He was a devout man who spent most of his life playing the organ in various churches and where his skills as an improviser were legendary. Much of his musical output is sacred or is organ music designed to be played within a sacred context. He wrote oratorios, motets, masses and various other sacred pieces. Even the secular works using large symphonic forces that are popular today - “Symphony in D Minor”, “Symphonic Variations”, the symphonic poem, “Psyche”, have a frequent sense of personal spirituality in them, and are at times rhapsodic.
His most popular works are the extremely well-known motet, “Panis Angelicus” - originally for soprano and choir , but which has now been appropriated and adapted for various groups and individuals - and the Violin Sonata that is amongst the great showcases for this form.
Whilst not particularly pleasing to the musical establishment, he gained a small but ultimately influential band of devoted students – among them Henri Duparc, Ernest Chausson and Vincent D'Indy. His innovative use of what is called a “cyclical” style, where a theme is constantly developed and appears within later movements, was to affect future generations of French composers.
“Oxford Companion to Music”
“The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music”