During most of the time that I was in primary and secondary school, my mother was, among other music-related roles, a church organist. I often clambered up to the organ loft to turn pages for her at various services and weddings. One of my favorite pieces that she would play was the so-called “Widor’s Toccata.”
Charles-Marie Widor (pronounced Vee-door) was a French organist and composer; although he wrote for a number of instruments, it’s his works for organ that are best known and most often played these days. Among these are 10 Organ Symphonies. Although they’re called symphonies, they aren’t symphonies in the traditional sense, as they’re written for solo organ. Just as Brahms, say, would attempt to tap the full range of capabilities of the instruments in an orchestra when writing a ‘typical’ symphony, Widor, in writing an Organ Symphony, would attempt to show off all of tones and colors of the pipe organ, in particular the large ones being built at the time by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.
Widor wrote Symphony #5 (Op. 42, No. 1) in 1879; it has five movements, the last of which is the famous Toccata. As Jeff Hall describes it on his website, Flagmusic, the piece “charges out of the gate in 4/2 meter” and we remain in perpetual motion throughout. Sixteenth note arpeggios in the right hand are paired with the corresponding chords in the left hand. Nine measures in, at 0:47, the pedals join the fray.
Over the course of the piece, the harmonies change, but the rhythmic pattern doesn’t. In the quieter central section, beginning at around 2:30, the arpeggios move back and forth between the right and left hands. The moment that I always waited for as a kid–and still do, whenever I hear it played–comes at 3:42: a triple forte recapitulation, with octaves in the pedals. (Tangential thought: what solo instrumentalist, all by him- or herself, can make a more glorious and powerful sound than an organist at a good pipe organ?!) In the coda, we hear a series of gorgeous harmonic suspensions, and then conclude with a triumphant F major chord. It’s clear why the Toccata is so often played on joyful occasions, like Easter and weddings (as a recessional).
In this video, James Kennerley performs on the organ at Washington D.C.’s National Cathedral. (There are many performances of this piece available on the Internet, but Kennerley’s tempo suits me. Some organists play it much faster, e.g. 5 minutes and change, while some–including Widor himself–play it more slowly (in about 7 minutes).
My favorite performance, though, will always be my mother’s, when I was 10 or 12 years old and turning pages for her.
Trivia tidbit: Widor collaborated with Albert Schweitzer–physician, fellow organist, Nobel Prize winner–on a classic edition of J.S. Bach’s works for organ. The pair completed five volumes before Widor died and before the outbreak of World War II interrupted the project.