César Franck (1822-1890)

Prélude, Fugue et Variation –  M30, Pastorale – M31, Choral No. 3 in A minor – M40

Incomplete opus numbers for Franck’s organ works have given way to “M” designations which may lead one to think that one is negotiating the English motorway system. Well, Bach’s works have the BWV (Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis) catalogue, and Franck’s works have the FWV (Franck-Werke-Verzeichnis) created by Wilhelm Morh (1904-1989), and which usually employs the “M” designation.

César Franck (1822-1890)

Franck was born in Belgium. After studying at the conservatoire in Liège, he moved to the Paris Conservatoire in 1838, and spent most of the rest of his life in that city. Although his father had ambitions for him to become a concert pianist, his focus became the organ. He held a number of organist positions, and in 1858 was appointed at the newly-consecrated Basilica of Ste. Clotilde where he remained until his death. While Franck is most widely known for his organ compositions, one should not ignore other works, particularly the Symphony in D minor, the Prélude, Chorale, et Fugue for piano, and the brilliant Sonata in A major for violin.

The organ at Ste. Clotilde

Of particular interest to organists is the organ at Ste. Clotilde, originally built by the famous French organ builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. Like generations of French organists before and after, Franck always gives specific instructions as to which stops are to be used. At St. Paul’s, we labour under severe restrictions since the instrument is small and lacks many of the right tone colours. However, even on larger organs, Franck’s instructions can seem bizarre until we understand the instrument at which he presided. He often calls for combinations of unison-sounding, or 8’, stops which can sometimes lead to a muddy effect. At Ste. Clotilde they yielded a mellow richness. In the middle section of the final piece today, the Choral in A minor, he calls for the use of a solo Trompette. On many organs such a thing would be far too aggressive, but not so at Ste. Clotilde of which we read, “Franck had in mind the quiet enclosed trumpet stop of beautiful quality in the récit (swell organ)…” (Sumner, W.L. The Organ. MacDonald, London. 1952. Page 347) Of organs with limited resources we also read: “The experienced organist tries to read the composer’s intention from the music and then to translate it into sound in terms of the resources of his own instrument, in the most fitting way possible.” (Ibid.) Unfortunately, the organ that Franck knew has been altered a good deal, but the good news is that if you wish to hear a Cavaillé-Coll organ in all its glory, look up the Parisian church of St. Sulpice on the internet at www.stsulpice.com. There, the organ is exactly as it was completed in 1862. There are numerous sound and video files in which you can hear and see the organ played by the current Organiste Titulaire, Daniel Roth.

Franck’s music is nothing if not elegant, and this is very evident in the Prélude, Fugue et Variation which is the third of Six Pièces written between 1859 and 1862, and published in 1868. The Prélude consists of a graceful melodic line which unfolds over a fairly sparse accompaniment divided between the left hand pedals. There are hints of a counter-melody which appear in the pedals and which may provide a germ from which the subject of the Fugue is developed. The Variation restates the melodic component of the Prélude, but with the addition of flowing 16th note patterns in the left hand.

One usually associates pieces bearing the title Pastorale with the classic “pastoral” story, that of the shepherds and angels and a Bethlehem baby as told in Luke’s Gospel, and as retold each Christmas. Thus (to name a few), the pastoral “symphonies” in Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, the final movement of Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, and (probably) Bach’s Pastorale for organ (BWV 590). In all of these, the tell-tale musical gesture is a gentle compound time (9/8 or 12/8) with melody and harmony developing over a pedal (long held note in the bass or lowest voice). The sustained bass is reminiscent of the drones of shepherd’s pipes – something the organ can render with ease. Franck’s Pastorale avoids compound time but certainly exploits long pedal-points. If the Christmas story was in his mind, the undulating figures above the pedal would signify the piping of the shepherds, with the more sustained melodic line which appears above it suggesting the angelic presence. The middle section of the piece is a fairly furious kind of rustic dance, and it may signify the merry-making of the shepherds or even of the heavenly host. A reprise of the opening leads to a quiet close.

The Trois Chorals were written close to the end of Franck’s life. In 1890 he was involved in a serious traffic accident as a result of which he died later that year. In the time between the accident and his death, he composed these monumental works. The word “choral” does not refer to a chorale or hymn tune as we might see in Bach and his contemporaries, in Mendelssohn, or later in Reger. Rather, it refers to the main musical themes of the pieces which are chorale-like. The A minor Choral opens with toccata-like figuration which leads to the choral theme. Eventually this gives way to a sublime and highly expressive middle section, which in turn leads to a triumphant reprise of the choral theme surrounded by passage-work derived from the opening.