An organist's marathon, as Houlihan plays Vierne

An organist's marathon, as Houlihan plays Vierne

By Scott Cantrell

The Dallas Morning News
August 10, 2012

Marathons don’t happen only at the Olympics and around White Rock Lake. In fact, one is scheduled Saturday inside the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation.

Between afternoon and evening sessions, 24-year-old organist Christopher Houlihan will perform the six organ symphonies of Louis Vierne (1870-1937), the famous blind organist of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Although his music is little known beyond organists, the First Symphony’s Final is a popular showpiece and a staple of able church organists.

This is indeed a marathon, as these symphonies, with five or six movements apiece, include some ferociously difficult music. The Final of the Sixth Symphony includes virtuoso up-and-down pedal scales while both hands are kept busy on the manuals, as organists call their keyboards. Darkly moody movements betray Wagner’s long legacy, but scherzos glitter and a minuet springs pertly on its toes. The movements take advantage of a large organ’s full range of volume and colors and should be well served by Incarnation’s four-manual Aeolian-Skinner/Noack instrument.

“It’s very personal music,” Houlihan says, “full of lots of emotion. This music sort of welcomes you into Vierne’s life. He wears his heart on his sleeve."

The minuet of the Fourth Symphony couldn’t be more charming, but he has adagios that make you cry. There are things as violent as the Final of the Fourth, just so fiery and visceral. That’s what is so great about this music — it explores all those very human emotions.”

Paradoxically, even the tortured chromaticism of the last two symphonies is ordered in textbook classical forms. Vierne also favored cyclical structures, with themes recurring in multiple movements. The Fifth Symphony is a tour-de-force, every single theme derived from one of two “motto” themes and their inversions.

Dallas is the last stop in Houlihan’s six-city summer tour of the Vierne symphonies, after New York, Denver, Chicago, Los Angeles and Montreal. It marks the 75th anniversary of the composer’s dramatic death — in a recital at the Notre Dame organ, just after he had played his own “Tombstone [stèle] for a Dead Child.”
That closed a life of artistic highs and personal tragedies. Blind at birth, Vierne gained enough sight through surgery to compose at a large blackboard, but he still learned music by Braille. A succession of health issues plagued him, as did betrayals by people he thought were his friends. His extensive memoirs betray serious depression.

Still, he was one of the most famous organists of his day, his recital tours even taking him to the United States. Trained by César Franck and Charles-Marie Widor, he taught some of the foremost French organists of the next generation, including Marcel Dupré, Maurice Duruflé, Jean Langlais and even the organist-conductor-pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. In addition to his six organ symphonies and other collections of organ pieces, he composed an orchestral symphony, choral music, chamber music, art songs and piano pieces.

A Connecticut native, Houlihan began organ study at age 12 with John Rose, who remained his teacher during undergraduate years at Trinity College in Hartford. After that, and a year in Paris, working with Jean-Baptiste Robin, Houlihan went on to graduate study with Paul Jacobs at the Juilliard School in New York.

“The idea of doing the six symphonies in one year has been a dream of mine for some time,” Houlihan says. “If you’re not an organist, you probably haven’t heard of Vierne. But this isn’t second-rate music. This is first-rate music.”