Alexandre Guilmant...the forgotten composer???
  • I'm wondering, and maybe it is just my perception, why has Alexandre Guilmant been forgotten as a composer of organ works? His music is absolutely spectacular. His 8 organ sonatas are masterpieces (I'm currently in the middle of learning Sonata 7 in F major), his opus 90 contains some great pieces, plus he has many others great works. He also taught Marcel Dupre along with others. Why does it seem like Guilmant has been neglected compared to so many of the other great French composers?
  • Schönbergian
    Posts: 1,063
    Personally, I find his music stuffy, overly academic, and limited in vision compared to Franck and Widor. It reads like an homage to the Classical era without any of the inventiveness of that era - like a slightly better Cecilian composer. Perhaps this impression is unfair, but it certainly seems to be true for many of his most-played works. I would take Franck over the finale to the First Sonata any day of the week.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,836
    I am OK with Guilmant. He probably was the greatest organist of the 19th century. Was he the greatest composer? No, but he wasn't bad and I have found his collections of works for church, particularly the shorter pieces, useful. Given his playing ability, some of his music is actually hard to play. Aunt Maude the left-footed organist who works cheap may delight Father, but she likely wont be able to play Guilmant.
  • It seems to me that as in England between Purcell and Elgar, for me there iare two great lacunae in French organ music. the first from Couperin to Franck, and the second beweem Franck to Langlais, et al.
  • Schonbergian, I will agree that the finale to Sonata 1 is overplayed. I do really enjoy when it modulated from D Minor into D Major, though. I actually have the opposite opinion when it comes to Frank and find his works more boring that Guilmant. With the comparison to Widor, is this because Widor experimented more with harmonies and tonality where Guilmant played it more safe?

    Charles, I would agree with you on the difficulty issue, but I think Aunt Maude would also have an issue with a lot of Bach, Widor, Frank or Vierne. I was thinking more when it comes to trained organists (either with college degrees or who have just spent a lot of time practicing).
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  • ServiamScores
    Posts: 2,370
    I disagree that guilmant is forgotten. He certainly wasn’t in the organ departments in which I studied.

    As for the finale, I had the great joy of playing it both with orchestra and as solo (solo is more fun because it’s harder). It’s actually time for me to relearn it. It’s such a marvelous piece.
  • Schönbergian
    Posts: 1,063
    With the comparison to Widor, is this because Widor experimented more with harmonies and tonality where Guilmant played it more safe?
    I wouldn't call it "playing it more safe" necessarily. I feel Guilmant's vision was more constrained and that has rather little to do with his harmonic language. Widor is harmonically conservative compared to some figures in his lifetime, but wrote for the organ on a grander stage than those who came before him. Indeed, there is some Widor that is almost uncomfortably banal (finale to Symphony 6, for instance)
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,836
    I was thinking more when it comes to trained organists (either with college degrees or who have just spent a lot of time practicing).

    Another factor if you are stuck with one of those hideous "neo-baroque" instruments that were the rage for years, is that nothing outside the Baroque era sounds good on those instruments. Given some of the American supposed reproduction instruments, even the genuine Baroque literature doesn't sound good on them, either. If you have an instrument that can play that French literature, go for it.
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 9,046
    Some of Guilmant's motets are still known to choirs that sing Latin: e.g.
  • Serviam, maybe it is just my experiences then if you have worked a lot with his music.

    Schonbergian, I understand what you are saying now, and that definitely is a legitimate critique.

    Charles, I play a Rodgers so I fortunately don't have to deal with one of those instruments.

    Chonak, I like that motet. I haven't heard any of his choral works before.
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  • RMSawicki
    Posts: 107
    Whatever one’s feelings regarding Guilmant... how many organists have had an organ school named after them?


    Gaudete in Domino Semper!
  • ServiamScores
    Posts: 2,370
    Nathan, everyone in our department had a copy of his "practical organist" which is a great collection of moderate-to-difficult works. There are some lovely contemplative works, as well as a few good barn-burners like the "grand triumphal chorus".'Organiste_pratique_(Guilmant,_Alexandre)
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,836
    I have used 'practical organist' for years. It is quite practical and useful.
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  • I know the Grand Triumphal Chorus well. It was actually the first Guilmant piece I had ever heard.
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  • Nisi
    Posts: 128
    Hardly forgotten! Lots of people play his music - in fact, I cannot think of an organist I know who has not. Even the incomparable John Scott ...
  • Apparently it's just the other organists I've talked to then.
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  • Perhaps his music is somewhat forgotten by the public and he is only truly familiar to those who study organ in the conservatory.

