Such is the modern organ: essentially symphonic. A new instrument needs a new language . . .
—Charles-Marie Widor, Foreword to Symphonies pour orgue (1887)
“Behind every exquisite thing that existed,” says Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “there was something tragic.” One such exquisite thing is the body of gorgeous organ music composed by César Franck, Charles-Marie Widor, Alexandre Guilmant, and their pupils. And as for tragedies, there were two: the first which almost killed off French organ music, and a second, which prompted its miraculous renaissance.
During the French Revolution, the government...