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

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 special form. The Prélude and its Variation surround the Fugue – its theme has no common elements with the theme of the Prelude. One might think there has been a somewhat mystical catharsis, in the Fugue, which has made possible the Prélude to “become” its Variation. The lovely opening theme is often compared to a shepherd piping his horn. This piece leaves an overall impression of a strict, controlled means of form-making, together with intense expression (“This is almost Bach.” – Tournemire).

In the Pastorale, a work with a similarly strict form, are displayed some of the beautiful colors of the Saint Clotilde organ. Franck loved the reeds, especially the Trompete 8′ (on the Recit), and he used it in no fewer than five of the twelve pieces. The charming middle section, in its Scherzo character, represents a technical challenge, both to the organ and the organist.

The Prière has often been described as an exposition of a spiritual struggle. This profound and complex piece is built on two themes, which undergo much development. Davies points out this piece’s improvisatory elements, as well as the clear demonstration of Franck’s famous enharmonic modulations. It was performed only once by its author (at the Trocadero organ inauguration concert at 1878). Marcel Dupré considered this piece to be the most profound of all twelve.

Also performed at the Trocadero organ inauguration was the last piece of the cycle, Final. Built in a form of a sonata-allegro this piece has a triumphant and unrestrained character. Particularly noteworthy are its pedal solos, which reappear in a number of places throughout the piece. According to D’Indy, the opening theme is having the cheerful, fanfare-like characteristics that one can find in the fourth movement of a Beethovenian symphony.

The second cycle, Trois Pièces (1878), comes eighteen years after the first. In it, there are much more symphonic approach to the entire character of the pieces, thus bringing great influence from Franck’s symphonic oeuvre to his keyboard one.

The first piece of the cycle, Fantasie in A, has often been compared to a written-out majestic improvisation. It was actually written second, after the Cantabile. This piece has clear moods, where the themes are not developed much, which some music researchers consider to be a drawback. It is possible to say that this piece is the least performed nowadays of the twelve.

In the Cantabile, we hear the solo Trompete in almost every voice – in the soprano, tenor, bass, sounding in a wonderful canon at the third part of the piece. Tournemire call is “the soul’s unsatisfied desire”. This much praised work, although small, is one of the most performed ones. It is built on a strict ternary scheme.

The last piece, Pièce Heroique, displays even more the symphonic trends in Franck’s organ and keyboard music. Built as a rhapsody on two themes, this work is probably the best-known of all the twelve pieces.

Franck’s Trois Chorales of 1890 are his final works. Again they come a long period after the second cycle (twelve years!) They represent the summit of Franck’s creative genius at the organ, and they are very popular today. The master could write down their registration, but he could not ever actually hear them, except at the piano home. All three are written in a typical Franckian “fantasy” form, much discussed by later analysts.

According to Franck himself, the main theme of the first Choral, in E major, “creates itself ” as the form progresses”. The “choral theme” is followed by three variations, separated by short sections with contrasting musical material, and after a lengthy development come to a final statement of the main theme.

The second Choral, in B minor, displays a mournful theme in the bass, which undergoes a number of variations. In the short closing section that follows, according to Davies, we hear a statement from another Franck’s work. This closing section is being later repeated as the closing section of the entire piece (“overflowing paraphrase of divine love).” Before reaching the divine love though, we have to go through a lot of tribulations. Indeed, aren’t these pieces showing us the fights and tribulations in Franck’s life?

The third Choral in A minor, according to Tournemire “the simplest of the three,” is also the one who gives one of the brightest of impressions. The opening toccata-like section, which includes the choral theme, goes to the dominant, and from there we are taken by the extreme beauty of the “seraphic” theme of the middle part. A development follows, one which principally resembles the development in the first and second Chorals. And again, like in the first and the second, the main “choral” theme is stated triumphantly at the end.

This scarce information about Franck’s music couldn’t possibly provide the reader with more than a hint about their beauty or importance. Citing Tournemire’s words, these works were written by a real “angelic musician”…

© 2005 by Sabin Levi, DMA, FAGO