    But here is my two cents, so take it with a grain of salt:

    Guilmant is one of my absolute favorite Catholic organist composers and, from a strictly liturgical point of view, one of the greatest of them all.

    As I understand it, lots of folks give him a bad rap for being stodgy and uninspired. But that is not how I see it. Some of his pieces are very Bach and Handel inspired, sure. His merit lies not merely composing in that style, but in appropriating that style into thematic and ritual conformity with the Catholic liturgy of his day.

    Furthermore, I would argue that he did contribute to making the chants of the Church to be a more central reference point for Catholic organ music of his day. Compared to Franck and Widor, you will hear much more thematic material borrowed from Gregorian Chant, which of course according to tradition and legislation is the most proper form of music for the Roman Rite.

    His melodies aren’t as luscious as Mendelssohn, technical as Bach, or as ethereal as Franck. But in the context of Catholic Mass, where the organ is meant to ornament the rites and not itself become the center of attention, is this a bad thing? As he himself said, “to be expressive while remaining simple, that is the real difficulty.” It is a difficulty to make true Art, utilizing the best technique and taste have to offer, and yet still pointing away from itself. But this is exactly what I feel his music accomplishes at its best.

    (I compare some organists’ dislike for Guilmant akin to choir directors dislike for Palestrina — not artsy enough. All the while missing the point that it is first and foremost intended for liturgical purposes and not meant to be the occasion of separate admiration. To make great art that has objective merit but not intended for subjective appreciation, again, is not easy.)

    Not every single one of his works is a “slam dunk”, but no composer has that going for them. And I think, as is often the case, the “Great Works” are not the great works!
  • Schönbergian
    Posts: 1,063
    His melodies aren’t as luscious as Mendelssohn, technical as Bach, or as ethereal as Franck. But in the context of Catholic Mass, where the organ is meant to ornament the rites and not itself become the center of attention, is this a bad thing?


    To conflate good, artistic music with something that is distracting has been the single biggest enemy of Catholic music ever since the Cecilians foisted their awful banalities on us as a supposed antidote to the operatic excesses of the day. Furthermore, we have five centuries of organ music with which to work. I see no reason to perform anything but the best, both for ourselves and for God.

    I don't think the comparison with Palestrina is warranted since that is music that perfectly combines artistic excellence with liturgical suitability. (For a modern parallel, see Duruflé.) Palestrina's wide modern success outside the church speaks to the purely musical quality of his work.

    Let us not be satisfied with something that would only ever be "acceptable" in liturgy but not outside. It should stand on both merits but never one or the other; to remove either pillar is to miss the point altogether.
  • a_f_hawkins
    Posts: 3,236
    To conflate good, artistic music with something that is distracting has been the single biggest enemy of Catholic music ever since the Cecilians foisted ...
    Ah but somewhat before then, Augustine; Confessions; Book10; Chapter 33 :(Translated by J.G. Pilkington)
    Thus vacillate I between dangerous pleasure and tried soundness; being inclined rather (though I pronounce no irrevocable opinion upon the subject) to approve of the use of singing in the church, that so by the delights of the ear the weaker minds may be stimulated to a devotional frame. Yet when it happens to me to be more moved by the singing than by what is sung, I confess myself to have sinned criminally, and then I would rather not have heard the singing.
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  • ...more moved by the singing than by what is sung...
    An age old challenge, one with which Augustine (of Hippo) himself confessed struggling.
    Can we even think of 'O Come, All Ye Faithful' without its melody'? I think that to do so would be for mast of us a conscious decision.
    It is by art, be it music, art itself, sculpture, architecture, and ritual itself that we express and enshrine sacred realities, texts and all that they reveal. It is difficult for us to think of what is enshrined rather than the shrine itself. This is why God commanded that we make no 'graven images'. But we do make them to enshrine what is holy, though all too often we admire them rather than what they represent..

    A friend of mine once said that certain people worship worship. This can be true whether one is 'low church' or 'high church', 'contemporary' or 'traditional'.
  • Schönbergian

    In essence, I actually agree with you. Yes, (1) the Liturgy needs good music, and music doesn’t just become good/not good depending on if it used in Liturgy or not. God deserves our best. And (2) being an artistically excellent piece of music does not, in and of itself, constitute distraction from the services.

