Playing Guilmant

Last Updated on 2024-02-17 | Originally Posted on 2020-12-22


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 wrote for organ solo or for choir and organ.

He wrote some larger scale works, like his 8 sonatas, but he’s mostly known for the massive amount of short pieces he composed. They can be used for prelude, postlude, and everything in between! Many of these are part of the 18 books of Pieces in Different Styles, Pièces dans différents styles pour orgue. I play many of these pieces, but the following ones are special to me.

Offertoire sur Deux Noëls

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The Offering on Two Christmas Carols is one of his iconic works. It’s in three parts, with a long expository introduction that hints at both carols, followed by the French Carol, then the English one.

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


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This is another Guilmant piece that I love, which began its life as cover music for the elevation of the communion elements. It’s probable that this piece began its life as an improvisation, and then was later formalized for publication.

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.

How Many Manuals?

Another issue is something the organist can’t do much about: Do you have three manuals (keyboards) or just two at your disposal? There are standard sound families in each of the division that commonly pair with the manuals for the swell, choir, and great. If you don’t have a third manual, those choir stops are either omitted or distributed into the other two divisions.

Organists are used to doing their best with whatever stops they have available. The problem arises when all three manuals are in use in a particular passage. That can be in quick alternation between all three manuals, or in short passages where the right hand plays mainly one one manual, but also dips into a second manual. And, of course, the left hand is on the third manual and the pedals are also in action! This happens in the Adeste Fideles portion of the Offertoire pour Deux Noëls.

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Guilmant with Clarence Eddy at Steinway Hall, Chicago, in 1898. Courtesy Wikipedia France.

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