Louis Vierne

"Communion"    L. Vierne (1870-1937)

Louis Vierne was born nearly blind due to congenital cataracts, but at an early age displayed an unusual gift for music. At age two he heard the piano for the first time: the pianist played him a Schubert lullaby and he promptly began to pick out the notes on the piano. At age 22, Vierne served as an assistant to the organist Charles-Marie Widor at the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris. Vierne subsequently became principal organist at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, a post he held from age 30 until his death.

Vierne had a life that was physically and emotionally difficult. His congenital cataracts did not make him completely blind, but he was certainly "legally" so. Early in his career he composed on oversized manuscript paper using a large pencil. Later, as his eyesight continued to deteriorate, he switched to music Braille.

Furthermore, his marriage ended when his wife left him for his best friend. His much-beloved daughter Colette wasn’t actually his daughter at all, and his eldest son Jacque and his brother René were both killed fighting in World War I. In a freak street accident he suffered multiple compound fractures to his left leg (almost requiring amputation), and spent painful years recovering and relearning his organ pedal technique. He underwent advanced eye treatment in Switzerland for four years, spending six months in a completely darkened room (the treatment was unsuccessful). Despite his difficulties, however, his students uniformly described him as a kind, patient and encouraging teacher. France made him a Chevalier de la Legion d'honneur ("Knight of the Legion of Honor") at age 61.

Though he held one of the most prestigious organ posts in France, the Notre-Dame organ was in a state of ill-repair throughout much of his tenure. He eventually undertook a concert tour of North America to raise money for its restoration.

Vierne smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, habitually took tranquilizers and sleeping pills, and inhaled ether when he became agitated. He suffered either a stroke or a heart attack (we're not sure which) while giving his 1750-th organ recital at Notre-Dame de Paris age 67. (This morning's prelude was on the program.) As he fell off the bench, his foot hit the low "E" pedal of the organ, the single note echoing throughout the church. Thus he fulfilled his oft-stated lifelong dream — to die at the console of the great organ of Notre-Dame.