Recalling the genius of Vierne

Recalling the genius of Vierne

I have mentioned Beethoven’s 250th anniversary at various times during the year but another composer’s significant anniversary should also be remembered. The one in question is that of Louis Vierne, maybe better known to church organ enthusiasts than general music lovers.

Born in Poitiers in the west-central region of France on October 8, 1870, his 150th anniversary has been commemorated around the globe. Here at home, through the intrepid planning of David Leigh, Pipeworks artistic director and assistant master of the music at Dublin’s St Patrick’s Cathedral, a selection of his works was streamed by a number of our leading organists on the actual day.

Louis Vierne was one of four children of journalist Henri-Alfred Vierne and his wife Marie-Joséphine Gervaz. Almost blind from birth, the lad was discovered to have exceptional musical gifts early on. Aged two, hearing a piece by Schubert, he promptly picked out its notes on the piano.

When the family moved to Paris, Louis had operations on both eyes enabling him to distinguish shapes and people and to read large print. He studied at the National Institute for the Blind from 1880 but an organ recital by César Franck proved a pivotal point in his life.


The experience led to meeting the master who recommended he study the instrument. As a result Vierne had private lessons from Franck and attended his classes at the Paris Conservatoire where he became a full-time student in 1890.

Franck’s death later that year brought Vierne into contact with another great organist/ composer, Charles-Marie Widor and becoming his deputy at the Church of Saint-Suplice. In 1894 Vierne was awarded first prize in the conservatoire’s organ class and six years later won a competition for the position of titular organist at Notre Dame. By then he had married the singer Berthe Arlette Taskin, with their union resulting in two sons and a daughter.

Besides his duties at Notre Dame, Vierne initially taught at the conservatoire before moving to the rival Schola Cantorum in 1912. Here Vierne’s students included many who would become outstanding organists in their own right among them Marcel Dupré and the redoubtable Nadia Boulanger who was later one of the most respected and influential composition teachers of her time.

Besides his eyesight problems, Vierne bore other crosses – his divorce, on the grounds of his wife’s infidelity, the suicide of his eldest son, Jacques, and a street accident in which he almost lost a leg and compelled him to relearn his pedal technique.

Despite these vicissitudes, Vierne made a number of concert appearances abroad including several in the US as part of a fundraising campaign for the renovation of Notre Dame’s organ.

On June 2, 1937, while giving his 1,750th recital in the cathedral and with some 3,000 people in attendance, Vierne suddenly collapsed. His expressed wish to die at the console of the great instrument he loved was granted.

Vierne has left a considerable legacy of compositions not least his six magnificent organ symphonies that are romantically rich, musically eloquent and ingenious in their use of the instrument’s special sonorities.