Dignity of the Organist's Calling

Author: Sacred Music

SACRED MUSIC Volume 117, Number 2, Summer 1990


(Excerpted from "In Memoriam Louis Vierne (1870-1937)," this piece was translated from French by Karoly Kope.)

Sergent, organist at Notre Dame of Paris, being gravely ill, Louis Vierne, a student of Charles Widor and his assistant at St. Sulpice, was appointed as Sergent's substitute. Vierne relates some subsequent events.

As had been feared, Sergent died a few weeks after my first Sunday as substitute. Approached by ninety-eight applicants for the vacant position of organist at Notre Dame--ten of them rather serious--the chapter of the cathedral concluded that auditions alone could end the intrigues into which the canons, the chancellery, and the parish clergy were being drawn by some of the applicants. A jury composed of recognized artists was formed, and the conditions of the contest were announced in the newspapers:

1. Harmonizing at sight and commentary on a Gregorian chant;

2. Improvising a fugue on a given subject;

3. Free improvisation on a given theme;

4. Performance from memory of an organ composition drawn by lot from a list of five pieces submitted by the candidate.

The order in which candidates appeared would be drawn by lot at the last moment, and each list of submitted repertory would carry the number of the candidate who would remain anonymous. Contestants would perform on the organ of Notre Dame, and the jury would occupy the left gallery, from where it was impossible to see what was taking place in the organ loft.

These conditions having been announced, ten candidates applied immediately.

I was hesitant. I had been married a year and was father of a month-old son. My position as teacher was rather enviable, and my assistantship at the conservatoire forbade that I fail. It was a great risk for me. Also, a position at Saint-Pierre in Neuilly had just been offered me. An organ of fifty-two ranks had recently been installed there, and the salary offered was much higher than that at Notre Dame.

Widor insisted that I apply, assuring me that my training was such that I stood a good chance. Though torn by doubts, I finally yielded to Widor--of course!--as always. I had not done badly on other such occasions. Having cast the dice, my confidence returned despite criticism by those around me, who thought that I was unwise to put the future of my family at risk.

Candidates were granted eight hours of practice on the organ. I was given only two, as I was already familiar with the instrument through my work as substitute there. That gave me just enough time to set the registration of the works I had submitted to the jury. In the meantime, I drilled myself at home at night, my days being taken up by my teaching duties.

Finally the day of the contest arrived. We were locked up in a small apartment situated above the sacristy. Fifteen minutes before his audition, each contestant was led to a separate room by a young priest, Abbe Renault, who gave the candidate the themes and the chants to be used. I drew the number "one," and that number was entered on my list of organ pieces submitted.

From my list the jury drew by lot Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D minor," a happy choice for me, as this work was marvellously suited for the organ of Notre Dame. The chant given was "Salve Regina;" the fugal subject was by Guilmand; and the free theme by Deslandres. The jury was chaired by Widor and included Guilmand, Gigout, Perilhou, Dallier, Deslanderes and Abbe Geispitz. The chapter was represented by Canon Pisani.

I felt that I did well but I refrained from trusting my instinct alone. In 1892, I had experienced a great disappointment at the conservatoire under similar circumstances.

After my audition I went down into the church to hear my competitors. Two were excellent. That only increased my fear of failure. At the end of the auditions I returned to the organ loft, where the jury soon appeared.

Widor announced the results. I was declared the winner by unanimity and received the jury's congratulations. The gentlemen of the jury signed the report on which the themes for the improvisations had been copied. Canon Pisani thanked them on behalf of the chapter and asked me to wait in the special sacristy where the chapter ordinarily meets. I went there, and after a few minutes Canons Pisani and Geispitz, Archpriest Pousset and Abbe Reunault entered. They congratulated me for the outcome and wished me a beautiful career. Then Canon Pisani informed me of my duties and privileges with these words:

Starting today you are organist of the chapter of the metropolitan Basilica of Notre Dame of Paris. On the organ loft you are sole master; none may enter it without your written or oral permission; only workmen in charge of maintenance of the building may use it as a passageway with permission of the proper authorities and when no service is in progress.

You are responsible for all services requiring the organ, liturgically as well as artistically. You may appoint any substitute you wish. They will be ignored by the chapter and must remain anonymous. You may authorize them to use your name on their programs, announcements, and other publicity, but under the same terms as those granted you by M. Widor and at your own risk.

You are also responsible for good order in your organ loft. You must remind your guests--be it orally or through a sign posted on the organ console--that they are present at a religious service and that they are to maintain silence during the services.

The entrance reserved for you is through the northern tower. Your guests will have to present to the guard a card printed to that effect, or your calling card with their name and the date on it.

Except for regular contract fees for the maintenance and tuning of the instrument, all requests for money must be addressed by you personally to the vicar treasurer of the parish, who is charged by the chapter with the proper maintenance of the instrument.

Your salary is 1,600 francs. Your predecessor had forfeited 800 francs of his total salary of 2,400 francs, which went to M. Serre who played for regular Sunday Mass. If you wish to assume that task yourself you are free to do so, in which case you shall receive the entire 2,400 francs.

I replied that I would do as my predecessor had done. M. Serre may continue to play for Sunday Mass, if he would kindly accept to do so. The canon then went on to say:

When M. Widor told us that you hesitated to apply for reasons you had given him, we deemed it wise not to intervene, although your tenure as substitute had given us proof that you were consumately expert with an instrument such as ours. M. Widor insisted partly in your own interest and also to affirm the legitimacy of the great name of our young organ school to which he gave such a strong impetus. You were wise to take his advice, and the future will prove it to you. Your task now is to restore the organ of Notre Dame to its past glory. We have no doubt that you will do your best to achieve that.

I answered with deep emotion that whatever the cost to me, I would do all to reach that goal, if it please God, for His glory and that of His Blessed Mother.