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Was Franz Schubert‘s »Winterreise« an inspiration for Félix-Alexandre Guilmant?

2017-07-16 - Playing and Pieces

Was Franz Schubert‘s »Winterreise« an inspiration for Félix-Alexandre Guilmant?
by Wolfram Syré

Unfortunately Lamentation Op. 45, 1 by Félix-Alexandre Guilmant is not very known but in fact it is a splendid recital piece. Guilmant composed it as a Tombeau for a friend who was killed in the French-German war 1870/1871. Starting as a Marche Funèbre Guilmant soon establishes a melody which becomes the main subject of the whole piece.
To understand Guilmant‘s intentions it is important to read what Guilmant himself wrote as introduction to his piece:
»À la Mémoire de mon Ami Mr. l‘Abbé Henri Gros, Aumônier volontaire du 6e. Batallion des Mobiles de la Seine, tué pas un Obus aus Plateau d‘Avron, à l‘Âge de 31 Ans, le 27 Décembre 1870. Bombardement de Paris.«
This text says that it was a trip without return for the volunteer soldier Henri Gros. From this fact it is understandable that Guilmant used a theme of an earlier famous composition which describes another trip without return: The first Lied from Franz Schubert‘s »Winterreise«: »Fremd bin ich eingezogen, fremd zieh‘ ich wieder aus«.
Both themes of Guilmant‘s Lamentation - the March Funèbre and Schubert's melody - show the story of Henri Gros' death. The development of the piece allows to observe the way to a battle, the dramatic battle itself, and the shot which killed Guilmant‘s friend. After a short quiet moment of memory the final of Guilmant‘s piece is the Hymn »Jerusalem, Jerusalem convertere ad Deum tuum«.
Funeral music, especially Funeral Marches have a long tradition in the organ repertory. It was Félix-Alexandre Guilmant who lifted this genre to a new level. We know Funeral Marches as sad and quiet pieces, but he added unexspected new elements to this form of compositions: large dramatic Dies-irae-episodes in the middle and Hymns as a final which should symbolize a consolation.
The young organist Guilmant from Bologne-sur-mer was invited to perform in the recital for the inauguration of the new Cavaillé-Coll-organ at Notre-Dame de Paris. On this day, the 6th of March in 1868, he played his Marche Funébre et Chant Séraphique Op. 17, 3 - composed in 1865 to the memory of his mother. It was a sensation. Chant Séraphique at the end of the piece was a unique invention: The double pedal part was unusual for organ players, and the romantic sound of harps as accompaniment to an idealized Hymn melody was a fascinating experience for the listeners.
Soon Guilmant‘s piece became famous, and especially US-American organ composers copied Chant Séraphique in several organ works.
But also masters of the French symphonic organ tradition composed Funeral Marches following the ideas of Guilmant‘s Op. 17, 1. Jules Grison, »Organiste du Grand Orgue de la Métropole de Reims« (the most important French cathedral after Notre-Dame de Paris) created a March Funèbre. Grison‘s piece is in a way inspirated by Guilmant: He composed it to the memory of a women (Madmoiselle Eugénie Butot) and performed it at an inauguration of a new organ in Reims on 19th July of 1886. Even though the piece has a more lyric profile the connection to Guilmant‘s Op. 17, 1 is evident. Can we suppose there was some kind of competion?
Another example: Alphonse Mailly copied the two elements - the damatic Dies-irae-episodes and the lyric melodies - in his Fantaisie Dramatique dedicated to the memory of his friend Peter Benoît. Mailly arranged this piece which was composed for »Orgue, Violoncelles et Contrabasses« for organ; the printed score of this transcription is dated 1905.
In several of his organ compositions Guilmant himself followed the tradition of his Marche Funèbre et Chant Séraphique. Let me mention first the Lamentation from above. His Marche Élégiaque Op, 74, 1 includes a Prière according to his Chant Séraphique. The organ transcription of his Marche de Procession sur deux Chants d‘Église Op. 44, 3 includes the sound of harps.

You can listen to all described pieces on CCH.

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