Vierne's unexpectedly powerful Piano Quintet, Op. 42

It’s difficult to know where to start with this… I’ve been incredibly moved by many pieces of music in the last year+ … some of them—actually probably most of them, completely unexpected.  Somehow one of these (Brahms 4 Serious Songs) in particular seems like it would be a good introduction to the piece I want to talk about here: Louis Vierne’s Piano Quintet ...  before getting into Vierne, a bit about the Brahms songs—this set I had heard in many combinations prior (including an interesting one with baritone and orchestra), but, to my great (great!) shame, I hadn’t been able to connect with it, which in itself is strange—that direct power which so often seems the lifeblood currency of Brahms’s (and Schubert’s) music.  But here, it was an intimate setting—the pianist was utterly convincing, the singer completely sincere, and it was the text of the 2nd song in particular that really shook me: “und der noch nicht ist, ist besser als alle beide/und des Bösen nicht inne wird/das unter der Sonne geschieht.” (But better than both [the living and the dead]/is the one who has never been born/who has not seen the evil/that is done under the sun).  As you may know, Brahms lifts this deeply pessimistic, heartbreaking belief from the most earthen text, the Bible.  I couldn’t help but be moved by the almost oblique and yet profound way he might have used this text to express something he felt deeply—seeing those closest to him suffer, and eventually die (he said to friends on the day of Clara Schumann’s death: “today I buried the only person I ever loved”); at the same time Brahms’s own childhood and early life is full of sadness...  you probably/may have read it was difficult for him to communicate intimately; even here, in this most personal confession he chose a text which is “simple”; one which would have resonated with the sensibilities of those he felt he could most easily talk with.  Still yet, to say such a thing.  Obviously my life is made unmeasurably more meaningful and rich by the music of Brahms—this is something for which I can say “I am happy to be alive” … somehow with this purely selfish thought in mind, the pessimism of this text is even more heartbreaking…

In any case, I say all this to “elevate” the “humble and unadulterated taste of the subjective” (to quote Carolyn Abbate).  I believe it is this part of music and the experience of listening to it that we must celebrate and recognize, even if in some way it seems self-centric.  So, in the end, it’s not Brahms I’m talking about… this text from the 4 Serious Songs concerns death, obviously, and is rendered musically with a raw directness of emotional power, and that is where I feel I find a good connection to lead into this work…  I think something about the unexpectedly direct, raw emotional power encountered here (same as in the Brahms) is what took me off-guard…

Vierne's Piano Quintet:


recording with score (this I'll be referencing throughout, but see below)

recording (this my favourite, after having listened to every extant one I could get my hands on)

I feel some excitement when I start typing about this piece.  This piece is, like the Brahms, one which comes with a lot of baggage—I would bet that even a little knowledge beforehand makes a huge difference in the listening experience.  In my case, and I say this now with some degree of guilt, I put a newly-purchased cd (imagine!) on the stereo as background… so this first listening was obviously “passive” listening, but I will say by 3 minutes in, it became “active” listening. 

A little background—there’s really hardly anything written about the piece, but there’s some good info on Vierne.  A Frenchman, he was born blind—a delicate surgery performed when he was still a child enabled him to regain partial sight, but even then he was “legally blind.”  At 16 (1888), he was discovered by César Franck, and subsequently joined his organ class at the Paris Conservatory.  He seemed to have informally joined the class prior to official matriculation… he began as a student in the fall of 1890, but by this time Franck was in sudden poor health.  Only after a few weeks Franck died (it is really devastating to read Vierne’s account of his all-too-short study with Franck): “I had the feeling of being hit by a thunderbolt, crushed, annihilated.  I adored that man who had shown me such kindness, who had sustained, encouraged, and inspired in me a profound love for music, and filled me with the greatest hopes.  And then, suddenly, he was only a shadow, a recollection.  I had the horrible feeling of having lost my father for the second time” (translation by Jack Reed Crawford).

Widor famously took over the organ class at the Paris Conservatory, and Vierne became one of his great proteges.  If I can make a gross generalization about the two teaching styles (of Franck and Widor)—also, I should confess now and get it out of the way—I am a bit partial to Franck in every way imaginable—Widor was more technically-concerned and seemed to give preference to the performance aspect of the organ class… something which Franck neglected, being more interested in the “music itself.”  Improvisation was, for Franck, a tool for mastery of composition, or music (!)—being able to improvise a fugue was one of these old-school things one was expected to do in his class. 

In any case, Vierne’s style owes a great deal to both these composers, but perhaps at its heart, more to Franck; at the same time it is completely individual. 

