Ten Years in the Making: The Vierne Project Marathon

Tuesday, Oct 6, 2020
by Regina Lankenau '21

It was 2009. On his drive home from work that day, Princeton University organist Eric Plutz began to wonder. Though his responsibilities at his full-time job at the University kept his plate more than full, he felt ready for a new creative challenge that would take advantage of a very significant resource at his disposal: the University’s 8,000-pipe Mander-Skinner organ.


A long-time fan of Louis Vierne, the famed French Romantic composer and principal organist at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris for 37 years, Plutz realized that Vierne’s 150th birthday would land in 2020 — giving him just over a decade to learn the organist’s infamously difficult solo organ symphonies written between 1895 and 1930.


And so the Vierne Project was born.


Plutz planned to learn and perform a new symphony every other year to achieve what only a handful of people in the world could lay claim to: mastering all six symphonies. The project would culminate in what Plutz described as “lofty, difficult, yet attainable goal” of performing these works at the Princeton University Chapel to commemorate Vierne’s Sesquicentennial.


While the pandemic made live performances impossible, a marathon of Plutz’s videos of the Vierne Project — the culmination of 11 years of committed practice — will premiere Thursday, October 8. The videos, one for each symphony, will be released on the hour starting at 4 p.m. and ending at 10 p.m. EDT on the Office of Religious Life (ORL) YouTube and Facebook Pages. 


For a preview, listen and watch excerpts here.


Marrying the organ to the music: ‘Each movement is a gem’

Mastering and maintaining the integrity of Vierne’s musical works of art takes much more than just thousands of hours of practice. The instrument used to perform the pieces can play just as — if not more — an important role in how Vierne’s masterpiece sounds. 


Portrait photo of the organ pipes

The Chapel's Mander-Skinner Organ. Photo by Joseph Routon. 

According to Alison Boden, dean of religious life and the Chapel at Princeton, the University’s organ is unique in that it uses the nave — the long, central part of the church — as a sounding board to produce a four-and-a-half second reverberation.


“Those beautiful stone walls and that long nave means that, in the Chapel, the notes that Louis Vierne wrote have an even more spectacularly resonant and powerful sound,” Boden said.


Michael Ging, managing director of Seven Eight Records, the classical record label with which Plutz has signed, describes the interplay between the University Chapel building and its organ as “one of the finest in North America.”


For Plutz, the Vierne Project not only represented an opportunity to continue growing as an artist, but it also represented an important homage to an artist he has long been drawn to.


“Vierne, in my opinion, is right at the crux of where the music is approachable, it’s understandable, but it’s challenging to listen to and to play; music after Vierne takes a turn, and it doesn’t speak to me in the same way,” Plutz said.


The six, multi-movement works of Vierne, written entirely in eerie minor keys, capture the many moments of difficulty endured by the composer during the 35 turbulent years in which he worked on them. Marked by the death of his son and brother in World War I, financial insecurity and health battles, Vierne’s life was indisputably dark at times. Although legally blind, Vierne, who spent much of his professional life playing at Notre Dame in Paris (and died there mid-concert), wrote many evocative pieces detailing parts of the cathedral.


“His music always had, even with darkness, an inner beauty that came through,” Plutz said.

Picture of Louis Vierne playing on the organ

Louis Vierne, French organist and composter. Photo courtesy of Roger-Viollet.


According to Plutz, as the symphonies progress, the music becomes more despondent; evolving from a “light, lovely scherzo” to a swelling chorale with a “glorious crescendo.” The music then flows into a melodic, cantabile movement, and then finally slows down into a crushing, heady adagio. 


“Each movement is a gem,” he said. “Each movement is a painting.” 


Dean Boden, who provided an important source of support for Plutz during this decade-long journey, lamented that the COVID-19 pandemic, as with so many other aspects of our lives, had upended what was originally planned to be a performance with a live audience. Nonetheless, she said, “I’m really grateful to Eric for doing what he had to to make this happen.”


The committed organist plays the blue whale of musical experiences

For Kyle Ritter, organist at All Souls Episcopal Cathedral in Asheville, NC and Plutz’s best friend of 25 years, the successful completion of this massive undertaking by Plutz is no surprise. 


Eric Plutz (right) with Kyle Ritter (left), organist at All Souls Episcopal Cathedral in Asheville, NC and Plutz’s best friend of 25 years

Eric Plutz (right) with Kyle Ritter (left), organist at All Souls Episcopal Cathedral in Asheville, NC and Plutz’s best friend of 25 years. Photo taken by Andie Ayala. 

“To commit to a project of learning all six of these very huge pieces is a pretty amazing thing, but Eric is also the kind of person who, when he makes up his mind to do something, that’s how that’s going to work,” he said. 


Plutz was 12 years old when he first stumbled upon the instrument that would come to define his career. While on a family vacation to Indianapolis, a young Plutz was enraptured by the “tricked-out organ,” with its theatrical bells and whistles, showcased at the Paramount Music Palace. The massive theater organ, called the “Mighty Wurlitzer,” was in fact the star of the restaurant’s unique dinner-and-show experience. 


“I loved the mechanics of it -- I saw how the organists could change the lights and make them go differently and I saw that whenever they played the marimba stop, a light would shine on the marimba,” Plutz recalls. “As a 12-year-old boy, I thought, ‘I want to do all that. I want to make all that happen.’”


Once back home in Rock Island, IL, Plutz wasted no time asking the music director at his church to teach him organ lessons.


Plutz, who earned his bachelor of music degree in organ performance at Westminster Choir College in Princeton and a master’s in music from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, said his Vierne Project presents a unique opportunity to witness an incredible variety of sounds from an often underappreciated instrument.


Boden agrees. “Organs are the largest instruments anywhere, and ours is particularly very, very large,” she said. “So just treat yourself to a sonic experience of being surrounded by significant pieces of music that make use of 8,000 pipes. Think of this as the blue whale of musical experiences.”