Guilmant, Felix Alexandra


Eminent French organist and composer; born at Boulogne, March 12, 1837; the son of Jean Baptiste Guilmant, who was for about fifty years organist of the Church of St Nicholas After receiving his early musical education from his father, young Guilmant studied harmony, counterpoint and fugue under G Carulli in his native city, also reading every work on musical theory which he could find. At the age of twelve he began to act as his father's substitute, and practiced at St Nicholas eight or ten hours every day, tiring out several organ blowers. At sixteen he entered on the duties of his first position as organist at the Church of St. Joseph, and two years later a mass of his composition was performed at St. Nicholas. Of this church he was appointed choirmaster in 1857, and the same year became professor of solfeggio in the communal school, and conductor of a musical society, the Orpheonique, shortly after which he was elected a member of the Philharmonic. Some years later he went to the Conservatory of Brussels to study under the celebrated organist, Jacques Lemmens. He remained there for some months, becoming Lemmens' favorite pupil because of his combined genius and energy. It is said that he mastered one of Bach's organ fugues every day while at Brussels. On his return to France his added knowledge and growing reputation brought him into demand to open new organs; those of Arras, St. Sulpice, and Notre Dame were inaugurated by Guilmant, and for the last named occasion he composed his Marche Funebre et Chant Seraphique. In 1871 he was appointed to the important position of chief organist at La Trinite, Paris. At this time Guilmant was thirty-four years old, and he remained in this position for nearly thirty years, but resigned about the beginning of the present decade. In 1878, during the Paris Exposition, he began the noted series of organ recitals at the Trocadero, which continued annually for a number of years. Clarence Eddy, who knew Guilmant well both as a man and a musician, said, in an article published some years ago, " Guilmant is today the most popular organist in France. During the past ten years he has done more than all other French organists together to elevate the standard of organ-music in that country and to make it better understood and better liked He is not only a virtuoso of the first rank but a profound musician and artist of the very highest type " The fact that Guilmant condescends to play nothing trivial or unworthy the dignity of his instrument and is unreservedly opposed to the use of orchestral works arranged for the organ, is evidence that his popularity is the result of a power to cultivate a taste for the best organmusic by virtue of his gifts as an interpreter a composer and an extempore player Not only in his own country has this influence been  exerted Guilmant has given many concerts in England, Italy, Russia, and America; his first appearance in the United States being at the Columbian Exposition in 1893, in Chicago, where he represented the French School of organ-playing. He was immediately offered engagements to play in over twenty towns in the United States and Canada, and before his return to Europe was given a banquet by the New York Manuscript Society, among the guests of which were representative musicians from all over America. In 1897-1898 he again appeared on this side of the Atlantic, and besides numerous concerts in our larger cities played twice with the Thomas Orchestra. His last visit to us was in 1904, when he gave a series of thirty recitals on the mammoth organ in St. Louis at the time of the World's Fair there, also playing twice in Chicago. In 1894, together with d'Indy, Bordes, and de la Tombelle, who was one of his pupils, he organized a musical school, the Schola Cantorum, and in addition to his work as teacher there, has been since 1896 professor of organ in the Paris Conservatory. His playing has been much admired and appreciated. For twenty years or more he made annual and sometimes semiannual trips to England, where Queen Victoria invited him to give a recital at St. George's Chapel, Windsor; and in Rome, after inaugurating the organ at the Church of St. Louis of France, Pope Leo XIII. bestowed upon him, at a private audience, the order of St. Gregory the Great. In 1893 he was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor In 1902 he began a series of organ recitals at the Trocadero, under the auspices of the Ministry of Fine Arts, these have been of a semi- private nature, only a limited number being admitted.

In his beautiful home at Meudon on the Seme, a suburban village several miles from Pans, is a concert hall of small dimensions, containing a magnificent three-manual organ on which Guilmant gives private concerts, and where his pupils from abroad receive their lessons. Guilmant is also a pianist, and at one time thought seriously of devoting himself to the piano.

As a composer Guilmant works with extreme rapidity, having written some of his greatest sonatas in two or three days. On the other hand, he has published his works slowly, subjecting them to strict examination before giving them to the public. He has retained all copyrights and plates, publishing and cataloging his music himself. His most important works are the organ sonatas, of which the first is considered the most original and masterly. His compositions include The Practical Organist, a collection in twelve parts, of pieces for church and for concert use; four books of organ numbers, based on Christmas carols; eighteen books of organ-pieces in various styles, mostly for concert use; The Liturgical Organist, a series of organ-pieces based on the Gregorian chant; seven books of later works for organ; and eight numbers for organ and orchestra. For the piano he has written a few short pieces and made a dozen arrangements of favorite compositions from his own works for organ; and for the harmonium he has written more than twenty pieces. He has also transcribed numerous works by the old masters, as well as by SaintSaens and other modern composers; but only such works as are intrinsically suited to the nature of the organ. His chamber-music comprises about two dozen works for various combinations of instruments, many of these containing the harmonium, an instrument that few musicians of importance have given any attention. His choral and vocal works include choruses for male voices; masses; motets; and cantatas; Balthazar, a lyrical scene; and Christus Vincit, a hymn for chorus, orchestra, harps and organ. Some special works that exhibit Guilmant's versatility in composition are the Marche religieuse; the Fugue in D; First Meditation; Lamentation; and Scherzo Symphonique.

In personal appearance Guilmant has been described thus: " Below the middle height, with bushy, grayish hair and beard and benevolent face, he looks more like an Englishman than a Frenchman." More recent pictures of Guilmant show the hair and beard as it is now, white, and the face showing the traces of additional years, but kindly in its expression as ever. He has one son, a talented artist, and three daughters. Guilmant's standing as the chief representative of the French School of organplaying, of which he may be said to be the founder, is unquestioned.