Félix Alexandre Guilmant was one of the first of a line of French organists who became associated with a trend in that country toward large, versatile symphonic pipe organs.
Alexandre was the son of Jean-Baptiste Guilmant (1794 - 1890), organist of St. Nicolas Church in Boulogne. The father gave his son his primary instruction in music and organ playing. The boy was so adept that he was able to substitute for his father when he was as young as 12 or 13. By the age of 20, Alexandre was the church choir director and was teaching in the local conservatory, despite his near lack of any formal musical training.
He went to Brussels to polish his technique with the great organ teacher Nicolas Lemmens and after that, he went to Paris. He was chosen to play at the inaugural of the new organ at Saint-Sulpice in Paris in 1862 and wowed the audience. He began touring, creating an international vogue for organ recitals, which took him as far as Russia and the United States. He also frequently played at the organs of Notre Dame and Saint-Sulpice.
In an almost symbiotic relationship, Guilmant's initial appearances popularizing the organ recital coincided with the period of creation of the greatest Cavaillé-Coll organs, instruments of remarkable range and power and very high quality which became the benchmark of the rich-voiced Romantic organ.
In 1871, Guilmant took the position of organist at the Trinité Church in Paris, remaining in the post for 30 years. He co-founded the Schola Cantorum in Paris with Charles Bordes and Vincent d'Indy in 1894, and taught on its faculty. Two years later, he moved his teaching to the Conservatoire, taking the position on the organ faculty vacated by Charles-Marie Widor.
Widor had founded the French form called symphony for organ, large-scale, academically sonata form works of great power, often containing a toccata-like conclusion. Guilmant continued the development of such works, although he called his eight works in the form sonatas. They range from three to six sections and are marked by their use of contrasts of timbres in emulation of an orchestra. He is also known for his Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, Op. 42. The rest of his major works are works with voices, including three masses, other liturgical settings, and a cantata Ariane. He published about 40 volumes of organ pieces, including three major series of 10 to 18 volumes each, titled Pieces for Organ in Different Styles (1860 - 1875), The Practical Organist (1871 - 1880), and The Liturgical Organist (after 1884). He also edited a 10-volume set of archives of the masters of the organ from the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries.