The Suite Gothique is the most popular work by Léon Boëllmann, a French composer not widely known today. When it was introduced in 1895, the piece was an immediate hit and various instrumental versions of it were made, including one of the lyrical third movement, for cello and piano, by the composer himself. Had Boellmann not died just two years after he composed Suite Gothique, he might well have adapted further versions, especially of the finale, by far the most popular of the work's four movements.
The first movement of the suite, Introduction -- Choral, is somber: the stately main theme is played on the manuals, with drones underpinning it from the pedals. The mood, both in the slow pacing and austere chords, is almost funereal, but there is also a majestic character to the music, as if the darkness is leavened by the sense of glory from the swell of bigness and magnificence filling the air.
The ensuing movement, Menuet Gothique, has a celebratory character, offering contrast to the serious mood from the previous panel. The music is playful in its graceful dance tune, too, imparting a sense of joy and cheer.
While the Finale is the most popular movement, it was apparently the third movement, "Prière à Notre-Dame," that most appealed to the composer, for, as mentioned above, it was the only movement of which he made a second version. Lasting five minutes or slightly more -- the longest of the work's four movements -- it features a lovely main theme, mostly played in the upper registers, that seems to serenely float in quiet sonorities. The mood never varies from its sense of peace and tranquility, even when the dynamics rise a bit in the middle section. While this movement offers the loveliest and most lyrical music in the work, it also deftly sets the stage for the dramatic, powerful Finale (Toccata).
A greater contrast between two movements of a work could hardly be imagined than that which occurs at the start of the Finale. It begins with scurrying notes on the manuals and soon the dark main theme is given by the pedals. A second subject, actually a variant of the main theme, comes on the manuals, but offers little change of mood, only perhaps providing an even greater sense of anxiety. The imposing main theme returns to dominate the movement and the work ends with resolute chords to crown the music with a sense of majesty.