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The French composer Charles-Marie Widor wrote a total of ten organ symphonies – but sadly, it is only the Toccata from No.5 that retains any kind of popular appeal today.
It’s quite some popular appeal, though, being one of the most regularly requested wedding day pieces in the world. Many a bride and groom have left the church to the sound of ‘the Widor’, as it’s often called. It certainly provides something of a challenge for your average parish organist to pull off successfully!
The Toccata first became popular around 1880: the combination of rather frantic right-hand decorative lines with sturdy, anthemic melody notes from the pedals of the organ became a pretty instant hit. Although referred to as a ‘symphony’, this work does not fit that title in the traditional sense – and nor do Widor’s other organ symphonies, for that matter. Rather, we can only assume that the term is intended to convey the composer’s full use of the organ’s range and musical colour, in much the same way that other composers employ all elements of the orchestra’s possibilities when writing a standard symphony.
Widor himself was a master of the instrument: he succeeded his fellow French composer César Franck as Professor of Organ at the Paris conservatoire.
(Toccata only) Stephen Cleobury (organ). Decca: 4600212.
Illustration: Mark Millington