FRANCK: Great Organ Works, Vol. 2
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César Franck (1822-1890)
The Great Organ Works Vol. 2
Long regarded as inconsistent, with many of his allegedly old-fashioned works left gathering dust in libraries, Cesar Franck, along with contemporaries such as Alkan, at last seems to be recovering from relative neglect. The centenary of his death aroused little interest. Although Liège, his birthplace, redeemed itself by organizing a major international symposium, beyond the very limited circle of organists there was no particular enthusiasm. Nevertheless his work is becoming more widely known, subject now of a variety of musicological studies.
Questions must arise about Franck's personality and his very slow artistic development, his place in any particular national school and in the great aesthetic movements of his time, the exact nature of his religious inspiration, or the technical or expressive difficulties encountered in the performance of his compositions. Late nineteenth-century observers, notably Widor, described him as an indulgent, middle-class fellow, with a little culture, no ambition and scant awareness of his genius. The view put forward by disciples such as Vincent d'Indy and Tournemire, however, presents him as an exemplary Christian, extremely devout, with idealised charity. The poem by Augusta Holmès, written in reaction to the shock of his death, similarly portrays him as the epitome of a loving father and virtuous artist. Franck was in thrall to this little red haired Irishwoman, worshipped his young pupil Clotilde Bréal, and wrote a passionate Piano Quintet, of which his wife disapproved. There is, therefore, speculation about his character, his habitual modesty and rather dull life, spent either in an organ-loft, lacking any great prestige, or with his Conservatoire students. There is at least enough known about him to appreciate the ambiguity of his character, in view of the seeming sensuality of works such as Psyche or the Violin Son la. Critics diverge too in their views of the basis of Franck's inspiration, to some German, to others essentially French. In fact his work shows traces of both, with neither dominant. His tendency towards instrumental writing undoubtedly reflects German taste. A brilliant pianist, his models were Beethoven and Liszt and, from the 1870s, he felt the attraction of Wagner, as did virtually all Paris, despite the political situation.
Like his chamber, orchestral and piano music, Franck's organ music shows various German influences in twelve compositions written between about 1859 and 1890, grouped as Six Pièces (1862, published 1868), Trois Pièces (written for the inauguration of the Trocadéro organ in 1878) and Trois Chorals (completed in 1890). Even a summary analysis yields evidence of Bach's influence. Indeed, from the 1860s, following Boëly's lead, French composers such as Benoist, Chauvet, Niedermeyer and later Loiret, admitted their debt. Though Franck himself saw fugue more as a means of development, never an end in itself, fugal technique dominates many passages in the Prélude, fugue et variation, Pastorale, the epilogue of the Grande Pièce symphonique and later in the second Choral in F, a piece also suggesting Bach's treatment of the passacaglia. The influence of Beethoven is much more obvious. This can be traced through the system of variation constantly applied, particularly in the first Choral in E, in the skill of the development in the Allegro non troppo e maestoso of the Grande Piece symphonique and even in the same work's recapitulation of themes, suggesting a debt to the Ninth Symphony. The influence of contemporaries such as Liszt and Wagner is heard more in chromatic writing, the exploitation of thematic cells and thematic development by means of successive modifications. The Pastorale is more Latin than Germanic, while the three chorales avoid Lutheran severity. In the martial tone and stately pomp of the Final, however, in the glory of the Grande Pièce symphonique and in the very structure of the Pièce héroïque we clearly hear the triumphant style dear to the French organ school. Unlike German organ composers, who tend to leave registration options to the player, Franck gives very meticulous details of the timbres he wants, showing himself as concerned about the quality of sound produced by the organ as an orchestrator would be about the sonorities required from an orchestra.
Franck lived at a time of instability, between what is generally known as Romanticism and Symbolism or Impressionism, marked by significant aesthetic changes. The Romanticism evident in the first movement of his Symphony in D minor, is in contrast to 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 most individual representatives of Symbolism.
It is true that Franck sometimes adopts clear classical forms, with the tripartite structure of the Fantaisie in C, and ternary form in the Prélude, fugue et v riation, Pastorale, Final and Pièce héroïque, but he strives above all to make composition an evolving affair, capable of taking on different aspects. In the Pastorale, for example, the two motifs presented in the first part are fully justified only in the last section, where they are superimposed to form a single entity, while in the Fantaisie in A the two main themes introduced at the beginning undergo a similar treatment. In moving from the individual to the collective, these two pieces give evidence of a structure based on a process whose only purpose is the fusion of initially disparate and independent elements, a procedure that has its parallel in Prière or Cantabile, where different thematic cells form a base for the development, giving the whole thing a virtual organic unity. The most significant example is in the first Choral in E, where the motif given importance in the epilogue appears only as a secondary element in the exposition, a simple harmonization concluding with a distant vox humana in a fine hymn made up of six phases, with different sections feeding the two central variations. After two hundred bars, indeed, the apparently subsidiary element slowly takes precedence, being laboriously tested through a few very different keys and finally reborn at the end of a dramatic crescendo. A very similar process may be seen in the last part of the third Choral in A. Here the general structure is akin to that of a sonata, with the exposition of two themes, toccata and chorale, a central Adagio and a final section at the beginning of which the second motif seems to wander through a labyrinth of complex modulations, over pedals which serve to cloud the issue further. At the end of this disturbed and almost painful episode, reinforced by a graduated crescendo, the return of the principal key is felt as a deliverance, when with the power of the Grand chur the two themes are combined in a brilliant finale. Procedures of this kind may persuade us to place Franck with Liszt and Wagner among the major figures of his time, like his best followers such as Chausson, holding a position between Berlioz and Debussy.
Among other questions raised by the twelve pieces, those regarding the relationship of music with liturgy or with religious feeling also merit attention. It has been suggested that the absence of any Gregorian reference in these pieces written for a church instrument gives them a general