April 1, 2017: Widor

Toccata from Organ Symphony No. 5    Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937)

Charles-Marie Widor was born in to a family of organ builders, and initially studied music — especially organ — with his father. The French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, reviver of the art of organ building, was a friend of the Widor family; he arranged for the talented young organist to study at the Brussels Conservatoire. Widor then moved to Paris, where he made his home for the rest of his life.

In January 1870, with the combined lobbying of Cavaillé-Coll, Saint-Saëns, and Charles Gounod, the 25-year-old Widor was appointed as "provisional" organist of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, the most prominent position for a French organist. The organ at St-Sulpice was Cavaillé-Coll's masterwork; the instrument's spectacular capabilities proved an inspiration to Widor. Despite his job's ostensibly "provisional" nature, Widor remained as the ‘temporary’ organist at St-Sulpice for nearly 64 years,.

In 1890, upon the death of César Franck, Widor succeeded him as organ professor at the Paris Conservatoire. The class he inherited was initially stunned by this new teacher, who suddenly demanded a formidable technique and a knowledge of J.S. Bach's organ works as prerequisites to effective improvisation. Later (1896), he gave up this post to become composition professor at the same institution. Several of Widor’s students become famous composers and organists in their own right, including Dupré, Vierne, and Varése. Albert Schweitzer (a concert organist before he became the famous medical missionary to Africa) also studied with Widor. Master and pupil collaborated on an annotated edition of J.S. Bach's organ works published in 1912-14.

In 1921, Widor helped found the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau. He was the Director until 1934, when he was succeeded by Maurice Ravel.

At the age of 76, Widor married 36-year-old Mathilde de Montesquiou-Fézensac. (No children.)

In 1933, Widor resigned his position at Saint-Sulpice. Three years later he suffered a stroke which paralyzed the right side of his body, although he remained mentally alert to the last. He died at his home in Paris at the age of 93, and his remains were interred in the crypt of Saint-Sulpice.