Vierne had lived a physically and emotionally trying life. Born with congenital cataracts in both eyes, he was considered “legally blind.” During his early career—he started to take piano lessons at the age of 2—he composed on oversized manuscript paper and used large pencils. As his eyesight deteriorated further, most of his compositional activity was done in Braille. His marriage ended tragically, with his wife leaving him for his best friend. His much-beloved daughter Colette wasn’t actually his daughter at all, and his eldest son and his brother were killed fighting in World War 1. In a rogue street accident he suffered multiple compound fractures to his left leg, and he had to spend painful years relearning his pedal technique on the organ. He underwent advanced eye treatment in Switzerland for four years. Although he spent six months in a completely darkened room, the treatment was unsuccessful. In addition, he was smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, habitually taking tranquilizers and sleeping pills, and inhaled ether when he became agitated.
Louis Vierne: Triptyque, Op. 58, “Stele pour un enfant défunt”
On 2 June 1937, 3000 people gathered to hear the famous organist of Notre Dame perform. Apparently, the doctor gave Vierne a heart stimulant to help with the performance. Vierne completed the main concert with his “Stele pour un enfant défunt” from his Triptyque Op. 58. According to members of the audience, Vierne “performed as well as he had ever played.” The closing portion of the concert was to be two improvisations on themes submitted by the audience. He read the first theme in Braille and selected the organ stops he would use for the improvisation. With his foot falling on the low E on the pedal board, Vierne suffered either a massive stroke or heart attack. According to eyewitnesses, he lost consciousness and died moments later with the single note still echoing throughout the church. Vierne had always dreamed of dying at the console of the great organ of Notre-Dame, and for once in his rather tumultuous life, his wish became reality.