An Exercise in Modal Interplay: Louis Vierne’s Carillon de Westminster

February 24, 2021
Example 1a (used with kind permission of Bärenreiter-Verlag, Kassel)
Example 1a (used with kind permission of Bärenreiter-Verlag, Kassel)

Jonathan Bezdegian earned his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in organ performance from University of Washington, Seattle, in 2018. He is a lecturer in music and director of the organ scholar program at Assumption University, Worcester, Massachusetts. He also serves as director of liturgical music at Christ the King Parish in Worcester, Massachusetts, and is dean of the Worsceter Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.

Louis Vierne’s “Carillon de Westminster” from the Troisième Suite, opus 54, of his 24 Pièces de Fantaisie is a favorite of organists and audiences alike. While many play this piece, how many take the time to study the unique harmonies in this music? Organists view Vierne’s compositional style as highly chromatic. Yes, this is certainly true. However, how does one analyze Vierne’s music? There are very few studies providing a detailed harmonic analysis of this nature.1 Thus, the aim of this article is to foster interest in the analysis of Vierne’s organ music via the “Carillon de Westminster,” one of his most appreciated compositions. Before moving forward with analysis, learning the history and early reception of this piece is important. 

A seemingly obvious reason for the great popularity of this piece is due to the familiar “Big Ben” or “Grandfather Clock” theme.2 Interestingly, according to the research of Rollin Smith, a scholar of Vierne’s life and works, Vierne encountered this theme for the first time via a clock in the office of a clock shop owner in Le Locle, Switzerland, in 1916, and then, later, while on tour in England in 1924.3 These thematic encounters reached compositional fruition in the summer of 1927 in Luchon, France. 

The initial reception of the “Carillon de Westminster” was positive. Soon after publication, Vierne publicly performed this piece three times, the first as a sortie at the closing of the Forty Hours Devotion at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris, on November 29, 1927. “Vierne’s student, Henri Doyen recalled that it was ‘one of the rare times when I saw the clergy and faithful not sortie . . . [they] waited quietly until the end, and a number of people improvised a little ovation for the maître when he came down from the tribune.’”4

On December 8, 1927, Vierne performed this work in concert for the dedication of “the restored organ in the Parisian church of Saint-Nicolaus-du-Chardonnet.”5 The reaction of those in attendance was favorable: “The work, which unmistakably bears the master’s signature, will undoubtedly become known to the whole musical world, just like the name of the composer . . . . The famous carillon joins together with a rhythmic figure that captivates the listener with its adamant periodical recurrence.”6

Lastly, Vierne played the “Carillon de Westminster” in concert on May 3, 1928, at the Trocadéro Palace. Remarks were supportive, stating that the “Carillon de Westminster is certainly destined to enjoy great popularity among all organists.”7 Even after these initial performances, Vierne “played it constantly, including in 1932 for the inauguration of the restored Notre-Dame organ.”8 Clearly, this piece had a warm welcome,9 and these recounts foreshadowed current feelings, particularly the remarks after the Trocadéro concert. Now that the history is established, the harmonic analysis becomes the next area of focus. 

While Vierne’s harmonic language was developing by the genesis of “Carillon de Westminster” in the summer of 1927, the tonalities created are approachable. There is extensive use of the Gregorian modes: Ionian starting on D and B-flat; Aeolian starting on D and B; and Mixolydian starting on B-flat, D, F-sharp, and G. Then, the addition of the codified modes of limited transposition: Mode 3 (T1 and T3) and Mode 1 (T1) that gives this piece (and many other works) Vierne’s signature sound.10 While the Gregorian modes offer listeners a familiar set of harmonies throughout the “Carillon de Westminster,” the harmonies encountered are not functional in the traditional sense. Thus, using a traditional, analytic approach will not yield a positive result.

Through research and analysis, one discovers that Vierne uses common tone modulations. It is the only practical procedure for finding similarities between each mode. There is evidence of tonic and dominant functions, but they are simple and mostly found at cadential points.11 After studying the various modes used in “Carillon de Westminster,” one finds several common tones between them, thus allowing relatively free movement from one mode to another. This is not an unusual circumstance given Vierne’s approach to conventional composition practices (Vierne wrote about his early experiences at the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles in his Mémoires): “After three years of instruction we wrote correctly, to be sure, but without the flexibility and freedom that make harmony an art. Later I had to work extremely hard to acquire a ‘pen’ in the modern sense of the word, and especially to enable me to teach in a really musical way.”12 These feelings continued during his studies with Franck, Widor, and Guilmant at the Paris Conservatoire. Fruition was attained when Vierne was given the opportunity to teach Guilmant’s organ class while he was away on tour in America in 1897. Vierne was elated: “I was a little uneasy about such a responsibility but, at the same time, delighted to be able to express unrestrained my own ideas on free improvisation. We would ‘whoop it up’ with modern harmonies.”13