After completing his study at the Conservatory, Vierne landed a prestigious (if not well-paid) position as organist at the Notre-Dame Cathedral (1900); despite this and further recognition as a true virtuoso of the organ he was repeatedly passed over for the post of organ professor at the Conservatory (this seems largely due to politics).  As noted by many, his life is filled with tragedy and difficulty … while I can’t seem to find details, his marriage ended in a bitter separation, and of three children, two were taken by Vierne’s ex-wife—two years later his youngest child (a little boy) died from tuberculosis at the age of ten.  The onset of the Great War was even more devastating for Vierne, as he lost his eldest son, Jacques (aged 17): “Jacques had volunteered for the front, had rebelled against the horrors experienced there and had been executed by firing squad as a deterrent example; officially, he was reported as ‘killed in action on 11 November 1917’” (Christian Heindl).  Only months later, Vierne lost his brother René, also a musician, who had for years kindly helped Louis transcribe his music from over-sized paper mounted on an artist’s easel (due to Vierne’s poor eyesight) to score. 

In reaction to the death of his son Jacques, Vierne wrote the astounding Piano Quintet.  After listening to this piece for the first time, without having any prior knowledge about the backstory or even about Vierne, other than that he was primarily known for his organ music, and was a student of Franck, I was a little bit shocked, I suppose mostly that this piece was not more widely known, or at least that I wasn’t really aware of it before … such that I went immediately to do a bit of research.  The first thing I saw—and anyone would see—on pulling up the score, was this dedication: “En Ex-Voto. À la mémoire de mon cher fils Jacques. Mort pour la France à 17 ans.”  Despite an egregiously poor grasp of French I could discern (!) that this was a work written in the memory of Vierne’s son Jacques, who had died for France at the age of 17 (here, Ian Mansfield’s translation: ‘Following a vow. In commemoration of my dear son Jacques. Died for France at the age of 17’).  Christian Heindl, who I quoted above, notes: “Here, Vierne wrote a musical votary offering that was simultaneously intended to express his anger at the meaningless death of his own son. Vierne wrote pathetically about the nature of his quintet in a letter to his friend Maurice Blazy: ‘[…] Moi, le dernier de mon nom, je l’enterrerai dans un rugissement de tonnerre et non dans un bêlement plaintif de mouton résigné et béat’. (‘[...] I, the last of my name, will bury him with thunderous shouting and not with the wretched bleating of a resigned and blithe sheep’.).  It is presumably this very emotional attitude that makes the work in many respects sound more daring than most of Vierne’s works.” 

I couldn’t agree more with this assessment.  This work comes across as immensely vocal, powerful, emotionally raw and even focused in a way that Franck sometimes is not.  It gets to the point—at a little under 30 minutes, and in three movements, it feels as though a lot “more ground” has been traversed by the time you reach the end… at least, I speak for myself (!).

Some observations.  This, as several have noted, is clearly modeled in several ways on Franck—at the same time, as I said, it’s really individual.  But to see where he’s coming from—the same piano vs. strings coalescing into a common vein of expression in the opening is reminiscent of the first movement of Franck’s Piano Quintet—whereas in Franck the strings come first in a full-on throbbing wall of grief, Vierne has here the piano first with what sounds like something vaguely nebulous—a fragmentary outline in unisons of a musical idea.  This turns out to be the 1st theme of the first movement, and will be treated cyclically throughout the whole work, in a truly “Franckian” way.  This theme then, given my by then very interested listening on the second or third go-round, is something really incredible—I find there’s something deeply disturbing about the way Vierne gives this angular, almost (as many commentators have suggested) atonal fragment—it’s so muted at first, and even in this musicological context is a bit shocking (1917-18: the experiments of Schoenberg are fresh, but the tonal extremes of other composers like Wolf and Wagner somehow do not make this any less alarming, as a straight-up theme).  In any case, the movement gets going, and then at mile marker 2:03 there is clearly a second theme area, and I can’t even begin to describe how beautiful this is.  The second theme—again, if we look at it clinically, it’s related to Franck.  Rhythmically, the repeating cell is remarkably similar to Franck’s 2nd theme in its organization: eighth-dotted quarter, eighth-dotted quarter, eighth-dotted half (compare this to Franck’s eighth-eighth-half-quarter, eighth-eighth-half-quarter, eighth-eighth-half, eighth-eighth-quarter); simply put, in both, 1 thing twice, then something slightly different.  This rhythmic scheme is favored throughout the exposition of both these 2nd themes—for Franck, the striking moment comes when the chromatic undercurrent of the second theme subsumes all else.  Speaking of this, the harmony is also of note; both themes use similar chromatic harmonic “explorations” as their signature colour—within Franck’s theme there is a stark venture into the minor flat-6 (in the first statement of the theme, from C-sharp major to A minor!), in Vierne there is a slightly less pungent sharp-6 + 7 (in the first statement of the theme, A-flat major to E7)… in the larger scheme of things, both themes work their way upwards by 3rds (Franck from C-sharp to E, Vierne from A-flat to C), etc.  Also of note is the texture—obviously both favour a rich, chordal, sonoric “blanket”—Franck’s is more pulsating, Vierne’s more of a sonorous canvas.  But, and I don’t know how much to do with the harmony this is or not, but there is a huge difference here—Franck’s second theme, as I mentioned earlier, basically gets a little out-of-hand—the whole chromaticism for which he’s so famous overpowers everything, demanding cadential consummation, which it doesn’t get (!).  Expressively, this could correspond to so many things—some inner urge which overtakes all in its path but can’t quite reach the goal… for Vierne, the same “method” is used so differently.  There is something absolutely—I put it in this way because I can think of no other words to describe it adequately—breathtaking about the simple, emotionally-direct exposition of this theme… harmonically, there is an absolute, full, expressively rich and yet complete capitulation, and it’s very much in the “home” key from which the second theme started: A-flat major.  What’s more, where Franck’s piano-driven 2nd theme comes up short, in Vierne the theme is magical in that it measures every instrumental element so powerfully for an ultimately total expressive impact; the theme is first stated elegiacally in the cello, with the piano in a rich, supportive role, then we hear the violin state the theme, with the other strings (and piano) in a supportive role… then finally, at 3:17, everything coalesces into what I will say, is one of the most moving apotheoses of a theme I have ever encountered in my entire life.  I can say without a doubt, 2:03-3:39 are 96 of the most moving seconds of music I have ever listened to.

