contemporary organ playing, which is mainly based on the piano, and to introduce an organ-like, virtuoso playing technique that optimally brings out the possibilities of the instrument. At the same time, he has a source of inspiration that cannot be overestimated in the impressive sound resources of the largest organ in France.

So it is not surprising that the first four symphonies by Widor (op. 13 / 1-4) are dedicated to Cavaillé-Coll. They appear in 1872 and combine classical preludes and fugues with romantic character pieces (Andante cantabile, Adagio) as well as pompous marches and finals.

In the symphonies op. 42 (published 1879/1887) Widor shows himself at the height of his compositional mastery. He demonstrates his masterful mastery of the instrument through great sound effects and refined composition techniques, the mastery of the large form in sentences of monumental proportions. Of these, the fifth is probably the best known because of the toccata ending . The pinnacle of this development is the monumental Symphony No. 8 with a duration of one hour.

The mature Widor finally embarked on a new path with the Symphonie gothique op. 70 (1894) and the Symphonie romane op. 73 (1899), which stylistically refer to his pupil Tournemire . They are characterized by a more subdued, spiritual character and a freer, declamatory style using Gregorian themes. These not only determine the character of individual movements, but also encompass - similar to leitmotifs - the overall structure of the respective work.

Other organ works

Widor's late work, the Suite latine op. 86, published more than 27 years after the novels, also deals with Gregorian themes . Although their six movements are comparable to the symphonies, their composer seems to regard the ten symphonies as a closed unit and calls them a suite.

With the Trois nouvelles pièces op. 87 (1934), the 90-year-old Widor wrote his last composition ever in the year he left Saint-Sulpice: three simple, short pieces with the suggestive titles Classique d'hier, Mystique and Classique d'aujourd 'hui .

measure up

Kyrie from op. 36, 4.21MB
Sanctus from op. 36, 1.95MB

Opus 36 was created around 1890 and in the original version was written for two choirs and two organs (Saint-Sulpice has a choir organ with 22 registers in addition to the large main organ). However, because of the difficulties in the cast, there are several arrangements for a choir and an organ.

Catalog raisonné

Orchestral music

  • Première Symphonie en fa, Opus 16 (1873)
  • Concerto [no 1] pour piano et orchester op.39 (1876)
  • Concerto pour violon et orchester (1877)
  • Concerto pour violoncelle et orchester op.41 (1878)
  • La Korrigane - Suite d'orchestre (1880)
  • Symphonie pour orgue et orchester, op.42 (1878/1881)
  • Deuxième Symphonie en la, Opus 54 (1882)
  • Maitre Ambros - Suite d'orchestre op.56 (1886)
  • La nuit de Walpurgis, op. 60 (1880/1888)
  • Fantaisie pour piano et orchester, op.62 (1889)
  • Conte d'Avril - Suite d'orchestre op.64 (1885/1890)
  • Ouverture espagnole / Suite pittoresque (1893)
  • Troisième Symphonie pour Orgue et Orchester, Opus 69 (1893/1894)
  • Choral et Variations for harp and orchester (1900)
  • Deuxième Concerto pour piano et orchester op.77 (1905)
  • Sinfonia Sacra pour Orgue et Orchester, Opus 81 (1908)
  • Symphony Antique, Opus 83 (1911)
  • Salvum fac populum tuum, op. 84 (1917)

