October 8, 2010

Joyeux Anniversaire, Vierne.

October 8th marks the 140th anniversary of Louis Victor Jules Vierne, famed French organist and no stranger to tragedy. Although the dramatic extent of Vierne’s life varies among sources, one cannot deny the presence of some unfortunate circumstances appearing in his music.
Vierne was born in 1870 to doting parents in Poitiers. Facing the odds from the beginning, Vierne suffered from congenital cataracts rendering him nearly blind. Previously thought to be inoperable, his father, a journalist, facilitated an operation by the inventor of the iridectomy – the introduction of an artificial pupil to the iris. This revolutionary procedure allowed Vierne to be what we consider today, legally blind.
Although severely visually impaired, Vierne was not without tremendous talent. His musical inclination was visible at a very early age and fostered by his uncle, Charles Colin, professor of Oboe at the Paris Conservatory and winner of the Prix de Rome.  Although Colin was an accomplished oboist – his works still performed widely – he was also an organist, and first introduced his new nephew to the instrument on which he excelled.
At age 11, Vierne lost his uncle to an acute respiratory illness and found himself simultaneously devastated with grief but with a renewed fervor to pursue a career as an organ recitalist. His father continued to be supportive both emotionally and financially until the time of his death which would come prematurely. By the age of 15, Vierne had learned to read Braille as a result of partial blindness, become an organ phenomenon and lost his two strongest mentors and supporters – his uncle, and now his father.
Determined to persevere as an organist and composer, Louis Vierne became a pupil of the renowned Cesar Franck at the Paris Conservatory. One year later, no stranger to tragedy, the young man found himself another loss with which to contend. Cesar Franck was killed suddenly as the result of a tragic traffic incident. Vierne continued his studies at the conservatory haunted by the death of so many seminal figures in his life at the young age of 19.
Vierne’s career took off, and he was appointed assistant organist at Church of Saint-Sulpice. After winning a fierce competition, he was finally appointed organist of the Cathedral at Notre Dame and married soprano, Arlette Taskin. Vierne took many pupils that would later become fixed marks in music, including Nadia Boulanger and Maurice DuruflĂ©. Things were looking up.
But tragedy has a way of following us around. Over the next decade, Louis Vierne would divorce his wife as a result of her affair with his friend, an organ-builder – oh the irony. He would lose both brothers in the battlefields of World War 1, lose a child to tuberculosis and nearly lose his own leg in an automobile accident that would come close to costing his career at the organ. This is where most people would give up and live a life of relative obscurity.
Not Vierne. He continued composing, teaching and performing. He even embarked on a North American tour to raise funds for the restoration of his beloved instrument at Notre Dame that had fallen into disrepair. The tour included a performance on the Wanamaker Organ in Philadelphia. Through the face of immense personal tragedy, Vierne’s career flourished. Music was his refuge, and he often remarked to friends that he wished his death to be in the midst of creation, to die while at the organ.
On June 2nd, 1937 with Maurice Duruflé at this side, Louis Vierne got his wish. He suffered a heart attack at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, on the bench mid-performance, at the console of his beloved instrument that never let him down. When he collapsed, his foot hit the E pedal, echoing relief and peace throughout the Nave of Notre Dame.

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