A few other observations, at the risk of trying to mine too much out of that second theme—in its initial appearance, it’s almost a cradle song.  The simplicity of the rhythm, the unwillingness to venture too far beyond the given harmonic framework, and yet the richness of local harmonic interest… if I can give my “humble and unadulterated”-ly subjective take on this theme—I hear it as Vierne’s love for his son, musically-incarnated.  There is everything there—the simplicity of a lullaby, which he could have hummed to infant Jacques (in retrospect, an inner impulse which was never voiced until the moment he created this “votary”), and "growing up"—the richness and complexity of post-innocence personified in the richness and complexity of local chromaticism, and then in the way this theme is developed—there is a complete catharsis of Vierne’s emotion, expressed in the most augmented, direct way he had at his disposal.  The most vocal instruments (at 3:18) take on this throbbing lament while the piano, almost even more powerfully, resumes its role of background support.  I have found some who offensively identify this pianistic writing (not uncommon for Vierne, looking at other examples) as “worthy of Rachmaninoff”—I find this, for a legally blind organist who would never have fathomed or perhaps, for that matter, valued a career as a virtuoso pianist, so ridiculous!  The writing, which gives a superficial resemblance to the chord-heavy stock-and-trade writing of Rachmaninov, is here a secondary feature—the piano relinquishes the “solo” role to support this powerful music.  And in any case, Vierne here needs no comparison...

Similar to Franck, the first movement’s treatment of its materials seems to favour the dark, antagonistic forces (1st theme area) as opposed to the more expressive, lyrical ones (2nd theme area)—in the first movement of Franck’s Piano Quintet the recap of the 1st theme is even more threatening than in the exposition, while the 2nd theme is almost unbelievably anemic… the same is true of Vierne’s movement—the fractured, jagged first theme and its relations easily outweigh the 2nd theme, which here ends the movement, almost with a sense of resignation, avoidance of confrontation—a “white flag” so to speak.  There is no brutal annihilation of one “music” as in Franck’s coda.

The second movement of this work is a beautiful nocturne—humble in its structural conception, it again draws comparisons to Franck.  The theme of this movement, again, presented by the cello, seems a deep lament.  I think, I tend to associate it with the simple, direct 2nd theme of the first movement, I guess because this theme also appeared first in the cello.  The viola’s theme at 13:46 is so “reminiscent”—I feel it is somehow related to the first theme of the first movement (!).  As I write this, I am in deep fear that it is in fact a theme heard in the first movement (connected to that first theme) which I just haven’t been able to discern… if so, please do let me know how much of a rube I am haha!!  In any case, the similarity in writing related this, from 16:31 on, to the exposition of the first movement, but it’s compressed here… the piano has an angular, threateningly chromatic melody in unisons, which is overwhelmingly overtaken by all strings in unison—even when the roles are shifted, the strings at one point all have double-stops (!) this enormously “ensemble-stretching” texture is, again, immediately comparable to Franck’s second movement (23:30).  In both there is something of scalding, screaming personal significance to be said, which “maxes-out” all Vierne’s instrumental forces. 

