César Franck – Prélude, Choral et Fugue

The personality of Franck

All the friends of Franck declared that he was a man of utmost humility, simplicity, generosity and industry.

His famous former-student Louis Vierne wrote in his Memoirs that his teacher Franck showed “a constant concern for the dignity of his art, nobility of his mission and for the fervent sincerity of his sermon in sound………”

For me Franck is combining and integrating serenity and passion in a wonderful way.
It seems impossible to reconcile such opposing characteristics, but certainly in “Prélude, Choral et Fugue” he succeeds in realizing this remarkable combination in a convincing way.

Franck started his musical career as a piano prodigy. It was principally his father who pushed him in that way. Later Franck devoted himself to the organ. During his whole life the organ kept an extremely important significance for him. From 1856 until his death in 1890 Franck held the post of organist in the basilica of Sainte-Clotilde in Paris. The builder of his organ was the famous Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. He developed a new type of instrument: the symphonic organ, the tonal characteristics of which show similarities to the symphony orchestra.

Franck was an extremely gifted improviser. His former student and composer Vincent d’Indy wrote in a fascinating way about his master:

“It was in a twilight of that gallery at Sainte Clotilde, which I cannot recall without emotion, that the greater part of Franck’s life was passed. It was there that for thirty years, every Sunday, every fête-day, every Friday morning, he fanned the flame of his genius in admirable improvisations, often higher in thought than many a piece of music chiselled with finished art…………

Between 1842 and 1846 Franck composed several piano pieces. Then Franck suddenly stopped writing for this instrument.

It is only during the last six years of his life that Franck started to create new forms suitable to the piano. One of these and a real highlight is Prélude, Choral et Fugue.

Prélude, Choral et Fugue

In this impressive piece Franck returns to the Baroque forms of the prelude and fugue, in which Mendelssohn had preceded him. In Mendelssohn’s prelude and fugue in E minor opus 35 N°1 we hear a Coda sounding like a choral at the end.

In Franck’s great piece the Choral becomes a quite personal and profoundly religious element, which holds a central position in this work, both spiritual and literally.
This is not incidental, because music and faith were closely connected for Franck, who was not only a composer but an ingenious organist improviser as well.
As improviser he greatly impressed Liszt several times when Liszt listened to Franck’s playing in the Saint-Clotilde church.

Franck was – not unjustly – called the Maître angélique.

This is quite understandable because in the music of Franck we are struck by both religious and purely human qualities: his music sounds often passionate, dramatic, tragic and on the other hand tender, mild, hopeful, generous and sometimes even ecstatic. But also solemn, mystic, ethereal and certainly also powerful!

The Prélude

The opening theme of the Prélude offers a mild, elegiac lyrical quality. The end of this theme sounds much more like a question than a clear ending.

The second theme, already foreshadowing the later fugal theme, shows the ring of a musical question, asking with increasing urgency without a satisfying reply being given.

Nor is a resolution offered by the following expressive, short phrase that already hints at the atmosphere of the Choral.

After that these three themes recur in a different key: F-sharp minor. For Franck, modulating was one of his characteristics.

Based on the rhythm of the first theme an ecstatic climax is being built at the close of the Prelude.

After a sudden diminuendo and suggestive rests, there’s a peculiar modulation from B minor to E-flat major, preparing the way for the Choral.

The moment when the note F-sharp as dominant of B minor becomes an appoggiatura for the note G is a magical one.

The Choral

This Choral could be seen as a reply to the musical and psychological questions that have been asked in the Prélude.

The choral-theme proper, introduced by a phrase containing poignant harmonies, appears three times.

First time: pianissimo, mystically, serene and devoutly in C minor.
Second time: mezzo piano and a little bit more extroverted, now in F minor
Third time: fortissimo and ecstatic, sounding as the biggest climax of this piece until now. The key is again different: E-flat minor.

At this impressive moment you hear not only the pianist Franck but above all the organist Franck.

The melody of the choral is extremely simple. Equally important is the descending line in the bass. Significant is the fact that the bass line in pieces of Franck is nearly always expressive and melodious.

Introduction to the Fugue

After the impressive Choral an introduction to the fugue follows, which is one of the most fascinating pages from a harmonic point of view. It reminds us of a well-structured improvisation, a groping for a fugal theme. As it turns out, this improvisation prepares the start of the passionate fugue in an ideal way.

Following moments of agitated culmination (Franck notates: molto vivo) the fugue begins on a strongly chromatic theme. The chromatically descending fourth is an essential part of it.

The Fugue

It seems nearly impossible to reconcile the strict way of composing a fugue with the romantic spirit and feelings of the nineteenth century. But it is miraculous how well Franck as a sincere romantic composer manages to solve this problem. Franck is controlling his incredible imagination and avoids that his passionate mind looses control.

This chromatic subject functions as a symbol of human suffering as in former times.
The exposition of the fugue, of an elegiac character at first, later more tragic, is followed by a short section in which the left hand starts the inversion of the theme. At this moment the character of this theme seems a little bit more positive.

However, immediately after this a counterpoint in active triplets increases the movement and inner agitation.

A chromatic, prolonged bass and a great crescendo dramatically leads up to a disastrous structural break in the form, after which polyphony disappears! It seems the end of polyphonic writing.

We hear a very powerful low bass on the note F-sharp against a tower of chords based on the triad: C-E-G. The dissonance between both chords is sounding in a quite painful way.

It is the most dramatic moment of the whole piece.

Immediately after that comes silence, full of tension!

The question is: how will the composer be able to restore the strict discipline of his fugue and overcome the state of real despair.

At first comes a kind of cadenza: a stormy passage, related to the movement of the first theme of the prelude. Feelings of despair are still there but step by step inner and outer agitation leaves room for an atmosphere of expectation and finally, in a serene and subtle way, the choral theme returns in the original key of B minor.

This is a wonderful surprise and simultaneously the turning point and prepares the resolution of the whole work.

From this arises the cathartic impulse that leads to its coronation: simultaneously we hear the choral theme (symbol of the religious aspect of the piece) and the fugal theme (symbol for mankind and its tragedy), while all this framed by embroideries reminiscent of the prelude. This is Franck’s masterstroke: wonderful polyphony.

The final word is inevitably spoken by the chorale which closes the Coda of this work jubilantly, now without any trace of tragedy, this time not in B minor but in B major, suggesting the sonorous sound of church bells.

In this way Franck is emphasizing the overwhelming meaning of the Choral in this masterpiece.

28 May 2020, Almere, The Netherlands

Willem Brons

Quoted sources:

Vierne, Louis – Mes souvenirs, In Memoriam Louis Vierne (1939)

d’Indy, Vincent – César Franck; a Translation from the French of Vincent d’Indy: with an Introduction by Rosa Newmarch (1965)