Born blind, Vierne partially regained sight at age six. Obvious talent was rewarded with piano and solfège studies, to which were added harmony, violin, and a general course when he entered the Institution National des Jeunes Aveugles in Paris in 1880.
There he was befriended by César Franck who, from 1886, gave him private tuition in harmony while including Vierne in his organ class at the Paris Conservatoire. The lessons of the master were not lost on him -- Franck possessed perhaps the richest harmonic palette in Western music and Vierne effortlessly absorbed many of its features. Vierne entered the Conservatoire as a full-time student in 1890. Franck died in November, succeeded by Charles-Marie Widor as professor of organ. Vierne soon became Widor's assistant, a post he continued to hold under Guilmant -- where he taught Dupré and Nadia Boulanger -- and deputized for Widor at St. Sulpice. Vierne took the Conservatoire's first prize for organ in 1894, though his career waited until 1900 to be spectacularly launched when, on May 21, he triumphed over four other organists in a competition for the prestigious post of titular organist at Notre Dame de Paris (its magnificent instrument reconditioned by Cavaillé-Coll) where his audience came to include such luminaries as Clémenceau and Rodin. The Symphony No. 1 for organ (1898-1899) forecasts the succession of moods -- grand and assertively virile, searchingly contrapuntal, effusive, and distressingly confessional -- which would deepen anguishingly in succeeding works, reflecting an unhappy marriage and divorce, professional disappointments, the loss of a son and a brother in the Great War, and a continual battle to retain minimal sight. After being passed over for professorship of the Conservatoire's organ class in 1911, Vierne taught at the Schola Cantorum. His Symphony No. 2 for organ, completed in 1903, drew from no less a critic than Debussy the stunning accolade, "M. Vierne's symphony is truly remarkable. It combines rich musicality with ingenious discoveries in the special sonority of the organ. J.S. Bach, the father of us all, would have been well pleased...." The spate of disturbingly eloquent compositions -- mélodies, piano pieces, chamber works, mass settings, the Symphony in A, and numerous works for organ (including, at last, six symphonies) -- continued to pour forth until his death. Concert tours took him to England in 1924 and 1925, and on to a three-month visit to the U.S. and Canada in 1927. Vierne died of a heart attack at the organ of Notre Dame during a public concert on June 2, 1937.