Friday 24 November 2017

Classical: One of music's great capitals will always be perfectly pitched

Charles Marie-Widor was born in Lyons where Northern Ireland play their second game of Euro 2016.
Charles Marie-Widor was born in Lyons where Northern Ireland play their second game of Euro 2016.

George Hamilton

So, football's grande fête is finally under way, and as the 24 teams, including for the first time the two from Ireland, begin their peripatetic peregrinations, we here are embarking on a parallel expedition. Over the coming Saturdays, we'll be exploring the connections between Euro 2016's host country France and the world of music.

Paris, where the Republic of Ireland's footballing adventure begins on Monday night, is one of music's great capitals. These days it has two opera houses - the opulent Palais Garnier just off the Boulevard Haussmann in the chic 9th arrondissement and the ultra modern theatre on the Place de la Bastille.

Another destination on any self-respecting walking tour of the city is the Madeleine, the church where both Camille Saint-Saëns and Gabriel Fauré served as organists.

One of the symphonies of Saint-Saëns - his third - is scored for orchestra "with organ". Another significant French composer, Charles Marie-Widor, trumped that. He wrote no fewer than 10 organ symphonies.

Widor was born in Lyons, where Northern Ireland play their second game of Euro 2016 against Ukraine next Thursday. He enjoyed a glittering career.

Not only was he the organist at Saint-Sulpice - deemed to be the top job in Paris - for 64 years, he held two professorships at the Conservatory, both organ and composition.

He's remembered now almost exclusively for one single piece - the final movement of his fifth organ symphony, known now simply as Widor's Toccata.

You'll often hear it at weddings as the bride and groom make their way out of the church on their first walk together as husband and wife.

Widor is no longer a name that would spring immediately to mind when you think of French music. Alongside Saint-Saëns - composer of operas, symphonies, concerti, and the wonderful 'Carnival of the Animals' - and Fauré, considered the father of French chamber music, who gave us much that is elegant and charming on a smaller scale - the names of Debussy and Bizet and César Franck too (though he was actually Belgian), are much more likely to come up.

From the simple delights of Claude Debussy's piano music like 'Clair de Lune', through the exuberance of Carmen or the finesse of The Pearl Fishers that are two great monuments to the talents of Georges Bizet, and on to César Franck's powerful Symphony in D minor, the breadth of French music is immense. And we haven't even begun to consider, say, Berlioz or Gounod.

Paris has its place in musical evolution, too, as the base for two of the most influential instrument makers.

Ignaz Pleyel was an Austrian, who spent the most productive years of his life in the first part of the 19th century in the French capital. He, and Sébastien Érard, who'd set up in the city having come from Strasbourg, is largely responsible for the piano as we know it today.

Érard patented the action that's at the heart of the modern concert grand.

His instruments offered much more light and shade than the rather one-dimensional fortepiano that can be heard on the recordings of period bands, a sort of half-way house hammer-version of the plucked strings of the harpsichord.

Pleyel was responsible for broadening the scope of the piano's appeal by introducing a more attainable upright version. Small wonder that the pianistic giants of the age - Chopin and Liszt - made Paris their base.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday and Sunday morning from 10am.

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