Thus, one concludes that Vierne uses a free form of modal writing in the context of the 24 Pièces de Fantaisie. In “Carillon de Westminster” (and in many other works from this collection), Vierne uses the Gregorian modes as a foundation for his writing. The modes of limited transposition, while in their infancy,14 serve as harmonic enrichment and color to the various themes Vierne creates and develops throughout the composition. One encounters all of these attributes within the first pages of “Carillon de Westminster.”15

In “Carillon de Westminster,” the sonorities created are from the D Ionian mode. Initial analysis of the opening theme reveals that it is indeed D Ionian (Example 1a). It begins in the tenor in measure 3 and extends to the downbeat of measure 32.

The accompanying figuration in the treble gives an aural image of ringing bells. It begins as alternating fifths and fourths, also in D Ionian. This figuration changes to fifths and thirds on the downbeat of measure 6 (Example 1b).

In measure 11, there is a shift to M3, T1. This continues through measure 12, adding harmonic enrichment (Example 1c). This abrupt change actually occurs quite naturally due to the common tones of D, E, and F-sharp heard in the theme in measure 10.

Also, in measure 11, the theme comes to a temporary hold on D—a common tone of M3, T1, allowing the two modes (D Ionian and Mode 3, T1) to blend seamlessly (Example 2).

D Ionian returns in the upper voices in measure 13 and continues until measure 20, where M3, T1 repeats in a similar fashion to the opening pages. The A non-scale tone is from the dominant of D Ionian (Example 3a).

In measure 24, there is a move to a different transposition level of Mode 3: T3, made possible by the common tones of F-sharp and A found in measure 23 (Example 3b):

M3, T3 continues until measure 33, when an arpeggio in fourths forms a half-diminished vii chord from D Ionian (Example 3c). 

In measure 35, the theme moves to the soprano, and the accompaniment comprising fourths and fifths resumes in the left hand. The interplay of the theme and accompaniment is similar to the material found in the opening measures (Example 3d). 

However, things change in measure 44. The C-natural in the accompaniment and the pedal hints to M3, T1, which serves as enrichment to D Ionian (Example 3e). 

The merger of D Ionian and Mode 3, T1 is traced in both the pedal and accompaniment until the downbeat of measure 60. Here, the D Ionian mode returns with a tonic chord and pedal point. The soprano register is filled with tonic arpeggios spanning two measures, before leading to a transitional section in measure 62 (Example 4).

This transitional section comprises a six-note group that alternates between the left and right hands. The move from D Ionian to D Aeolian is made by the change of one note: F-natural in place of F-sharp (modal mixture) displayed in Example 5. 

This marks the arrival of the B section, where the previously heard six-note patterns are used simultaneously in contrary motion in the manuals, now in B-flat Ionian, the flat-VI of D Aeolian. This new section in B-flat Ionian includes the original theme in the pedal, transposed to the new tonic (Example 6).

Everything seems to move along normally until measure 70, when an augmented V chord suddenly disrupts the melismatic passage, shown in Example 7. This augmented chord actually hints back to M3, T3. This is possible by the B-flat common tone heard in the soprano passage of measure 69 (Example 6).17 The thematic material continues in an identical fashion from measures 71 to 74.

In measures 75 and 76, an E-flat is added to the six-note pattern, replacing the D. This change is short lived—the D returns in measure 77. However, this time a I7 chord is reached in B-flat Ionian, instead of the augmented V, witnessed in measure 74. This is an important moment, as the primary theme (in the bass) has concluded, and the first portion of the B section draws to a close. The second part of the B section becomes rich in modal sonorities with the addition of pitches found in the Mixolydian mode, Mode 3, and Mode 1 (Example 8).

In measure 79, the six-note pattern remains, but begins a harmonic transformation with the addition of a flat-seven scale degree from B-flat Ionian (Example 8). This addition pulls the ear towards an implied F minor sonority—the minor dominant of B-flat Ionian. At this point, the listener is accustomed to hearing B-flat Ionian. Thus, it is shocking when the music suddenly shifts to B-flat Mixolydian in measure 82 (Example 8).

In measures 87 to 90, Vierne uses Mode 1, T1. This is possible by the addition of G-flat and E-natural to the six-note pattern. One gathers that Vierne used the common tones of M3, T1: C, B-flat, and A-flat (encountered previously in measure 85) in order to implement this change, which creates a harmonic “lean” to Mode 1. The second half of the B section draws to a close with the return of an implied ii7 chord from B-flat Ionian on measure 91, thus leading back to the tonic of B-flat Ionian on measure 93 and concluding in full on measure 94 (Example 9).

