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Famous Last Notes: The Epic Death of Louis Vierne

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Most people, even fans of classical music, haven't heard of the composer Louis Vierne. But in a few days, I'm going to be playing all six of his organ symphonies in New York City. It's actually pretty rare to hear even one of these symphonies, so what am I thinking playing all six of them?!

This June 2nd will be the 75th anniversary of Vierne's death, and the tale of what happened that day has to be one of the most epic stories in all of the history of music.

Vierne was organist at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, where, after nearly 37 years of working there, the clergy decided that organ recitals were no longer going to be allowed. However, one final recital was scheduled for June 2nd, 1937, supposedly the 1,750th performance of Vierne's career.

Despite having held one of the most prestigious posts an organist could hope for, Vierne's life was otherwise almost unbelievably tragic. His marriage ended after his wife cheated on him (with a friend of his, no less), and because of his job at the cathedral he was never allowed to remarry. His two successive female companions each eventually left him as well. His youngest son died from tuberculosis, and his eldest son and brother were killed fighting in World War I. At one point, he fell and broke his leg and ankle and had to completely relearn his pedal technique (a big part of playing the organ!). Four years of his life were spent living in Switzerland, undergoing then state-of-the-art eye treatments, mostly unsuccessfully; at one point he even had to spend six months in a dark room recovering.

To put it mildly, by 1937 Vierne was not in good shape, physically or emotionally. He was smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, taking tranquilizers, sleeping pills, and inhaling ether when he felt nervous. He was depressed, and lonely. But, on June 2nd, a reported 3,000 people gathered to hear the famous organist of Notre Dame perform. Vierne could barely climb the many steps up to the organ loft, and a doctor even gave him heart stimulant pills to help.

The program began with one of his own compositions. By the end of the work, Vierne was reportedly clutching at the keys. No one in the cathedral, apart from the very few gathered around Vierne high up in the organ loft, could see what was happening.

Next, he was programed to improvise (something French organists are famous for). Vierne adjusted many stops of the organ, choosing the sounds he wanted to hear.

"I'm going to be ill," he said to his student Maurice Duruflé, who was standing beside him.

Then, the 3,000 in the audience, far below the organ loft, heard a low note come from the organ: the start of the improvisation, they assumed. But right then, Vierne had a heart attack. His foot landed on low E of the pedalboard -- the last note he ever played. He died just a few short moments later.

It's not an entirely depressing story. The great thing is, Vierne had always said that was exactly where he hoped he would die -- at the keyboards of the instrument he loved. The organ bench he was sitting on is even on display in the organ loft at Notre Dame to this day.

For as long as I have played the organ, I have loved Vierne's music. It is colorful, emotional, tragic and triumphant -- just like the story of his life. The 75th anniversary of his legendary death inspired me to commemorate this great composer with a tour of marathon concerts of his six symphonies. I'm gearing up for the first of these, in New York City this Saturday, June 2nd, the exact anniversary of his death. Symphonies 1, 3, & 5 at 3:00 p.m., and Symphonies 2, 4, & 6, at 7:30 p.m.; all played on the new, French-built organ at the Church of the Ascension.