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Sequential chromaticism and “modal mixture” in Louis Vierne’s “Toccata”

December 22, 2022
Louis Vierne
Louis Vierne at the Wanamaker Store organ, New York City

Jonathan Bezdegian received his Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Washington in March 2018. He works at Assumption University in Worcester, Massachusetts, as campus minister for liturgical music and mission trips, lecturer in music, and instructor of organ. He is the past dean of the Worcester Chapter American Guild of Organists.

The “Toccata” from Louis Vierne’s 24 Pièces de Fantaisie was composed in Paris in December 1926. It was published as the final composition in the “Deuxième suite,” opus 53, in September 1927 by Lemoine. “Toccata” is dedicated to Alexander Russell,1 the director of music for the Wanamaker store in New York City and the first Frick Professor of Music at Princeton University. He also served as Vierne’s eastern manager for his 1927 American concert tour. 

As Vierne’s American concert manager, it seems obvious that Russell would bring Vierne to Princeton University as part of his American concert tour. However, this was not the case. There is no mention of a concert or of Vierne even visiting Princeton in university documents or publications. Rollin Smith makes a definitive statement after compiling this information, “Obviously Vierne never came to Princeton.”2, 3 Regardless, Vierne’s visit to America was of paramount importance to his organ compositions, especially his 24 Pièces de Fantaisie

Regarding “Toccata,” many do not realize the significance of a unique detail in its registrational scheme. Vierne calls for the addition of super couplers (octaves aiguës) in measures 148 (via the Récit) and 156 (via the Positif); it was his way of paying homage to American organ building.4 This is the first time Vierne calls for the use of these couplers in his 24 Pièces de Fantaisie. More importantly, the specification of the 1868 rebuild of the Cathedral of Notre Dame organ by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in Paris did not have super couplers—there were only sub couplers (octaves graves) on all five manuals.5

While super-octave couplers were not yet used by organbuilders in France at the time, American organbuilders incorporated these couplers and other novelties in their consoles. Vierne experienced these features during his American tour and was quite impressed.6 Thus, it seems only fitting that he wanted the performance of his music to adequately showcase instruments constructed by American builders. 

Compositional matters in “Toccata” require particular attention. Close study of this popular and intense work reveals an abundance of sequential material, the combination of Gregorian modes with modes of limited transposition, and more structured use of harmony when compared to other works from 24 Pièces de Fantaisie. Analysis of Vierne’s organ music is certainly a challenge. The “Toccata” reveals many strange situations that require a unique understanding of modes and functional harmony. The goal of this article is to aid in the clarification of these situations.

The toccata’s form is ABA′ with coda. Throughout the composition, Vierne uses B-flat and D minor scales, C-sharp Phrygian mode, and modes 1, 2, and 3 from the modes of limited transposition. Vierne was not an advocate of structured harmonic writing. When studying his organ works, one is immediately struck by the characteristics of intense chromaticism and moving from one chord (or scale/key center) to another with virtually no warning or apparent methodology—that is the point. This attribute makes his organ music spontaneous, organic, and exciting. For Vierne, freeing himself from the bonds of structured compositional practices allowed him to make music in a natural, more musical way.7

The first two pages of the score present a relatively straightforward analysis using the B-flat (melodic) minor scale (note the copious use of G- and A-naturals throughout).8 The first three pages outline the A theme.9 Below is an analytical chart of measures 1–23. The chart below contains the measure, scale, and chord found in each:

Measures 1–4, B-flat minor i

5 VI7-i

6 i-III+

7–8 VI6

9 iiØ7

10 IV7

11–12 vii°7/V (dom. pedal)

13 V

14–15 i

16–17 VI7

18 bII7

19 iiØ7

20–23 vii°7/V (dom. pedal)

The next seven measures contain a descending chromatic sequence. Measures 24–26 are the first part of the sequence. Measure 27 contains a vi°7/V (V designating a dominant pedal) that connects this sequence to its repeat in measures 28–30. The chords are the same, but they are revoiced, and the pedal/bass part is now in eighth notes. Due to the chromaticism, it is virtually impossible to label measures 28–30 with our current Roman numeral system—at least in a sensible way. This is a common issue when analyzing Vierne’s organ works. 

However, measures 31–36 present a strange problem. Our relatively standard analysis quickly falls apart as the sonorities encountered do not coincide with B-flat minor at all. This is the first introduction of a mode of limited transposition: mode 3, transposition 3 (M3, T3). Vierne uses this mode seamlessly due to the common tones found between the B-flat minor scale and the preceding sequential measures. (Be cognizant of enharmonic equivalence when studying Examples 1a and 1b.)

