It is illuminating to see how context can shape a composer’s work. Their job at the time, money available, and patrons often exert an influence on the works a composer creates. One thing we might overlook from time to time, however, is a building itself, and the institutions associated with it. In his biography of Charles Marie Widor, Organist Titulaire at St. Sulpice in Paris1, John R. Near describes how the architecture and layout of St. Sulpice lends itself to dramatic liturgy, and dramatic music to accompany the liturgy. The liturgy included grand processions, which explain why his opus 13 symphonies have dramatic march movements. Widor also took advantage of the organ layout, with the grand orgue in the back and the smaller orgue de chœr in the front, both in his Mass, Op 36, and his improvisation. This took the form of a dialogue between back and front organs, especially in double organ improvisations during masses. Additionally, at the time he wrote his mass, Widor was able to make use of the seminary choir from the Seminary of St. Sulpice in addition to his own choir. In the preface to his mass, he even writes that it was written specifically for the seminary choir coupled with the church choir.
All of this is to say that context is incredibly important. It goes without saying that Widor’s work would be much different if he did not have the seminary choir at his disposal, or two Cavaillé-Coll organs, gifted organists with whom to improvise, or even the acoustic of the church. While a building, or an affiliated institution, might not always come to mind as the first thing to research with a composer, both are really quite important, especially when talking about organists and church musicians.
(1) John R. Near, Widor: A Life Beyond the Toccata (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2011), 104-8.