Honestly, while there is so much more about the second movement of this work which is just incredible, I feel my criterion here is a completely selfish focus on the elements I want to share with you—and there are two things about the third and last movement that are really incredible.  Firstly, we see again the influence of Franck—the adoption of a “Beethoven 9th Finale,” where there is a kind of recitative which gives the themes from previous movements in succession—this we see most explicitly in the final movement of Franck’s breathtakingly-beautiful yet strangely little-heard String Quartet.  Here Vierne very clearly gives all the previous thematic material in snatches before launching full-on into a new, “totentanz,” or dance macabre—and this music’s incredible energy is perhaps its most remarkable feature.  I have to say, when listening, I was immediately reminded of the macabre energy of Dukas’s L'apprenti Sorcier, which I’ve subsequently been encouraged has been noticed by others (!)—this certainly is evident in the rhythmically-driven impulse from 26:07—compare with Dukas in this version at 1:38.  Dukas’s example predates this, and they were very much in the same “milieu” (!), so it’s very tempting to attribute an influence from one to the other.  At the same time, who knows?  This music is, in any case, full of an unrelenting, purpose-driven energy, and the way this is realized musically is so convincing I feel it’s something that’s impossible and inappropriate to categorize in terms of musical personification—and again, I want to argue here that if Dukas is an influence, Vierne’s usage of this kind “his” syntax is so completely individual and powerful in a way that it must be seen as an equal complement in this vocabulary, expressively…

In any case, what we have here is, what I am seeing more and more, a classic instance of musical narrative (and of course you can view this either as my own idiosyncrasy or as a sarcastic “no, really?!” ...).  But here something: Vierne gives a dreamy appearance of that second movement theme in the development (B) section.  It's precipitated by music that recalls the threatening opening "atonal" theme, but once we arrive upon that melody it's something special.  The way this is presented is really a precious oasis—something held delicately for a few seconds which then vanishes… for me, again, appealing to the subjective taste, this is like the idealized dream we encountered in the second movement, but here it’s only really indulging in the “memory that never was”—again the cello is front and center, which, for me at least, associates this music again with the lullaby of the first movement—I feel like there is some memory, or thought here encapsulated by Vierne, which is really just an imagination.  Musically, this is case—this would normally correspond to an inner section in the rondo finale movement, as it does here, but there is clearly such an incredible relaxation of the rhythmical expectations—after the incessant drive of eighth-quarter, eighth-quarter, a fermata over a rest, a change of meter to duple—by the way, common time throughout this entire section is never really perceivable—and (!) a tremelo to usher in this most precious of musical utterances (27:37), here given an even more special decoration by the piano, is something remarkable.

This whole sequence has a sense of timelessness, which is *very* rudely interrupted at 28:43 by a return of rhythmic necessity … and then, on the heels of this, there is what would be most clearly the moment of cyclical consummation: 29:30—the viola enters, followed by the cello, with the beautiful lullaby theme from the first movement—underneath is the insistent, unrelenting pulsation of the “totentanz” rhythm—this is immediately tragic, in that the theme’s inherent expressive characteristic is “caged”—something outside of this, with malevolent motives is exacting its intentions on this lullaby theme.  In the subsequent musical manipulation of this theme—the voice-leading is rudely forced into a contour it does not complement, nor was it conceived for—there is a clearly tragic, deeply angry expressive energy at work.  Vierne shows his grief in this way—again, I invoke my humble subjectivity—in that this rich theme, which surely represents his son, or his love for his son, is rhythmically and very clearly destroyed by the nihilistic “atonally-inclinated” impulses of the first theme. 

If I can say, I find this work unbelievably beautiful—it’s something really, truly special which has fallen through the cracks—this work is Vierne’s intimately powerful votive to his son.  I find this so much more powerful, as the concentration and focus of this canvas outstrip and eclipse in expressive audacity most else of what he wrote—dramatically-speaking… but on a closer inspection, it’s much, much more than “dramatic.”  His mastery of the volatile, heartbreakingly raw emotional impulses here demand respect—I have to say that, this is one of those things that will stick to me forever—in the words of Werner Herzog: “A great film is very hard to describe. It’s always mysterious. It sticks to you forever. It never leaves you, and becomes a part of your existence.”—this I feel the be completely true of Vierne’s Piano Quintet (just replace "film" with "musical work").  It is one of the most beautiful, deeply moving expressions from the tradition of Western Classical Music I have ever encountered.