On 11 November 1917, Jacques Vierne died in one of the Battles of Champagne. He was 17. Six months and a day earlier, he had left for boot camp, his father’s reluctant signature having given his only remaining son permission to enlist.
His father, Louis Vierne, the nearly blind organist of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, was in Switzerland at the time, treating the glaucoma that would in time render him completely blind. Having had congenital cataracts from birth, Vierne was familiar with darkness. Before switching to braille, he would compose with his face pressed close to the enlarged staves, writing with large notes, helped by René, his brother, who would die six months after his son. René wrote in his final letter to Louis, “Oh, when will we be back together round the same table or in the lamplight at the same piano?”
The Piano Quintet in C Minor is Louis Vierne’s response to the death of Jacques, in which he gave “full expression to my tenderness and the tragic destiny of my child.” It’s an incredibly moving experience, beautiful not only as music, but also as a musical statement on the nature of grief.
It begins with a quiet, dark, creeping line on the piano with the strings responding in an empty, dissonant homophony. This builds without strong direction to a dramatic outburst, which gracefully subsides to the tender, sad melody that carries the first movement. The music moves as grief moves, from confusion to tenderness to anger to melancholy and back, emotions bleeding into each other, fighting with each other, feeding each other. The first movement ends quietly, exhausted, finding relief in sleep.
The second movement picks up this quiet atmosphere with a different feeling, as if waking from sleep, still confused and despondent, but trying to make sense of how the room around you now seems so empty. The melody is too melancholy to be wistful, too painful to be nostalgic. This atmosphere holds for several minutes before harsh pangs break the surface, and there is an extended grappling between harshness and melancholy, before the initial melody reemerges with almost overwhelming sadness.
The third movement begins intensely with pounded chords on the piano and aimless responses from the strings. This eventually gives way to a galloping section in which the piano and strings play off each other with a strident fury that subsides in a deep, ominous piano solo. At this point, the melody from the first movement is revisited in quiet discordance. But Vierne wanted to bury his son “with a roar of thunder not with the plaintive bleating of a resigned, stupid sheep.” The quintet concludes intensely, confronting the violence full face.
“Perhaps one who has suffered every grief, every bitterness, every anguish, may be able to ease and console the sufferings of others—that is the role of the artist.” — Louis Vierne
I recommend the recording on Brilliant Classics with Muza Rubackyte and the Terpsycordes Quartet, available on Spotify. This recording, available on Youtube with the score, is also excellent: