Vierne was born blind, and after several difficult childhood surgeries, he gained only very limited sight. In fact, his vision was so poor that, as he grew older, he would sometimes compose in braille even though most of his manuscripts are written on very large paper. A brilliant organist, composer, and improviser, Vierne was the assistant of Charles-Marie Widor (of "the Toccata" fame) by his mid-twenties and became organist of Notre Dame de Paris by the age of 30. He held this position until his death, 37 years later. VIerne suffered much in his life due to his poor health, the untimely death of his brother and his son in World War One, and his broken marriage. Finally, in 1937, he died while playing an organ recital at Notre Dame. His foot struck the low "E" pedal as he fell from the organ bench, and the audience, at first, thought it was the first note of his closing improvisations. I mention all of this because it is reflected in his music. Vierne's work respects clarity and purity of musical form while being tinged with a very French, very Gothic sensibility. Even his most joyous works have a mystical tint that brings visions of the vast and dim Notre Dame.
At the offertory, the Cathedral Choir will present Vierne's Tantum Ergo motet in Latin. A poetic translation is printed below.
Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail,
Lo! o'er ancient forms departing
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith for all defects supplying,
Where the feeble senses fail.
To the Everlasting Father,
And the Son Who reigns on high
With the Holy Ghost proceeding
Forth from Each eternally,
Be salvation, honour, blessing,
Might, and endless majesty.
These ancient words are a central pillar of Roman Catholic hymnody. Vierne would have sung them his entire life, and his simple choral setting of them is honest and beautiful while still having a sense of reaching out or longing after something. The melancholic quality of his writing fits perfectly with his personality and life's story.
During communion, Ann Moody will sing Vierne's Ave Maria for mezzo-soprano and organ. The Ave Maria prayer is even better known than the Tantum Ergo, and Vierne's setting is again of almost surprising simplicity. Listen to how similar the Ave is to the Berceuse. I am very glad we are presenting these two vocal works this week, because they are so seldom performed.
Finally, as the organ postlude, I will play Vierne's Postlude quasi fantasia. This piece, like its title suggests, is free in form and full of virtuosic passages. In many ways, I think it is a nod to earlier composers who favored this style of keyboard writing. However, there is more to all of this. In Vierne's music one can hear a powerful sense of Godly things (majesty, etc), but one also hears very human things. On Sunday, you will hear everything from a lullaby, to simple hymns of faith, to a dazzling postlude. In all of this, you will hear music written by a man whose works seem to reach out to us with a deep, questioning melancholy. How human is that?