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A Short Overview of César Franck’s Twelve Pieces for Organ

by Sabin Levi, Essays

When I was 15 I attended an organ concert, in which the last piece in the program was by a composer preciously unknown to me. That piece, simply called Chorale in E major (performed by the Swiss organist Karen de Pastel) left me breathless. The composer’s name was – César Franck. It is a little hard for me to explain how much was I changed after this experience. Did I actually become a musician since? What is significant – I became wildly interested in his music. I started reading everything I could find about him and I found out that his concert organ music has a very wide recognition, both among performers and listeners alike. But I also found out that his concert organ music, which is so popular nowadays, consists only of twelve pieces! They represent all characteristic features of Franck’s organ-writing style, and they have an emphasized concert character, unlike the pieces from his cycle L’Organiste, which are clearly intended for church use. In this article I present the reader with short information on each one of the Twelve Pieces. A little biographical data: César-Auguste-Guillaume-Hubert Franck was born on December 10, 1922, in Liege, a little Belgian town. After moving to Paris with all his family, and after an unsuccessful attempt to make a child prodigy career, young César was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied organ with the renown organ teacher Benoist, and composition with Anton Reicha. He studied at the Conservatoire for five years, until his father prematurely withdrew him from school, in order to attempt to resume his touring concert artist career. It was an unsuccessful attempt; Franck fell seriously ill. He returned to Paris, married (in 1848) and started working as a music teacher and organist. In 1851 he was named organist of the church of Saint Jean-Saint Francois, and in 1858 at the church of Saint Clotilde. He was also appointed organ professor at the Paris conservatory in 1872, though he used this position to teach composition as well. Franck composed around one hundred pieces for organ, but most of them are merely a page or two in length, and intended for liturgical use; they can be played as prelude, offertory, or postlude. Many of them are meant for either organ or harmonium, and most of them are lacking a pedal part, those features making them very different from his twelve masterworks for organ. The latter extended pieces are organized in three cycles: 1. The Six Pièces of 1959-62 (Fantasie in C major; Grande Pièce Symphonique; Prélude, Fugue et Variation; Pastoral; Prière; Final). 2. The Trois Pièces of 1878 (Fantasie in A, Cantabile, Pièce Heroique). 3. The Trois Chorales of 1890. The Fantasie in C, is one of the best known pieces of the twelve. This work, although sounding little too scholarly to some, has an unconventional form, improvisation-like, organizing the musical material in three main sections. There is nothing too peculiar in its harmony, and according to Michael Murray “only with time and repeated hearings, do the work’s sublime counterpoints, and serenity of spirit they embody, become clear. The Grand Pièce Symphonique, a frequently performed work of very large proportions, is often compared to Franck’s Symphonie in D Minor. D’Indy believes that its main theme “prepares” the main theme of the Symphonie in D Minor (which is yet to come, in 1888). Many composers after Franck were influenced by this “vast monument of song;” they modeled their own organ symphonic works on it – Widor, Vierne, Guilmant… The Prélude, Fugue et Variation, is an example of a piece with a very...

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