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The organ symphonies of French composers are more often represented in abridged forms in modern recitals, which makes a complete performance of an organ symphony of Louis Vierne (1870-1937) worth relishing and listening to with a critical ear. From the year 1911, the Third Symphony in F-sharp minor is dedicated to and was premiered by his longtime friend and protege, Marcel Dupré (1886-1971), before a famous falling out between the two master French organists occurred.

Commencing with a loud, highly chromatic Allegro maestoso, the main 2-bar theme (with a three-note pick-up) is stated fortississimo and then repeats itself in a roughly inverted form – emphasizing with tenuto the ultimate three quarter notes. From there, this first movement proceeds academically in a sonata allegro form. After a transition of highly chromatic, stridently dissonant large chords developing the opening theme, a second theme is introduced with the indication “sostenuto e legato” in the dominant key. The running eighth-notes of the second theme transform into running 16th-notes, eventually leading to the closing of the exposition with variation of the opening theme. A development section follows, as does the recapitulation in an even louder, more strident chromatic presentation emphasizing large chords.  

If this first movement pushed the limits of how loud the instrument could play, the second movement, Cantilène, explores how softly it can play. Following this, a playful Intermezzo movement in triple meter then borrows much from the character of a scherzo, if not also a variation of its form (ABA-ABA). These two movements complement the first in keeping an almost rote agenda of the academic sonata allegro form.

The fourth movement, entitled “Adagio” (even though the tempo indication is “quasi largo”), returns to the soft, homophonic idiom of the Cantilène, but with a much more Wagnerian use of chromaticism. Nonetheless, it begins with the slowly unfolding canonic layering of a distinct opening theme in a diffuse B minor (based on the key signature and the note B held in the pedal). A middle section develops with an endless declamatory melody before a flute solo heralds again the opening theme, which is then developed further in the closing section.

The Final offers everything of the typical French toccata (i.e., rapid ostinato passages on the manuals with a slow melody in the pedals) which often closes such organ symphonies, but develops in a much more contrapuntal and multifarious way. A recognizable second theme repeats and then recurs between the sections that repeat the opening theme. The ostinato built on fifths often resonates into a continuous harmony, while carefully notated dynamics test the organist’s skill on the swell pedal.  

Above all, Vierne uses academic forms to his advantage, allowing him to edit and perfect his musical ideas based on a purely abstract ideal. With this in mind, this Symphony deserves careful study and attention to the twists and turns of how the themes are presented and developed.