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Learning Widor's 7th Organ Symphony




Felix Aprahamian with David
at St Paul's, London Sept 2001







Widor's Cavaillé-Coll organ
at St Sulpice Paris







The 1883 Willis organ
at St Dominic's Priory









David practising on the
Marchal organ at home
[Photo: Gerco Schaap]

Working backward ... from the 10th to the 9th Symphony

My friend and mentor, Felix Aprahamian, gave me a recording of Widor's 10th Symphony, the "Romane", in the mid-1980's. How fitting, since Felix aged 19 had met Widor aged 89 at St. Sulpice, Paris in 1933. This gift was one of those life-changing musical events for me. Although I had long known and loved the 5th and 6th Symphonies, this late Widor breathed an altogether different air. It appealed equally to ear, intellect, and to the spirit of meditation. I had the Romane transcribed into Braille specially by the RNIB in London, and performed it at my first recital in the Royal Festival Hall, as well as at King's College, Cambridge in 1986.

Next I tackled the 9th Symphony, the "Gothique", and recorded it at St. Ignatius Loyola, New York in 1995. This work was perhaps Widor's personal favourite, and we have the wonderful legacy of a recording of the 88 year old composer playing much of the Gothique in April 1932.

Tackling the 8th Symphony

Discovering Widor's 7th and 8th Symphonies has been a slower process, but certainly life-changing. I obtained a Braille volume containing these two from the Amsterdam organisation for the blind. Although it is wonderful to locate a Braille version somewhere in Europe, there can be frustrations. In this case, I found plenty of errors, missing details, mis-transcribed passages, or occasionally unreadable Braille. Refering to the print score with sighted friends and endless double-checking with sound recordings was an essential part of this project.

I can memorise fast from Braille, so why did I take nine years to learn Widor's 8th Symphony? First is the problem with the faulty Braille. Secondly I wanted to absorb this greatest of all Romantic works thoroughly and allow it to mature. Thirdly and perhaps curiously, I could hardly bear the thought of getting to the end of this supreme piece, after which there would never again be anything quite so magnificent to acquire! Well, in fact, after I had learnt the entire Symphony and performed it at Brompton Oratory in 1998, I had the extra Prélude transcribed into Braille. This movement was cut out from the final revision by Widor, but is so beautiful that many musicians choose to restore it. The inclusion of the Prélude brings the 8th Symphony to seven movements, lasting roughly an hour. I should add that my absorption of the 8th Symphony comprised many performances of individual or pairs of movements, including playing the Variations on Widor's own instrument at St.Sulpice in Paris, and a fascinating lesson in the Netherlands with Ben van Oosten.

An invitation to perform the 7th Symphony

One of my greatest musical pleasures is to hear Martin Stacey play the Father Willis organ at St. Dominic's Priory, Hampstead, North London. The combination of Martin's musicality and the beautiful sounds of that instrument and acoustic make all such occasions a delight. When talking with Martin about my feelings for Widor's 8th Symphony, he said that he has the same regard for Widor's 7th Symphony. Another soul-mate of mine, Francis Marchal, had expressed tremendous admiration and love for this music, though I had so far found the 7th a little harder to get into. I had even once tried to start learning it, but given up after a page or two. Now, with the prospect of Martin's invitation for me to give another recital at St. Dominic's Priory, I dared to tackle the 7th afresh. I had asked Martin if he wished to be the first to perform it there, but he replied that he was so in awe of the piece that he had not learnt it all! This may sound funny, but having myself taken nine years to learn the 8th, I completely understood what Martin meant.

I took the opposite approach to memorising Widor's 7th, deciding to have a frenzy of learning. I started on about 5th April 2004 and met my own deadline of finishing the Symphony by the end of the month: total about 25 days. It was very hard work indeed, but with such high-quality music it is worth the slog. In particular, I found the 4th movement so difficult to memorise that I could only take in small chunks per day, so I started learning the 5th movement in parallel. By the time I had completed the 4th movement, I had also finished the 5th and begun the Final. Another kind and wonderfully supportive friend, Oscar Rook, lent me four complete recordings of the Symphony, so that my working day usually ended with listening to these recorded versions of the music which I had memorised earlier, just to check that I had not learnt anything wrongly, before it got too embedded in my memory. The whole process culminated in an intense afternoon with Francis Marchal, following and checking every note against his print score.

Maturing my performance

I have imposed on myself an almost daily discipline of playing through the entire 7th Symphony (6 movements lasting about 35 minutes) and doing a little practise on it. This regime not only makes it technically more secure, but brings about a maturity and eloquence to performance. However, no amount of private practise can quite equal the lessons one learns from public exposure. I played the first three movements at St. Michael's Cornhill, London, in June; and the last three at St. Mary's, Dover, in August. This all helped me identify what I still need to work on. It was also a huge reward for the hours and hours of practising on my little house organ, imagining how it might sound in a large venue. Incidentally, this practice chamber organ was built by Gonzalez in 1935 and belonged to my teacher, André Marchal, who knew Widor and even played for him occasionally at St.Sulpice.

The great sense of affinity I feel with Widor's music is heightened by my also being a composer: I am fascinated by how he can take apparently ordinary elements, and develop them into such original, experimental music. He creates textures and ideas quite unlike anything ever tried before by a romantic organ composer, though the seeds of his invention can often be clearly traced back to J. S. Bach. Widor and Schweitzer were prominent collaborators and exponents of Bach's organ music. For example, in the 2nd movement of Widor's 7th Symphony there is an extraordinary texture, created by having two voices in the pedals under 4 voices in the manuals: strongly echoing the lay-out of Bach's 6-part "Aus tiefer Not". The opening counterpoint of the 5th movement also calls Bach to mind, though it is here juxtaposed with very chordal, hymn-like sections, and closes with a uniquely Widorian harmonic sequence. To my mind, Widor parallels Beethoven in his sense of intellectual striving, and restless exploration of both heights and depths of emotion. Just as nobody should expect to be utterly captivated, and to glean all the message from the Beethoven last Quartets after a single hearing, so neither should they imagine that they will easily comprehend the significance of late Widor.

On November 19th 2004, Friday at 7.30 pm, I shall perform the 7th Symphony of Widor at St. Dominic's Priory, Southampton Road, London NW5, and plan to preface my performance of the complete work with a short illustrated talk to help guide the audience through this wonderful music. The marvellous 1883 Willis organ dates from exactly the period when Widor was writing the 7th Symphony.

I keenly hope that as many people as possible will be able to attend.

© David Aprahamian Liddle - 3rd September 2004


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