When comparing the M3, T3 scale to the measures in question (reduced to the outer voices), one encounters some non-scale tones. The B-natural in the upper voice in measures 31–32 can be argued as a continuation of the downward chromatic sequence. The D-sharp in the bass is a passing tone. Lastly, the G-naturals in the upper voice and in the bass in measure 34 are also passing tones. This is evident when they are viewed as a connection to measures 35 and 36 where the key of B-flat minor (and Roman numeral analysis) continues. Consult the chart below for the analysis. Note that measures 36–38 contain another sequence.

Measure 35, B-flat minor v6, V6

36 i(9), IV7

37 VII7, III7

38 VI7, bII7

39 V

40–41 i

In measures 42–49, the key of D minor emerges, reached via a fully diminished vii chord achieved by common tone with B-flat minor (D-flat/C-sharp enharmonic equivalent).10 The recurring A dominant pedal point keeps the listener locked onto the new key until reaching a segue to the new B theme.

Measures 42–43, D minor vii°7/V

44–45 i

46 i7, viØ7

47 i

48 IV7, i7

49 viØ7

The segue to the B theme is in measures 50–55. The notes are derived from mode 2, transposition 2. Below is a replication of the segue and the M2, T2 scale for comparison. The non-scale tone of C in measure 50 (the seventh note in Examples 2a and 2b) is a passing tone.11

This meandering material forms an ostinato that accompanies the new, B theme in C-sharp Phrygian. It is first encountered in the bass in measure 60.12 

The B theme is first introduced in the pedal in measures 60–76. The theme is seventeen measures long and in two parts. The first spans eight measures and is clearly in C-sharp Phrygian. The second portion is more chromatic. Both the C-sharp Phrygian scale and theme are demonstrated in Examples 3a and 3b

While the first eight measures are clear to understand regarding the Phrygian mode, the second, chromatic portion is rather perplexing. However, the accompaniment that begins in measure 68 (where the second portion of the B theme starts) is another descending chromatic sequence. Thus, Vierne is able to blend the C-sharp Phrygian mode with these chromatic, non-scale tones seamlessly.

In measure 76, the B theme moves to the soprano. It is an exact repeat of its first statement. However, this time the accompaniment contains non-C-sharp Phrygian tones from mode 3, transposition 2—this mode and transposition will take over in measure 92. Pay close attention to another descending chromatic sequence beginning in measure 84. 

The B theme undergoes a miniature development in measures 92–115. A fragmented version of the B theme returns to the bass (still in C-sharp Phrygian) while juxtaposed with new rhythmic patterns in the accompaniment from M3, T2. The constant resurgences of a D-natural in the accompaniment are from the C-sharp Phrygian mode (Examples 4a and 4b). 

By measure 100, the remaining portion of the B theme is in M3, T2. Ultimately, in measure 104, the theme devolves to a pedal point on F—the dominant of B-flat minor. Measures 104–115 serve as a decoration of the vii°7 chord from B-flat minor (respelled for ease of reading: A-flat, B, D, F). The diminished chords are linked by chromatic scales that rise in pitch and create tension and anticipation before reaching the recapitulation in measure 116 (Example 5). 

The recapitulation is not an identical repeat; much of the material is reharmonized, thus the A′ designation. The recapitulation spans from measure 116 to measure 147. Measures 116–128 are charted below.

Measures 116–117, B-flat minor i

118 i, ii°

119 i

120 VI

121 iv

122 ii°7

123 V

124 ii°7

125 III

126 ii°7

127 III

128 ii°7

Measure 129 is rather unusual. If one follows the original A theme, this is the point where the key of D minor is reached via a fully diminished seventh chord (vii°7). The pitches in measure 129 indicate a seventh chord, but the addition of a G-sharp prevents the sonority from being fully realized.13 The new C-sharp minor seventh chord adds richness and color and seems to foreshadow what is yet to come—a sudden arrival of the B theme (in the bass) in measure 132, this time in mode 1, transposition 2 (Examples 6a and 6b). 

The accompaniment contains whole-tone scales from T2 and is connected via a viiØ7 chord from B-flat minor in measures 136–137. Note the presence of another descending chromatic sequence in measures 140–147. While this sequence is a bit different in presentation (especially with the meandering repetitions in measures 145–147), the effect is the same for harmonizing the chromatic second portion of the B theme (Example 7).

The coda begins in measure 148. The initial auditory response at the arrival of this measure is one of “sensory overload” as Vierne employs Mode 2, T2 over an F-sharp pedal point.14 Vierne will alternate transposition 2 and transposition 3 from mode 2 until the downbeat of measure 156, where he will retain transposition 2 and switch to an F pedal point. The ensuing scales contain passing tones not found in mode 2, transposition 2—they are approached and left by step.15 Below is a chart analyzing measures 148–159 by mode and transposition.

Measure 148, Mode 2 T2

149 T3, T2

150–151 T3

152 T2, T3 (last 2 16ths)

153 T2, T3 (last 2 16ths)

154–159 T2

The F pedal point in measure 156 serves as an anchor to the dominant of B-flat minor, which re-emerges in measure 160. Vierne uses the augmented III chord and dominant-seventh chord above the opening seven-note group heard in the beginning of the “Toccata,” thus creating a relentless, closing section of the coda. Measures 160–179 are charted below.