After the cascading downward scales in measure 95, a new theme arrives in measure 96, this time in M3, T3, found in the tenor (reached via the common tone of B-flat). This new 13-note theme soon changes from M3, T3 to B Aeolian in measure 103, reached via the F-sharp common tone in measure 99. The driving accompaniment figuration propels this theme forward and will gradually gain intensity. In measure 104, the theme moves from the tenor register to the alto, now recomposed in D Mixolydian via the same F-sharp common tone. The B theme is accompanied by M3, T1 in the left hand. In measure 106, the theme moves to the soprano and changes to F-sharp Mixolydian (via the F-sharp common tone) in measure 110 (Example 10).

This modal interplay creates a sense of anticipation as the theme rises in pitch, register, and dynamic level. In measure 104, the various restatements of the B theme are no longer separated by long notes. Instead, the theme becomes a continuous rising line, which gives way to a bridge in measure 114, gradually leading to the recapitulation of the primary theme. 

The bridge consists of arpeggios and scales from the G and B-flat Mixolydian modes. The primary sources of this modal shift are the common tones of D, E, and B in measure 113. In measure 114, the two inner notes of the chord in the left hand, D and F, serve as a “common tone anchor,” allowing a rocking movement from G to B-flat Mixolydian and back again. The two Mixolydian scales link together seamlessly. The interplay concludes via a final upward rising B-flat Mixolydian scale in measure 119, reaching the tonic of D Ionian by step and by chromatic descent in the pedal (Example 11). 

This active form of writing, combined with the increasing dynamic levels, results in perhaps the most powerful, seamless, and natural recapitulations in the entire set of 24 Pièces de Fantaisie. In the recapitulation, the primary theme is heard in the soprano, accompanied by a supportive pedal and repeated arpeggios in the inner voices. M3, T1 also emerges in measure 124 in the inner voices, adding support and color to the theme. Measure 126 contains a series of alternating tonic and dominant substitute chords over the B theme from measure 96 in the bass, now transposed to D Ionian (Example 12a). 

The thematic material repeats after this four-measure chordal alternation on measure 130. Again, M3, T1 returns with the chromatic descent of the bass line starting in measure 137. The D Ionian alternating chords return in measure 141, this time being interrupted by a stark arrival of a rapid flourish of thirds, fourths, and sixths in the soprano, accompanied by a chromatic, rising bass line in octaves. This flourish is clearly in M3, T1, and the left hand uses the anchor points of D and F-sharp. These anchor notes allow two measures of chromatic rising followed by two measures of chromatic falling before the returning alternating chords resume in measure 149—this time with the “bell-like” interjections used in the soprano heard in the opening measures (Example 12b).

The chromatic ascending and descending patterns from M3, T1 return in measure 153, but end abruptly as the music halts on an extremely dissonant chord formed from M3, T3 in measure 157. The F-sharp heard continuously throughout is locked in place in the soprano (a common tone), allowing the full use of chords from this mode. The chord in measure 159 seems to function as a form of altered dominant, but it is remarkably unstable due to the chromatically altered G in the bass, which is not found in M3, T3 (but is found in D Ionian). It is not easy to identify this chord using functional harmony due to the added notes. Perhaps one could argue that it is, indeed, a iv7 chord (from D Ionian) with an added ninth (the C-natural could be viewed as a displaced, chromatic tone from measure 158, which moves to D in measure 160). Either way, this chord leads back to the tonic (D Ionian) with the B theme in the bass, now in double time (Example 13a). This massive sonority brings “Carillon de Westminster” to a grand conclusion with three, long “hammer stroke” chords shown in Example 13b.

The conclusion of “Carillon de Westminster” (both aurally and analytically) leaves little doubt that Vierne possessed a creative, free-form approach to theoretical practices. The statements from Rollin Smith’s book document the success of this piece soon after its genesis, and the success continues today. With an understanding of some of the basic principles of common tone modulations, one can discern the construction of the Gregorian modes and the modes of limited transposition vital to decoding Vierne’s harmonic language. It is an important study that performers and scholars of Vierne’s music should consider. Not only does the study of music theory assist in the formation of a comprehension of the art of musical composition, it also enhances an appreciation of Vierne’s life and musical thought process. 



