Joris Verdin French symphonic organ music
Het ORGEL 102 (2006), nr. 2, 14-24 [summary]

In the 20th century, French symphonic organ music was interpreted in several ways. Now that the 19th century is no longer ‘the past century’ and 19th-century music has thus become ‘ancient music’, we should strive for more objectivity.
Firstly, the word ‘romantic’ is no longer accurate enough: romantic music is not typical of the 19th century. Secondly, it should be clear that the symphonic organ resembles the symphonic orchestra, as both are oriented toward combining things: stops in the case of the organ, instruments in the case of the orchestra. The organist is comparable to the conductor.
The difference that Widor observed between church music and secular music is important. This idea marks an important point in a development that took place in the 19th century, in which churches initially became popular because organists played secular music; it was a way to get ordinary people acquainted with it. Organists were ‘left foot virtuosos’ in those days: their right foot was needed for the swell lever, which implied that dynamics were more important than playing a proper legato . This way of playing the organ was advocated by composers like Berlioz but rejected by authors like D’Ortigue: organs were meant to represent, for example, eternity, by presenting their sound in long tones and with only a few dynamic changes.
An effect was that the Chorals of César Franck – which were not originally written as church music – were played slower than before, since that was the only way to save them. Another effect was that the meaning of the word ‘symphonic’ became very wide: almost any kind of music of the 19th century might be covered by it.
All this implies that the organist has to make many choices when playing French symphonic organ music, regarding tempo, dynamics, registration, etc. – and these efforts have a greater chance of success when they include reading novels by authors like Zola as well.