Photos 2: Homage to Louis Vierne

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Homage to Mssr. Louis Vierne, organiste-titulaire 1900-1937 of the Cathedral de Notre-Dame de Paris ... inspired composer and performer, beloved teacher, improvisor of genius, dear friend and mentor to many, even to this day, in absentia.  🙂

Students came from all over the world to study with him.

A sample of this French master's inspired choral and organ writing is posted on this blog [See menu bar, Videos 1 subpage, Vierne Kyrie Eleison].  The entire work [Messe Solennelle, Op. 16, for two organs and choir] from which this Kyrie is excerpted is a masterpiece.

Made on site at the 850 year-old Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, this recording is a precious souvenir of what Vierne would have heard when his music sounded against those walls.  Sadly, the tragic fire of 15 April 2019 completely destroyed the Cathedral's spire, three quarters of its roof, and all of the wooden frame in its attic.  Its an alarming fact that most historic-building conflagrations strike during renovations, and this fire, while its cause has still be be determined, appears to have started in or near roof work underway near the Cathedral spire, which was elaborately scaffolded.  As flames raced through the historic wooden timbers in the attic the intense heat of this cataclysmic furnace melted the lead in the roof, contaminated the entire work site with lead dust and debris, caused several of the six-partite ceiling vaults to collapse, and the heat and flaming debris followed by the drenching by fire hoses damaged some of the stonework and created innumerable microcracks in the rose windows and other stained glass which will require painstaking restoration.  Stabilization of the structure and rebuilding true to a heritage that stretches back to the 12th century however will not be quick ... or easy.

The sheer numbers of the timbers in the attic's close quarters and the fact that after the first alarm on the evening of April 15 a marshall failed to locate the fire allowed it to spread much faster than anyone ever anticipated.  There is unlikely to be enough French old-growth oak to recreate the attic "forest," but the flames consumed more than just wood from trees dating back to the 9th century.  There were special joints, techniques, and carpenter's marks on the wood members, all of which was lost.  Miraculously however, the world-famous 1868 Cavaille-Coll organ in the west tribune escaped destruction, though it became filled with a non-adhering type of ashen dust which can be removed readily and not the type of corrosive, sticky soot common with many fires.  The stone with its sloping roof that connects the two bell towers and covers the span of the Cavaille-Coll organ perfectly fulfilled its role as an umbrella and protected the instrument from being flooded.  Initially only a small puddle on a bellows and a few drops on the G#1 pipe of the Principal 32', the only pipe that received any water, were discovered.

The instrument is not completely out of danger, however.  While it suffered the effects of smoke, dust, and heat and managed to escape destruction, the fire left three gaping holes in the roof, one when the spire collapsed.  The instrument's console and pipes, miraculously, were not heat damaged, windchests have been tested in operation and given the all clear, its electronic circuits, whether in the console or at the base of the buffet, seem to have survived unscathed and clean, having been locked, and the authorities are fairly optimistic that its other mechanical components are also intact.  But the unique sound of the building may be gone forever.

To get a sense of the task which lies ahead, the building is currently undergoing massive repair work.  Save for some piles of gravel, the floor of the nave has been cleared, but it rains inside the church, and the site remains closed to the public.  One only has to look upward at the roof to understand just how much work has to be done.  There are gaping holes in the vaults of the ceiling, twisted piles of burned metal and wood, and, at the summit, partially burned scaffolding towers overhead, still in danger of collapsing.  Massive wooden braces have been erected and bolted together outside the building in an attempt to shore up the huge exterior flying buttresses.  About 300 tons of structure must be carefully stabilized before it can be taken down slowly, piece by piece, a process expected to take until mid-2020.

