Famous Organists: Louis Vierne

This edition of our Famous Organists blog series is going to take a look at the life, interesting death, and influence of Louis Vierne, titulaire, or lead organist, at the Notre Dame Cathedral from 1900-1937.

A Determined Youth

Vierne was born into challenges on October 8, 1870, in Poitiers, France. Upon his birth, Vierne suffered from congenital cataracts, a birth condition that left him (what today would be recognized as) legally blind for the entirety of his life.

Despite his visual impairments, Vierne was a tenacious and talented young musician, first expressing his prowess as a young child after hearing a Schubert lullaby. After the song finished, Vierne began figuring out the notes that were played, and thus started his life of music.

At age 2, Vierne began taking piano classes and eventually attended the Institution Nationale Jeunes Aveugles in 1881, a school specializing in the education of blind students. At this school, Vierne continued his practice and study of the piano, while adding the studies of harmony, solfege, and violin. 

During these years of schooling, Vierne was introduced to the incredible organist, César Franck, who encouraged and convinced Vierne to take up the pipe organ, which he did in 1886. It has also been noted that Vierne described his first experience hearing the pipe organ as a ‘mystic moment’ in his life. 

After Vierne’s graduation from the Institution Nationale Jeunes Aveugles, he was personally invited by Franck to attend private organ classes with him at the Paris Conservatoire. He began these lessons in 1888, and continued them until officially enrolling in the prestigious Paris Conservatoire, full time, in 1890. 

While he was a student at the Paris Conservatoire, Vierne accomplished quite a lot. After Franck passed away, Charles Widor became his instructor. Then in 1892, Vierne not only became the assistant organist under Widor at Paris’ Saint-Sulpice, but he also assisted him with his teaching endeavors at the Conservatoire. Additionally, Vierne earned first prize in his organ studies at the Conservatoire in 1894.

After his graduation from the Paris Conservatoire, Vierne began his professional career as an organist at the acclaimed Parisian cathedral, Notre Dame. 

A Brutal Adult Life

Vierne assumed the position of titulaire for the Notre Dame cathedral in 1900, succeeding Louis-Claude Daquin, and beating out four other organists who were applying for the position. He held this position until he literally died there, but we’ll get to that later. 

Throughout his adult life, Vierne continued to face trials and tribulations, but he was also consistently dealt a rough hand. His limited vision continued to bother him, and where he used to compose his work on over-sized manuscript paper that he was able to read, he eventually turned to producing his works in Braille in order to make them easily accessible with his visual condition. 

While his writing methods were a trial he overcame with ease, complications in his personal life continued to batter him during adulthood. His wife left him for his best friend, his sons died as casualties in World War 2, and he was passed over as an instructor at the Paris Conservatoire, despite 19 years of (free) teaching that he had done with Widor. It’s noted that these unfortunate circumstances pushed him into a depressive state, and combined with his medical conditions, he became a frequent user of a variety of substances.

Before we continue discussing the life of this incredible musician, it’s important to note that this increasingly difficult time in Vierne’s life has been attributed as the major reason that his compositions became darker and more ominous. 

During his time as titulaire for Notre-Dame, the Cavaille-Coll organ was in need of major repairs. Because of this, Vierne embarked on a North American tour where he was able to perform on both Philadelphia’s Wanamaker pipe organ as well as New York City’s Wanamaker Auditorium Organ. Although physically taxing, the tour was a success, and money was raised to restore Notre-Dame’s organ!

Later, upon returning to France, Vierne was injured while walking in the streets of Paris and broke his leg. Fortunately, his leg was able to heal; however, he had to spend a few painstaking months relearning his pedal techniques for the organ. 

Although Vierne had not been able to assume a position at the Paris Conservatoire, he began teaching at the Schola Cantorum, where he stayed committed to the education of his pupils despite the personal adversity he was experiencing via loss and the physical injury to his leg. 

A Death to Be Remembered 

On June 2, 1937, Vierne died of either a stroke or a heart attack(the reports of his audience are conflicting about which exactly it was). And yes, we did say that he died with an audience. This was because Vierne passed away during his 1750th organ recital, which he was playing at the Notre-Dame Cathedral. 

The story goes that Vierne had just finished performing his organ composition Stele pour un enfant défunt from his ‘Triptyque’ Op 58 and was in the process of adjusting his stops for the next improvisation to be performed. 

However, instead of continuing his performance, Vierne was noticed to have slumped down in his seat, suffering from either the heart attack or stroke that caused his death. As he slumped forward, his foot hit the low E pedal, and the note resounded through the cathedral, Vierne dead at the manuals. 

Interestingly enough, it had been a dream of Vierne’s to die while in his seat at the organ of Notre-Dame. What’s more, the famous Maurice Duruflé was with him during the performance when he died. 

What a way to go! 

A Memorable Death, an Unforgettable Legacy

Amidst an extremely difficult life full of tragedies, Vierne was still able to be an incredible accomplished musician who contributed so much to the world of pipe organ music. As we stated above, he performed an astonishing 1750 organ recitals, a world tour, and was the titulaire at Notre-Dame, which is perhaps one of the most coveted organist positions there is. 

However, that was not the extent of what he contributed to the world of music, specifically organ music. In addition to composing some work for orchestra, choir, and other musical mediums, Vierne composed a large body of music for the pipe organ, and some extremely iconic music at that. His most notable pieces for the organ are his six organ symphonies, as well as his 24 Fantasy Pieces written for the pipe organ. 

Along with his compositions, Vierne was an organ educator for many a famous organist to come. Some of his pupils include:

  • Lili Boulanger
  • Nadia Boulanger
  • Augustin Barié
  • Georges-Émile Tanguay
  • Edward Shippen Barnes
  • Henri Gagnebin

Even as recently as 2003, the rock group, Inquire recorded a version of his composition, Organ Symphony No. 3 in F♯ minor, recognizing it as such: “this symphony marks the beginning of a new movement, what we call ‘rock and roll’.”

At Viscount Organs, we believe it’s incredibly important to keep the legacies of great organists like Vierne alive. While we attempt to do that through this blog series, we are also constantly working on improving the technology of the organ, keeping it alive in this modern age. If you’re interested in acquiring your own organ, contact Viscount Organs today!