FRANCK: Great Organ Works, Vol. 1 (Eric Lebrun) (Naxos: 8.554697)
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The Great Organ WorksVol. 1
Long regarded asinconsistent, with many of his allegedly old-fashioned works left gatheringdust in libraries, Cesar Franck, along with contemporaries such as Alkan, atlast seems to be recovering from relative neglect. The centenary of his deatharoused little interest. Although Li?¿ge, his birthplace, redeemed itself byorganizing a major international symposium, beyond the very limited circle oforganists there was no particular enthusiasm. Nevertheless his work is becomingmore widely known, subject now of a variety of musicological studies.
Questions must ariseabout Franck's personality and his very slow artistic development, his place inany particular national school and in the great aesthetic movements of histime, the exact nature of his religious inspiration, or the technical orexpressive difficulties encountered in the performance of his compositions.
Late nineteenth-century observers, notably Widor, described him as anindulgent, middle-class fellow, with a little culture, no ambition and scantawareness of his genius. The view put forward by disciples such as Vincentd'Indy and Tournemire, however, presents him as an exemplary Christian,extremely devout, with idealised charity. The poem by Augusta Holm?¿s, writtenin reaction to the shock of his death, similarly portrays him as the epitome ofa loving father and virtuous artist. Franck was in thrall to this little red-?¡hairedIrishwoman, worshipped his young pupil Clotilde Breal, and wrote a passionate PianoQuintet, of which his wife disapproved. There is, therefore, speculationabout his character, .his habitual modesty and rather dull life, spent eitherin an organ-loft, lacking any great prestige, or with his Conservatoirestudents. There is at least enough known about him to appreciate the ambiguityof his character, in view of the seeming sensuality of works such as psyche orthe Violin Sonata. Critics diverge too in their views of the basis ofFranck's inspiration, to some German, to others essentially French. In fact hiswork shows traces of both, with neither dominant. His tendency towardsinstrumental writing undoubtedly reflects German taste. A brilliant pianist,his models were Beethoven and Liszt and, from the 1870s, he felt the attractionof Wagner, as did virtually all Paris, despite the political situation.
Like his chamber,orchestral and piano music, Franck's organ music shows various Germaninfluences in twelve compositions written between about 1859 and 1890, groupedas Six Pi?¿ces (1862, published 1868), Trois Pi?¿ces (written forthe inauguration of the Trocadero organ in 1878) and Trois Chorals (completedin 1890). Even a summary analysis yields evidence of Bach's influence. Indeed,from the 1860s, following Bo?½ly's lead, French composers such as Benoist,Chauvet, Niedermeyer and later Loiret, admitted their debt. Though Franckhimself saw fugue more as a means of development, never an end in itself, fugaltechnique dominates many passages in the Prelude, fugue et variation,Pastorale, the epilogue of the Grande Pi?¿ce symphonique and later inthe second Choral in F, a piece also suggesting Bach's treatmentof the passacaglia. The influence of Beethoven is much more obvious. This canbe traced through the system of variation constantly applied, particularly inthe first Choral in E, in the skill of the development in the Allegronon troppo e maestoso of the Grande Pi?¿ce symphonique and even inthe same work's recapitulation of themes, suggesting a debt to the NinthSymphony. The influence of contemporaries such as Liszt and Wagner is heardmore in chromatic writing, the exploitation of thematic cells and thematicdevelopment by means of successive modifications. The Pastorale is moreLatin than Germanic, while the three chorales avoid Lutheran severity. In themartial tone and stately pomp of the Final, however, in the glory of theGrande Pi?¿ce symphonique and in the very structure of the Pi?¿ceheroique we clearly hear the triumphant style dear to the French organschool. Unlike German organ composers, who tend to leave registration optionsto the player, Franck gives very meticulous details of the timbres he wants,showing himself as concerned about the quality of sound produced by the organas an orchestrator would be about the sonorities required from an orchestra.
Franck lived at a timeof instability, between what is generally known as Romanticism and Symbolism orImpressionism, marked by significant aesthetic changes. The Romanticism evidentin the first movement of his Symphony in D minor, is in contrastto the mood of the beginning of his Violin Sonata, more akin, perhaps,to Debussy. It seems safest, in the end, to classify him as one of the mostindividual representatives of Symbolism.
It is true that Francksometimes adopts clear classical forms, with the tripartite structure of the Fantaisiein C, and ternary form in the Prelude, fugue et variation, Pastorale,Final and Pi?¿ce hero?»que, but he strives above all to makecomposition an evolving affair, capable of taking on different aspects. In thisand other respects we may be persuaded to place Franck with Liszt and Wagneramong the major figures of his time, like his best followers such as Chausson,holding a position between Berlioz and Debussy. Among other questions raised bythe twelve pieces, those regarding the relationship of music with liturgy orwith religious feeling also merit attention. It has been suggested that theabsence of any Gregorian reference in these pieces written for a churchinstrument gives them a generally secular nature. In the first place, the Fantaisiein A, Cantabile and Pi?¿ce hero?»que were written for the organ in theTrocadero concert hall, and hence need not carry or imply any Christianmessage. Their historically paired themes of love and war need cause nosurprise. Moreover, though all the Six Pi?¿ces have a different purpose,a study would show them all equally far removed from the requirements ofreligion and the r??le of the organ in Catholic liturgy. Pieces like the Fantaisiein C, Prelude, fugue et variation, even the Pastorale, arepatently concert pieces and if the Final may be used as a recessional,nothing in its themes or organization could be related to any religiousfestival or any symbol of the Christian world. The same may be said of the GrandePi?¿ce symphonique which, with Widor's first four Symphonies, appearingbefore October 1869, introduces to France a form whose aesthetics have nothingat all to do with the liturgy. The Allegro non troppo e maestoso insonata form follows an Andantino serioso, all in F sharp minor, with an Andantein B major, a ternary duple-time Allegro in B minor, and a finale inF sharp major introduced by a recapitulation of earlier themes. Priere, atitle used also by Niedermeyer and Lemmens, creates an atmosphere of intensefeeling, very human but scarcely in keeping with the mystical idea ofcontemplation later glorified by Tournemire and Messiaen. In this respect, itsextremely dense writing and eloquent recitatives match the heady rapture andambiguous lyricism which animate the church painters of the second half of thenineteenth century, from Signol to Laugee or Lenepveu, the last two of whomworked at Sainte Clotilde during Franck's tenure.
A last point concernsFranck's wishes regarding the registration and interpretation of his twelvepieces, which he himself played, we are assured, with remarkable freedo