In the late 19th and early 20th century, France produced a cavalcade of composers who were also exceptional organists, including Charles-Marie Widor, César Franck (born in Belgium, lived in France), Gabriel Fauré, and Camille San-Saëns.
While each had their own individual style, the sound of French organ music of that era was defined by one man: Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.
Cavaillé-Coll was an organ builder. In his lifetime, his firm installed or reconstructed around 500 organs in churches in Europe, Great Britain, and Latin America.
Cavaillé-Coll was responsible for a number of technical innovations and for the introduction of organ voices that imitate various instruments in the orchestra. This led to these organs being called “symphonic organs.” Franck said, “My new organ? It’s an orchestra!” and Widor praised the responsiveness of the organ and variety of new orchestral voices.1
The organ builder worked closely with composers, and modified his designs based on their input. One might suggest that organ compositions might also have been influenced by the opportunities provided by Cavaillé-Coll’s instruments.
The best known of the Cavaillé-Coll organs is at the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, France. The church has two organs, the main, and the choir organ. It is said that sometimes Widor and Fauré (Saint-Sulpice’s choir director at the time) would improvise at the same time at the two organs and try to confound each other with abrupt key changes.2
Charles-Marie Widor’s most widely-known organ work is his Toccata, which is the final movement of his Organ Symphony No. 5 (he wrote ten). Here is a live recording of Widor’s Toccata played on the Cavaillé-Coll organ at Saint-Sulpice by Ethan LaPlaca. While the video was never meant to be a final-cut video (people talking in the background, light distortions, a camera tilt oops), I picked it for the sheer exuberance of playing and the brilliance of the sound. The page turner to the organist’s right is Daniel Roth, the current organist of Saint-Sulpice, the same post Widor and Marcel Dupré held before him.
Here is a recording of Charles Widor playing his Toccata on the Saint-Sulpice organ when he was 88 years old. Fierce debates rage about the tempo—is the tempo Widor used in the recording the one that he intended for the piece, or was it influenced by his advanced age? Do some organists play it too fast? Here is a very fast performance. You be the judge.
There is a documentary, The Genius of Cavaillé-Coll, which comes as a box set that includes video from 15 different organs, music CDs, and a book of technical specifications.
A number of Cavaillé-Coll organs have been digitally sampled so that one can reproduce the sound using a virtual pipe organ (an electronic organ using recorded samples of an actual pipe organ via computer software, typically Hauptwerk or the free open-source program GrandOrgue). While it will not be the same as sitting at the console in Saint-Sulpice, it’s a little closer to home. Here is a Cavaillé-Coll virtual pipe organ performance of Henri Mulet’s Carillon Sortie performed by David Lines.
- Duchen, Jessica. Gabriel Fauré. London: Phaidon, 2000, p. 32, via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gabriel_Fauré.
Image attribution: Aristide Cavaille-Coll, heliography by Dujardin, circa 1894, age 83 [Public domain] via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAristide_Cavaill%C3%A9-Coll.jpg.