Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911)
Grand Choeur in D
Like his better-known contemporary Widor, Guilmant was born in the French provinces (in Boulogne), acquired a rare and phenomenal organ technique from study in Brussels with the great Belgian organist Lemmens, and arrived in Paris in the early 1860s as a protégé of the organ-builder Cavaillé-Coll; in due course he became one of the three leading figures of the Parisian organ world of the late 19th century. As a creative artist he possessed neither the genius of Franck nor the grandeur and versatility of Widor, but he was an equally remarkable personality in his own way, devoting his whole life to the organ in the fourfold capacity of teacher, performer, editor and composer. As a teacher, in addition to hundreds of private pupils, he succeeded Franck and Widor as Professor of Organ at the Paris Conservatoire from 1896 until his death, and he also taught at the Schola Cantorum, a college for church musicians which he helped to found, and which still exists today. As a performer, he was Organist of the church of La Trinité for 30 years, and gave thousands of recitals all over Europe and the USA, drawing on a vast repertoire that included music of all styles and periods. As an editor, he was an indefatigable champion of the music of earlier times, particularly the forgotten treasures of French Classical organ music, which he edited and published in modern editions, some of which are still in use today. And amid all this activity, he also found time to compose an enormous quantity of organ music, ranging from simple service voluntaries to large-scale virtuoso concert works.
Guilmant composed eight substantial Organ Sonatas, but he was usually happier working on a smaller scale, and much of his best work is contained in the eighteen varied volumes of his “Pieces in Different Styles”. One of the most popular of these is the Grand Choeur in D, whose title signifies a piece written for the full reed and foundation choruses of the organ. It also has a rather incongruous subtitle - “in the style of Handel”. With its massive chords and thunderous double-pedalling, this grandiose minuet hardly corresponds to modern ideas about baroque music. We need to think back to Victorian times, when the Messiah was performed by choirs of thousands and orchestras of hundreds!