Review: Louis Vierne’s organ symphonies are a revelation

Christopher Houlihan performing Louis Vierne's symphony at Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Christopher Houlihan’s quixotic six-city, six-Louis-Vierne-organ-symphony tour reached the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on Thursday and Friday nights. It commemorates the 75th anniversary of the day — June 2, 1937 — that the blind French composer dropped dead at the Notre-Dame de Paris organ, just as he was finishing his 1,750th recital.

No one, other than the occasional organ freak, pays much attention anymore to these gloomily gothic “symphonies” for solo organ, written between 1895 and 1930. But Debussy thought highly of them, and Vierne influenced Messiaen. Now, a 24-year-old Juilliard student with considerable gumption has taken up the Vierne cause, finding “Houli Fans” to finance his project, enticing churches to host him and hiring a national publicist to beat the drum for the organ.

I was dubious. Having heard but one of Vierne’s spooky symphonies played by an organist friend when I was student and a movement or two of the others that occasionally get thrown into modern organ recitals, I bought a four-CD set of all six symphonies. I listened aghast as a Dutch organist ladled out a nauseatingly thick diapason soup in hugely reverberant French cathedrals.

Approaching the downtown Los Angeles cathedral with caution on Thursday, I equipped myself with antacids in my pocket and wondered what kind of weirdo would be a Vierne-ite. It turns out that “Vierne 2012,” as Houlihan has dubbed his programs, is a major surprise of the summer, a true revelation.


A slight young man wearing a conservative suit with a power tie (the jacket soon came off), Houlihan has more the aspect of clean-cut young MBA or Washington policy wonk than of a phantom-of-the-opera mad organist. He is an eloquent musician. His rhythmic sense is clear-cut American. His feet elegantly tap dance on the pedals. Everything he plays is sharply and smartly delineated.

His tempos were on the satisfyingly quick side, yet so naturally that nothing felt rushed or unduly showy. In fact, more than four hours’ worth of punishingly gnomic organ writing proved in Houlihan’s hands ever graceful of shape and full of life.

He was further aided by Our Lady of the Angels’ “American” acoustics. Cavernous as the cathedral is, the reverberation time for its Dobson organ is about half of what you’d find at Notre-Dame. That allowed Houlihan to take full advantage of the instrument’s ability to create subtle, sensual shades of pastel colors.

Even so, there could be no mistaking the unnerving eeriness of Vierne’s big, multi-movement scores, which last between 30 and 45 minutes each. They’re all in minor keys and dark of mood. Opening allegros can be crushingly agitated. Scherzos tend toward the diabolical. Slow movements become studies in despondency. Even striding finales seem like Death’s gloating.


Vierne’s organ style is usually looked at as the next step after that of the somberly heavy-handed César Franck, with whom Vierne studied. But Houlihan revealed another, more ingratiating side to Vierne’s symphonies, that of the highly unconventional sonic and structural daring of Berlioz along with the uniquely French bizarreness of, say, Charles-Valentine Alkan or even Erik Satie.

Thursday night was devoted to the odd-numbered symphonies, Friday to the even. The crowds weren’t large (no tickets were necessary; a $10 donation was suggested), and they seemed to consist of organ nuts and the curious. Some brought families. Most listened to emotionally and musically challenging, unfamiliar pieces with riveted attention.

There were many highlights. The first two symphonies — turn-of-the-last-century scores — have a lush grandeur, to which Houlihan brought about as much vivacity as heavily upholstered organ pieces can release. The Third is the one symphony that has a slight claim to popularity, and Houlihan gave it a feisty grandeur while not ignoring the Viernian edge of snarky anger that finds its way into almost everything he wrote.

Anger and desperation became increasingly prevalent in the last three symphonies. The Fourth, written in 1914, is a wartime score and often violent. Houlihan’s most remarkable feat may have been to find glimpses of luminosity in the desolate Fifth that revealed great insights into the human condition.


The Sixth, written seven years before Vierne’s death, is wondrous. Rejection by lovers and students, tragic deaths of those close to him, accidents and his loss of sight turned him into a visionary. This weird score is of great harmonic originality and presages many of the coloristic organ effects upon which Messiaen would capitalize.

Concentrated and unsentimental, Houlihan ended the cycle with an unnervingly honest and direct performance, astonishing for so young a performer. The Houli Fans can give themselves high fives. They’ve helped launch a major career.


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