    I see how my words could imply that good artistry is distracting but that is not how I meant it. All I mean to say is that I think Guilmant’s better music stays clear of some of the potential excesses that would no longer make them suitable for Liturgy. Good music, even good religious music, can still be too passionate or too busy or too avante gard to be good for liturgy.

    Further, I would think of his better music as “prayerful” and “sober.” As I said, the “Great Works” of composers are often not the greatest. Guilmant is no exception— I like the Finale from his first organ sonata and his Religious March on a theme of Handel, but neither one of them are what my mind would first go to. If I may, check out these:

    Strophe on Sacris Solemniis

    Two Strophes on Veni Creator Spiritus (I especially love the first one)

    Grand Chorus, March, Gregorian Tonality

    Communion No 2 in G Major

    Lastly, I have ran across too many folks who concentrate on Renaissance choral music who think Palestrina is too rigid and stale, and that the fame he enjoys is only thanks to the myth of him saving church music from the Council of Trent with his Pope Marcellus Mass… both he and Guilmant have their critics, as well as their defenders.
  • Felicia
    Posts: 101
    I've played a few pieces from L’organiste liturgiste and find them both enjoyable and "doable" at my rather modest skill level.
  • I can't but draw parallels with Reger, except that Reger is better.
  • ghmus7
    Posts: 1,407
    Well gee golly....saying that Guilmont is not as good as Franck is like saying Walther or Tunder is not as good as Bach, so why play them? Guilmont's sonatas were the best organ music of the day and a huge step forward from the dillentant music after the revolution. He was the first composer to understand Caville-Colls' instruments and to utilize their creative possibilities. I quite enjoy the sonatas, especially the fourth. And if you don't like them, don't play them...
  • The sonatas are amazing. The seventh is my favorite. The second is also really good.
  • Schönbergian
    Posts: 1,063
    And if you don't like them, don't play them...
    I think this is rather reductive, isn't it? We should be advocates for the works that we play, especially if some don't view them particularly favourably - I advocate for Rheinberger every time I play his music despite many viewing it as boring or sugary. I entered this thread to have an earnest discussion about a composer I dislike and hopefully open myself to a new perspective that might change my mind. I was perfectly capable of not playing Guilmant before I read anything here.
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  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 2,648
    I've always regarded with suspicion the 'organ symphonies' and 'sonatas' that are represented on typical recital programs only by apologetic excerpts, and was rather late discovering Vierne's big works. Thanks for recommending Guilmant No. 7 Op. 89, better than what I expected. While I was enjoying, the composer at our house merely said "very good: that's not distracting at all."
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,836
    I can't but draw parallels with Reger, except that Reger is better.

    I like Reger, too. I remember my organ professor saying, "Reger has too many notes."
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  • Ha! When I think of too many notes I think of Franz Liszt.
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  • ServiamScores
    Posts: 2,370
    "Reger has too many notes."

    I dug in my heels in grad school because I had no desire to learn his works; it seemed like way more work (relative to my skill level anyway) than it was worth. I enjoy how epic some of his works sound, but tbh, they are far from my favorite.
  • MJO, my girlfriend, who is an very talented pianist, says the exact same thing.
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  • I've been discovering Guilmant more, recently, and I have to +1 John Church's comments above. I love the big French concert rep, but looking for things that fit well into the liturgy gets difficult in that repertoire. I think to too many organists, either music is pushing the tonal boundaries (late Vierne, Messiaen and beyond) OR it is boring and uninspired. I for one am tired of faux-Messiaen liturgical improvisations, and snobby looking down the nose at more conservative styles. Maybe Latry, LeFebre, and Dubois can pull it off, but most of those I hear being snobby are not at that level. And I've always been more drawn to the liturgical improvisations in a more tonal, late-Romantic style, of Daniel Roth and Sophie Veronique at Saint Sulpice. There is no shame in simplicity.

    I'd also keep in mind that a book like "The Practical Organist" by Guilmant is part of a French tradition of providing approachable liturgical music for those that are not good improvisers (and also as a learning guide for improvisation). For example the Couperin Masses for the parishes and convents. Those pieces are largely meant to be simple - it is not a valid criticism of Guilmant as composer to judge them otherwise. And I have to say, I do find them very helpful in my improvisation studies.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,836
    While I love those big romantic pieces for organ, they are generally too big for liturgy in American churches. Imagine having procession lengths like in a French cathedral. French Baroque, on the other hand, breaks into shorter sections that easily fit the liturgy. I used that literature heavily.
  • Guilmant knew how to voice a chord and achieve color.