Playing Guilmant

Introduction

Playing Guilmant is something any serious organist will have to and want to do at some point. Félix-Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911) was an iconic composer in the romantic style for the organ. As a composer, he almost exclusively composed for organ solo or for choir and organ. He did write some larger scale works, like his 8 sonatas, but he’s mostly known for the massive amount of practical music he composed. I say practical to include pieces that can be used for prelude and postlude as well as some better suited for offertory or communion.

A Popular Christmas Piece

The Offertoire sur Deux Noëls, or Offering on Two Christmas Carols, is one of those iconic works. It’s really in three parts, with a long expository introduction that hints at both carols, followed by the French Carol, then the English one. Although the score clearly indicates three manuals and pedal, it can be fairly easily adapted for two manuals and pedal. What you miss is the extra sound color, like the three-eighth-note motives that ornament the melody of Adeste Fideles. It sounds better when you are able to alternate them between the two non-melody manuals.

The Carols

The first one is an old French carol Entre le bœuf et l’âne gris (Between the ox and grey donkey) that dates from the 13th century, making it one of the oldest extant carols. There are vastly different treatments of the melody, but here is a version on YouTube with children’s voices and organ. If you find the church’s Casavant too bright and French, you may want to skip this link! The second carol is Adeste Fidelis, from 18th-century England. Even though it originated in Latin, it was quickly translated to English, and serves as a popular carol in many languages today. It appears to also be Guilmant’s favorite of the two as you can tell from its prominence in both the opening and closing measures.


Between the ox and the grey donkey sleeps, sleeps, sleeps the little son
A thousand divine angels, a thousand seraphim fly around this great God of love.

Between the two arms of Mary sleeps, sleeps, sleeps the fruit of life
A thousand divine angels, a thousand seraphim fly around this great God of love.

—Entre le bœuf et l’âne gris


Difficulty in Playing Guilmant

Although 20th-century composers like Lemare, Vierne, Dupré, and Langlais redefined what the term difficult organ music meant, Guilmant did the same for his generation. He not only wrote difficult organ music, but he was equally famous as a pedagogue. He taught students in Paris and established an organ school at a church near Union Square in New York City in 1899 that ceased operations in the early 1970s.

If there’s one word that describes Guilmant’s music, it’s intricate. You can hear it in much of the passage work of this piece. The difficulty is quite hidden if you’re just listening, and not watching what the hands, and even sometime the feet, have to do to execute the passage work. It’s one of those pieces that must sound simple and straightforward, despite its difficulty. If not, you haven’t performed it well.

Learn More

Guilmant with Clarence Eddy at Steinway Hall, Chicago, in 1898. Courtesy Wikipedia France.
Posted 2020-12-22

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