Chamber music

  • Variations sur un thème original for piano op. 1 (1867), first edition ed. by Felix Friedrich, Mainz 2009
  • Sérénade op.3.4
  • Piano quintet in D minor, op.7 (1868)
  • Caprice op.9 (1868)
  • Sérénade in B flat major, op.10 (1870)
  • 3 valses for violin and piano (n. D.)
  • Impromptu op.12 (1871)
  • 6 Morceaux de salon op.15 (1872)
  • Prelude, andante et final op.17 (1874)
  • Piano Trio in B flat major, op.19 (1874)
  • Scènes de bal op.20 (1875)
  • 3 pièces for violoncello and piano op.21 (1875)
  • 6 Valses caractéristiques op.26 (1877)
  • Variations sur un thème original op.29 (revision of op.1) (1877)
  • 12 Feuillets d'album op.31 (1877)
  • 5 Valses op.33
  • Suite op.34 for flute and piano (1898)
  • Dans les bois op.44 (1880)
  • Romance for violin and piano, E major, op.46 (1889)
  • Pages intimes op.48 (1879)
  • Sonata No. 1 for violin and piano, C minor, op.50 (1881)
  • Suite polonaise op.51 (1881)
  • Soirs d'Alsace op.52 for violin, cello and piano (1908)
  • Cavatine op.57 for violin and piano (n. D.)
  • Suite op.58 (1887)
  • Carnaval, douze pieces pour piano op.61 (1889)
  • Nocturne, from Contes d'Avril op.64
  • Piano quartet in A minor, op.66 (1891)
  • Piano quintet op.68 (1894)
  • 5 Valses op.71 (1894)
  • Introduction et rondo in B flat major op.72 for clarinet and piano (1898)
  • Suite op.76 for violin and piano (n. D.)
  • Suite Écossaise op.78 (1905)
  • Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano op.79 (1907)
  • Sonata for violoncello and piano op.80 (1907)
  • 4 pieces for violin, violoncello and piano (1869/1890)
  • 3 pièces for oboe and piano (1909)
  • Suite for violoncello and piano (1912)
  • Suite florentine for flute (or violin) and piano (1920)
  • 6 duos for piano and harmonium (1869/1891)

Organ music

  • Symphonie pour orgue No. 1 in C minor, op.13 No. 1 (1872)
  • Symphonie pour orgue No. 2 in D major, op.13 No. 2 (1872)
  • Symphonie pour orgue No. 3 in E minor, op.13 No. 3 (1872)
  • Symphonie pour orgue No. 4 in F minor, op.13 No. 4 (1872)
  • Symphonie pour orgue No. 5 in F minor, op. 42 No. 1 (1887)
  • Symphonie pour orgue No. 6 in G minor, op. 42 No. 2 (1887)
  • Symphonie pour orgue No. 7 in A minor, op.42 No. 3 (1887)
  • Symphonie pour orgue No. 8 in B major, op.42 No. 4 (1887)
  • Gothic Symphony in C minor, op.70 (1895)
  • Symphony novels in D major, op.73 (1900)
  • Suite latine, C minor, op.86 (1927)
  • 3 nouvelles pièces, op.87 (1934)


  • The technology of the modern orchestra. A supplement to Berlioz's theory of instrumentation . Breitkopf & Härtel, Leipzig 1904.
  • Preface . In: Albert Schweitzer: Johann Sebastian Bach . Breitkopf & Härtel, Leipzig 1908 (important for the history of the reception of Johann Sebastian Bach in France).