Measure 160, B-flat minor III+, V7

161 i

162 III+, V7

163 i

164–168, descending chromatic 


169–179, B-flat minor

The Toccata’s final page contains a descending chordal passage from measures 164–168. The bass gains momentum and rises chromatically in a rapid succession of sixteenth notes. One encounters a return of the opening seven-note group heard at the beginning of the “Toccata” in measure 169. Finally, the constant arpeggiation of the tonic chord (eight measures!) brings the piece to an abrupt close (the last piece of material the listener encounters before the close is the seven-note group heard in the bass). Because of the absence of a normal ritardando—Vierne specifically indicates senza ritardando—this piece often leaves the listener with a sense of bewilderment and uneasiness. 

Not to create a whimsical comparison, but the feeling of bewilderment is also common when attempting an analysis of Vierne’s music! Analyzing music is no easy task, and Vierne’s music is no exception. “Toccata” reveals many peculiar situations that require a different way of analytical thinking. These situations involve various uses of sequential material, Gregorian modes, and the modes of limited transposition. Vierne seamlessly combines all of these elements, resulting in a mesh of chromaticism and thematic material. It is this combination that gives his music its signature sound and character. Understanding the various elements of Vierne’s unique harmonic language is paramount in unlocking the mysteries behind the sound of his music. Hopefully, the information presented in this article will aid in the discovery of new analytical techniques for enthusiasts and disciples of Vierne’s oeuvre.


1. Rollin Smith, Louis Vierne: Organist of Notre-Dame Cathedral (New York: Pendragon Press, 1999), 416.

2. Ibid.

3. During Vierne’s American concert tour in 1927, Princeton University’s chapel and Skinner Organ Company organ were not yet completed. Completion came the following year. See: https://chapel.princeton.edu/chapel/history and https://chapel.princeton.edu/chapel/chapel/mander-skinner-organ. If Vierne had come to Princeton, he would have played the four-manual Aeolian organ installed in 1916 in Procter Hall. That organ no longer exists. See: https://www.princeton.edu/~gradcol/album/picsphall.htm.

4. Louis Vierne, Pièces de Fantaisie in quatre suites, Livre II, op. 53, ed. Helga Schauerte-Maubouet (Kassel: Bärenreiter-Verlag, 2008), XXII.

5. See Smith, 346–349, for the 1868 Notre-Dame stoplist and console layout.

6. Vierne was very attracted to the ease of use and versatility of American organ consoles. The availability of Unison Off and sub- and super-couplers in the manual divisions was of particular interest to him, so much so that he desired an American-style console for Notre-Dame. He began designing one on his return to France after his American tour concluded in 1927. Rollin Smith devoted an entire chapter in his book on this matter. See endnote 1: “Vierne on Organ Design,” Smith, 356–365.

7. Vierne constantly reflects on his struggles with structured theory practices in his memoirs (Souvenirs). This was particularly evident during his formative years at the Institution Nationale de Jeunes Aveugles. His beginning studies in harmony with Julien Héry were particularly problematic: “He helped us with a host of practical suggestions . . . . But on the artistic side he was rather limited, for he went strictly by the rules. After three years of this instruction we wrote correctly . . . 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.” Smith, 21.

8. The best approach to reading this article (and the subsequent study of the “Toccata”) is to have a recently published (or corrected) score available for consultation. The musical charts and examples in this article can be compared to the score for clarification.

9. Be aware that the opening seven-note group is an important identification mark throughout the composition:

10. The D melodic minor scale is used for this part of the analysis. Note the B-naturals and C-sharps throughout measures 42–49.

11. One views a key signature change at the halfway point of the segue—yes, this key signature has the same accidentals found in C-sharp Phrygian. However, one should be prudent when analyzing Vierne’s music. Just because a key signature is relatable does not guarantee that the composition in question is in the implied mode or key. (Obviously, this section is not in F-sharp minor or A major.) One should analyze carefully to justify their findings.

12. During the statement of the B theme, one encounters a non-scale tone in the ostinato in measures 58–59, 62–63, and 66–67—the F-sharp in the lower voice may cause a bit of confusion. However, one should note that F-sharp is present in the C-sharp Phrygian mode, thus allowing it to occur rather seamlessly.

13. D minor is reached in measure 132, but in name only as the forthcoming sonorities are not relatable.

14. Not only does Vierne’s use of mode 2 contribute to the unsettling arrival of measure 148, but the registration (full organ) also adds to the passage’s brutality.

15. Vierne switches between transposition levels of mode 2 by chromatic movement, which the listener has experienced many times in this toccata via the use of sequences. At this point, there is nothing that seems terribly out of place by these constant chromatic maneuvers.

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