1. So far, there are only two recent publications on the harmonic analysis of Vierne’s music, particularly, the 24 Pièces de Fantaisie. One is part of a dissertation by Woosung Kang: “Louis Vierne’s Pièces De Fantaisie Pour Grand Orgue: Its Significance in The History of Organ Music,” DMA diss., Indiana University: Bloomington, Indiana, 2017. Retrieved from: Here, Kang briefly discusses the octatonic scale (Mode 2) used for Vierne’s “Clair de Lune:” “Vierne begins the melody . . . with [an] octatonic scale combined with chromaticism throughout,” 22. The other is the author’s dissertation: Jonathan Bezdegian, “Louis Vierne and the Evolution of His Modal Consciousness” (Ann Arbor, Michigan: ProQuest LLC, 2018).

2. The actual genesis of this theme is allegedly from “William Crotch’s variations on the fifth and sixth measures of Handel’s ‘I know that my Redeemer Liveth,’ from Messiah, and was played by the chimes of the new Cambridge University clock in Great Saint Mary’s Church. It was played by a mechanism installed 1793–1794 and thus known as Cambridge Quarters.” In 1859–1860 the actual theme was copied (for the second time) for a clock tower at the end of the House of Parliament for a new and larger set of carillon bells. The “Big Ben” nickname was actually the name of the 13.5-ton bell, which was used to strike the hour. There are four smaller bells that chime the actual theme known as the “Westminster Quarters.” We can also note that this particular theme was adapted to clocks in 1886. This was actually the first time tubular chimes were introduced into clocks, and since this revelation, this theme has become a staple in clock manufacturing worldwide. Rollin Smith, Louis Vierne: Organist of Notre-Dame Cathedral (New York: Pendragon Press, 1999), 555–557.

3. Ibid., 557–559. 

4. Ibid., 559.

5. Vierne, Louis. Pièces de Fantaisie en quartre suites, Livre IV, op. 55, edited by Helga Schauerte-Maubouet (Kassel: Bärenreiter-Verlag, 2008), XXIII.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid., XXIV. 

8. Smith, Louis Vierne, 559.

9. Marcel Dupré, on the other hand, hated this composition (and was not fond of Vierne, either, due to irreconcilable differences). “There was an unspoken rule that students were not to bring Vierne’s music to [Dupré] for study.” If anyone was brave enough to, they were met with harshness. A student actually played the “Carillon” for Dupré at a lesson, the result was unpleasant: “he played the Carillon de Westminster of Vierne . . . When he finished, Dupré said only one word . . . , ‘Rubbish!’” Ibid., 343. 

10. See the Scale Chart for complete spellings.

11. This discovery is also relatable to the music of Olivier Messiaen. Robert Sherlaw Johnson mentions this in his book, Messiaen: “for most of the time constructional harmonic relationships play no part in Messiaen’s music, except at certain points in some works where simple dominant-tonic or subdominant-tonic relationships become evident.” Robert Sherlaw Johnson, Messiaen (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1975), 13.

12. Smith, Louis Vierne, 21.

13. Ibid., 125. 

14. The modes of limited transposition have a long history. We do not know where they all originated. However, we know that Olivier Messiaen is credited for codifying them. The first publication of the seven modes was in his La Nativité du Seigneur in 1936—one year prior to Vierne’s death in 1937. Also, in relation to the modes of limited transposition, music theorists currently use “T0” to indicate the first level of transposition (starting on C). However, Messiaen used “T1” or “first transposition” in his descriptions in La Nativité du Seigneur. So, to be consistent, I have retained Messiaen’s system. Thus, T1 indicates the first level. See Olivier Messiaen, La Nativité du Seigneur (Paris: Alphonse Leduc, 1936), “Note by the Composer.”

15. There were several accounts of this theme being written incorrectly by Vierne. The theme itself is quite long, since it comprises four quarters (one phrase for each quarter of the hour): one 2-bar phrase for the first 15 minutes of the hour, a second phrase of four measures for the 30-minute mark, a third phrase of six measures for 45 minutes, and the final phrase for the hour, comprising eight measures. It is the second quarter (copied in measure 2 of Example 1a) that was notated incorrectly by Vierne; why this occurred is not entirely known. However, due to Vierne’s musical ingenuity, it is not unwise to attribute this change to Vierne having “taken artistic license and altered the second quarter to suit his own purpose.” Smith, Louis Vierne, 559. 

16. All score excerpts are used with kind permission of Bärenreiter-Verlag, Kassel.

17. Notice that the notes of the augmented V chord are F, A, and C-sharp—all of these notes are common with M3, T3. Thus, the relationship between B-flat Ionian and M3, T3 is clear.

Photo caption: Example 1a (used with kind permission of Bärenreiter-Verlag, Kassel)