  • Lawrence Archbold: Widor's symphony novels . In: Lawrence Archbold and William J. Peterson (Eds.): French Organ Music. From the Revolution to Franck and Widor . Rochester, New York 1995, pp. 249-274 .
  • Joel Bacon: "... suitable to depict an orgy of savages or a dance of demons". Hector Berlioz, Richard Strauss and Charles-Marie Widor on composing for organ and orchestra . In: Organ international . No. 4 , 2002, p. 212-215 .
  • Günter Berger: considerations and reflections on the Symphonie Gothique by Ch. M. Widor . In: Musica Sacra . tape 57 , 1987, pp. 452-462 .
  • Giuseppe Clericetti: Charles-Marie Widor: la Francia organistica tra Otto e Novecento . Varese 2010, Zecchini. ISBN 978-88-6540-006-7
  • Giuseppe Clericetti: Il Fondo Widor della Biblioteca di Villa Medici . In: Studiolo VIII (2010), Académie de France à Rome, pp. 295-307
  • Marcel Dupré: memories . Cologne 1981 (translated and commented by Hans Steinhaus).
  • Bengt Hambraeus: Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, Charles-Marie Widor: the Organ and the Orchestra. Some aspects of relations between organ registration and instrumentation . In: Donald Mackey (ed.): L'Orgue à notre époque . Montreal 1981.
  • Sven Hiemke: The Bach reception of Charles-Marie Widors (=  European university publications: series 36, musicology . Volume 126 ). Frankfurt am Main 1994.
  • Sven Hiemke: Charles-Marie Widors' understanding of Bach . In: Peter Reifenberg, Wolfram Adolph (eds.): Music, genius, ethics: Albert Schweitzer, Charles-Marie Widor, Louis Vierne . Mainz 1996, p. 127-151 .
  • Ewald Kooiman: Jacques Lemmens, Charles-Marie Widor and the French "Bach tradition" (I). In: Ars Organi 37 (1989), No. 4, pp. 198-206.
  • Ewald Kooiman: Jacques Lemmens, Charles-Marie Widor and the French "Bach tradition" (II). In: Ars Organi 38 (1990), No. 1, pp. 3-14.
  • Günter Lade: On the biography of Charles-Marie Widors (1844–1937): Intellectual personality in different facets. In: Peter Reifenberg, Wolfram Adolph (eds.): Music, genius, ethics: Albert Schweitzer, Charles-Marie Widor, Louis Vierne. Mainz 1996, pp. 111-126.
  • John Richard Near: The Life and Work of Charles-Marie Widor. Boston 1985.
  • John Richard Near: Foreword to the edition of the Symphonie pour orgue et orchester opus 42 (bis), edited by John R. Near, Middleton 2002.
  • John Richard Near: Widor: a life beyond the Toccata , Rochester, NY: Univ. of Rochester Press, 2011, ISBN 978-1-58046-369-0
  • Ben van Oosten : father of the organ symphony. Paderborn 1997, ISBN 3-928243-04-7 .
  • Johan H. den Otter: Text accompanying the CD recording of the Symphonie Antique, Motet 40181.
  • Johan H. den Otter: Text accompanying the CD recording of the symphony op. 42 [bis], motet 40241.
  • Johan H. den Otter: Text accompanying the CD recording of the 3rd Symphony and Sinfonia Sacra, Motet 40071.
  • Emil Rupp: Charles Marie Widor and his work. Bremen 1912.
  • Josef Johannes SchmidWidor, Charles Marie. In: Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL). Volume 13, Bautz, Herzberg 1998, ISBN 3-88309-072-7 , Sp. 1055-1058.
  • Wolfram Syré: Individualism of the cyclical form. A few marginal notes on the development of forms in Widor's organ symphonies Opus 13 and 42 (Part I). In: Organ - Journal for the Organ , 4/2005.
  • Wolfram Syré: Individualism of the cyclical form. A few marginal notes on the development of forms in Widor's organ symphonies Opus 13 and 42 (Part II). In: Organ - Journal for the Organ , 1/2006.
  • Andrew Thomson: Widor: the life and times of Charles-Marie Widor, 1844-1937. Oxford 1987.
  • Louis Vierne : My memories. Cologne 2004 (translated and commented by Hans Steinhaus).
  • Michael Zywietz: Widor. In: The music in past and present , person part, Vol. 17, Stuttgart 2007, Sp. 874–878.

Web links

Commons : Charles-Marie Widor  - Collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. A great appreciation and evidence of his already earned reputation. Cavaillé-Coll had made a lasting contribution to Widor, so that Widor was preferred to his famous competitor César Franck.
  2. During the Franco-German War, the Saint-Sulpice church was partially damaged, but the organ was not destroyed. Widor served in the artillery during this war.
  3. The organ in Saint-Sulpice was the largest organ that Cavaillé-Coll built, and at that time it was even the largest organ in the world with 100 registers spread over five manuals and pedal.
  4. ^ Albert Schweitzer : Johann Sebastian Bach . Breitkopf & Härtel, Leipzig 1977. p. 230.
  5. So successful that afterwards he was often referred to simply as "The composer of La Korrigane".
  6. a b audio samples
predecessor Office successor
Louis-James-Alfred Lefébure-Wely Titular organist of the Church of St. Sulpice
Marcel Dupré