In front of the Cathedral, tents shelter much of the precious debris -- tens of thousand of pieces of stone and some metal that archeologists are in the process of restoring.  But today the chief architect has a different priority:  he's concerned about the vaults in the ceiling.  According to him, when the pieces of the chared wooden framing that burned and the metal elements that accumulated are removed, anything could happen.  He therefore cannot absolutely say that Notre-Dame has be saved.  The ceiling and walls near the summit are so fragile from the fire that architects are only giving this iconic symbol of the French nation a 50:50 chance of survival.  In the meantime the moisture and dampness in the building from rain puddles standing in the floor of the nave after every storm is a constant threat to the wooden and perishable leather components of the Cavaille-Coll organ.

Although over a billion Euros have been raised to restore the Cathedral, the rebuilding efforts will be extremely costly, difficult, labor-intensive, and time-consuming.  Presuming it can be saved, the building is not expected to reopen for many years.  As reconstruction work near the Cavaille-Coll organ would commence at some point there is talk of completely sealing and enclosing the instrument in a pressurized, climate-controlled, waterproof case rather than trying to dismantle it.  The cleaning within such a case could be done without technical difficulties, keeping the voicing and harmonization perfectly preserved, but a complete dismantling of the instrument, with its prolonged storage and relocation, would be a considerable undertaking, and the organ would suffer greatly.  But additionally, and more importantly, the extremely fragile facade of Cavaille-Coll, which has never been removed from the Cathedral since the instrument's installation, would have very little chance of surviving.

As for the smaller Choir Organ built by Merklin, the firefighters soaked the choir stalls to prevent them from burning, and, inevitably, the water came back over the stalls and sank beneath the overhanging side of the buffet.  This caused the instrument's blower plant in the upper part of the basement to fill with water which then spilled onto the mechanism in the basement.  The elevated parts of the instrument seem to have been spared somewhat, but the console situated at floor level was flooded and will likely need rebuilding.

In homage to this great French master Louis Vierne an organ piece for 2 hands entitled Prelude Internationale in Bb Major Op. 5 has been written.  This is a dreamy, unpretentious work constructed in the same 6-part form that Vierne taught his pupils to employ for improvising on a single free theme [See menu bar, Free Stuff subpage, 2 Staff Op. 1-9 ... and blog/archive, Learning By Example].  This music pays quiet homage to this great French master -- without bombast, fanfare, or virtuoso display -- simply by employing the same form and some of the methods and vocabulary he enlisted when he composed his 24 Pieces en style libre Op. 31 and what he taught during lessons on improvisation.

In this author's view the word "Homage," as it applies to a piece of music bearing that title, should be more than simply a tribute to another musician, more than simply a work showing respect for or gratitude to someone else.  Ideally it should enlist some of the same methods and rhythmic and harmonic vocabulary as the dedicatee habitually employed in his/her own work, thereby demonstrating that those very same principles still have relevance to today's expression.  It can be argued that the theme of the tribute should not be lifted from the other person's composition lest it suggest that more can be squeezed from the theme than the composer could find or wish to be found.  It also can be argued that, when done with dignity and respect, anything is permissible.

Bottom line:  a musical tribute entitled "Homage" does not have to make an ostentatious show as a sign of the intended reverential regard -- and it does not have to be a flashy torrent of notes many pages long with a crashingly loud climax.  On the contrary, it can be short, quiet, incorporate perhaps many more of the methods used by the dedicatee, and may succeed in serving the purpose even better.  Above all, it should be beautiful when people listen to it.                     

The Preludes from Op. 25-28 described on this blog also have single free themes worked in the same 6-part improvisational form taught by this great French master [See menu bar, Free Stuff, Five Preludes & Fugues subpage ... and blog/archive, Getting Started With Writing, Parts XXXI, XXXII, XXXIII, XXXV].  This author -- for special reasons, all good and sufficient and described elsewhere on this blog [See menu bar, Bio subpage, A Case Study], takes unusual interest in Mssr. Louis Vierne, his methods of composing, and his manner of teaching his students.  This great artist is gone but has left his mark on the organ repertoire and in the hearts of his many pupils and admirers for many generations to come.

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