Volume 117, Number 2, Summer 1990
ON THE DIGNITY OF THE ORGANIST'S CALLING
(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
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
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
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
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