19th Century Organ Music for Weddings

by WordChazer

I've never liked Mendelssohn's Wedding March. There was no way I was going to walk down the aisle to it. Fortunately, I didn't have to - there's a wealth of choice out there.

Weddings. Summer heat and formal clothes in an uncomfortable mix. People seen in church who never normally darken the doors of a house of worship of any stripe. The music strikes up: ‘Dah-dah dah-daah dah-dah-dah-daah.’ A vision in white flounces down the aisle. Her man waits, nervously, at the altar.

That may be the popular viewpoint, but many people these days don't buy into all that. In fact most of my married friends chose to say their vows outside of the traditional church setting. Along with ditching the church, they threw away the Wagner to walk in to and the Mendelssohn to leave with. To top it off (as it were) most of them opted for formal outfits they could wear at future corporate events rather than a wear-once-flog-on-eBay-on-divorce white dress.

Thumbnail from Morguefile by Seemann

Fortunately, even at a wedding venue that is not a church, you can still indulge in some traditional 19th Century church organ music. Thanks to the marvels of modern technology, you can have a CD playing through a sound system that makes the chosen venue sound like your assembled wedding party is gathered to see you and your partner joined in holy matrimony in the perfect acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall or similar symphony hall concert venue.

Read on for more ideas for traditional 19th Century church organ music for your wedding ceremony, no matter where you choose to hold it.

The Bridal Chorus, Richard Wagner

Lohengrin, 1850

Right, let's start traditionally.

Here comes the bride... But Wagner? For a wedding? It's not surprising that the Catholics don't like this one much. Wagner may have been a prolific composer, but he was an extremely controversial figure. For that alone, his work may not be suitable for inclusion at weddings these days, especially given the wide variety of guests in most people's circles.

The Roman Catholic church is also vehemently opposed to this piece's use as a wedding processional, mainly because of the belief that The Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin is a piece of music written for a secular opera. It is also associated these days with sentimentality and soundtracks rather than holy matrimony. This point is explained by Gary D Penkala in the answer to a question on the subject posed on the website for Cantica Nova Publications.

The Wedding March, Felix Mendelssohn

A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1842

The Catholics aren't the only group to disapprove of Mendelssohn (Gary D Penkala, Cantica Nova Publications). I'm not that keen either, as you may have gathered. 'But it's traditional!' my mother wailed, when I told her of my dislike of the piece. Yes, mum, it's traditional wedding music. One of the most popular pieces of wedding music, in fact. But it’s the kind of music you either love or hate.

Composed in 1842 as part of the incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Wedding March became popular after Victoria the Princess Royal used it in her wedding in 1858. Similar to the effect that her mother and namesake the Queen had achieved when she wore a white gown for her wedding in 1840, this set the trend for its subsequent popularity as a recessional piece among Anglicans. It is generally played on a church pipe organ when used in this context, as the guests leave the church after the newly-married couple.

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Toccata, Charles-Marie Widor

Symphony for Organ No. 5 in F minor, Op. 42, No. 1, 1879

What happens though, if you’re one of the people (like me) who absolutely loathe these pieces and all their associations? Fortunately, there are plenty of other options for wedding music.

My husband and I were married in the wedding chapel of the Empire State Building in New York with a few family members and friends in attendance. My father walked me into the chapel to the strains of Widor’s Toccata. I was by no means the first, nor the only, bride to choose that option. It is the final movement of The Symphony for Organ No. 5 in F minor, Op. 42, No. 1, composed by Charles-Marie Widor in 1879. The whole piece is over half an hour long, but the Toccata is only six minutes in length so it provided ideal background music for the first part of the ceremony before we said our vows.

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Toccata and Fugue, att Johann Sebastian Bach

Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, published 1833

Another famous Toccata for organ also exists; Toccata and Fugue, attributed to J S Bach. This has been transcribed many times and, indeed, some of the versions are almost as well known as the original. Leopold Stokowski’s jaw dropping orchestral version was used in the 1940 Disney film Fantasia, and the work has also been given outings in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), Hammer Productions’ The Phantom of the Opera (1962) and Rollerball (1975).

It's also sufficiently influential to have been seen in the repertoires of modern-day keyboardists, who will use it to lead into something else in concert or rearrange it for other instruments, such as brass, concert band or wind ensemble, among others.

Organ Symphony, Camille Saint Saens

Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, 1886

Played as part of the background music to our cake cutting and champagne toasting, Saint-Saens Organ Symphony (more properly named Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78) is a rebel rouser of an organ piece, often chosen to open or close large orchestral events and recently played to celebrate the return to full health of the Royal Festival Hall’s organ, which had been at one-third strength since 2005. 

This is the kind of piece which you can feel as well as hear when you attend a concert featuring it. When the bass is so low the tips of my hair vibrate, I know I'm in for a good night. I just need to remember my earplugs to dampen the sound and allow me to enjoy the music at a comfortable volume.

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Also Sprach Zarathustra, Richard Strauss

Op. 30, 1896

Talking of low bass, as a science fiction-loving Strauss fan, I couldn't leave out the amazing opening to Also Sprach Zarathustra. Synonymous with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), officially, the tune is called Sunrise, but ‘that piece from 2001’ will identify it to most people.

The full tone poem is around half an hour long, but the 1:48 of the prelude is the only bit of it most people will know, with its almost inaudible low C to start. This is the lowest possible note on the organ, and at the edges of human hearing. You feel it more than hear it.

St. Stephan's Cathedral, Passau, Bavaria, Germany, Europe
Pipe Organ, Hallgrimskirkja, Main Lutheran Church, Reykjavik, Iceland
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There are many other organ works suitable for inclusion in a wedding ceremony, especially pieces by Widor’s assistant Louis Vierne and Olivier Messiaen. Warwick Thompson, writing at Sinfini Music on 28 March 2014, lists ten of the best and allows you to hear them too.

If you're looking for a piece of 19th Century church organ music to play at your wedding, all of the above options are possibilities. There are many more out there, as well as transcriptions for more modern instruments. My family and new in-laws did not object to any of these nor the others which were played during the rest of the wedding party. If classical organ music is a preference, you could do worse than start here.

Updated: 06/21/2014, WordChazer
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DerdriuMarriner on 11/12/2014

WordChazer, Night on Bare Mountain has its rousing Russian moments! I find it to be a memorable piece, intriguingly dramatic and also nuanced with brief, surprising gentleness.

WordChazer on 08/28/2014

My husband left the music choices to me. He chose the venue in consultation with my mum (yes, his future mum-in-law at that point!) The celebrant asked for the music to be turned down during Night on a Bare Mountain, because it was rather loud, but other than that, it was good to have a bit of background music to the reception.

DerdriuMarriner on 08/27/2014

How did everyone feel about having beautiful, unexpected alternatives played during and after the ceremony? Did you and your husband individualize or share the decision-making? Me too, I enjoy both choices, particularly the Saint-Saensian symphony.

ologsinquito on 06/21/2014

I like the music you selected for your cake cutting ceremony.

WordChazer on 06/21/2014

Thanks, Susan. Production has been slightly derailed by listening to the music feed from a digital arts party that we would have been at if my work deadline hadn't got in the way. Modern electronic music and 19th Century classical organ don't really go together that well, you know?

Telesto on 06/21/2014

Really interesting, thank you. I had no idea about any of these alternatives.

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