Franck Prélude, Choral et Fugue,
(This work is sometimes performed in an orchestral version orchestrated by
César Franck spent his early life as a pianist and
composer being ruthlessly pushed by his father to perform and compose showy
but shallow music in the fashion of the time as well as later teaching a
heavily crammed timetable of private pupils.
With failing health, Franck married one of his pupils and was able to
secure a living as the organist at Ste. Clotilde in Paris.
The anonymity of the organ loft with its magnificent Cavaillé-Coll
organ was much better suited to Franck’s reserved personality than the
glitzy salons and concert halls.
It was only after about forty years that he returned to composing
seriously for the piano and his Prélude, Choral et Fugue
was one of the first, and arguably the best, of his late works for piano.
Disillusioned with the vapid pyrotechnics of French piano music of the
time he set out to write a work of substance and gravitas and it is little
surprise that he took as a starting point the forms of Bach and others he
had been playing in the organ loft. However, this is no simple pastiche of
earlier forms – it is a reimagining of a prelude, a chorale and a fugue as
suited to a late 19th century piano. In fact, the second movement could
perhaps best be described as ‘in the spirit of a chorale’ and the
last movement as ‘fugal in nature’.
Much of the work has a vaguely yearning and searching atmosphere which is
offset by the more serene Choral and resolved at the end by
the main themes being bought together in triumph in the major key. The
yearning, searching atmosphere is created by the b minor key, and the
descending chromatic motifs. Particularly when used in the bass, descending
chromatic passages give the feeling of no firm ground underfoot. Even when
melodic themes head upwards, Franck’s changing harmonic structure and
modulations mean the resolution that seemed in sight has just moved further
away. As a 20th century exposed on a daily basis to harmonic jumble and
dissonances of one song or TV theme being run straight into an unrelated one
in a different key, we sometimes forget how disquieting the shifting
harmonies of a Wagner
or a Franck would have proved to an 1880s audience.
Although the work is in three sections, it is played continuously with
transition passages linking the sections. If the main themes seem vaguely
familiar when they first emerge in full, it is because Franck has already
presaged them earlier in the work. The Prelude begins in B
minor and briefly resolves to B major towards the end. The Choral
begins with rolled chords with the melody at the top. This bell-like theme
of descending fourths will return at the very end of the work. The
Fugue begins like a traditional fugue with a single line playing
the descending chromatic theme before being joined by more lines in fugal
manner. At one point the theme appears in ‘inversion’ (i.e. ascending rather
than decending) but before long the strict straightjacket of a formal
fugue is discarded. The work ends with a resounding combination of the main
themes in the glow of the B major for which they seem to have been yearning.
Suggested further listening and viewing
The work features significantly in the soundtrack of the Visconti film Vaghe
stelle dell'Orsa (1965) (known in English as Sandra or
Sandra of a Thousand Delights). See
Classical Music in film
Prelude, Chorale And Fugue
Composed by Cesar Auguste Franck (1822-1890). Edited by Emil von Sauer. For solo piano. Classical Period. Difficulty: medium. Collection. Standard notation, fingerings and introductory text (does not include words to the songs). 23 pages. Edition Peters #EP3740A. Published by Edition Peters (PE.P03740a).