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8.554697 - FRANCK: Great Organ Works, Vol. 1
English 

César Franck (1822-1890)

The Great Organ Works Vol. 1

Long regarded as inconsistent, with many of his allegedly old-fashioned works left gathering dust in libraries, César 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 psyché or the Violin Sonata. 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 Pièce 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 héroique 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 variation, Pastorale, Final and Pièce héroïque, but he strives above all to make composition an evolving affair, capable of taking on different aspects. In this and other respects we may be persuaded 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 generally secular nature. In the first place, the Fantaisie in A, Cantabile and Pièce héroïque were written for the organ in the Trocadéro concert hall, and hence need not carry or imply any Christian message. Their historically paired themes of love and war need cause no surprise. Moreover, though all the Six Pièces have a different purpose, a study would show them all equally far removed from the requirements of religion and the rôle of the organ in Catholic liturgy. Pieces like the Fantaisie in C, Prélude, fugue et variation, even the Pastorale, are patently concert pieces and if the Final may be used as a recessional, nothing in its themes or organization could be related to any religious festival or any symbol of the Christian world. The same may be said of the Grande Pièce symphonique which, with Widor's first four Symphonies, appearing before October 1869, introduces to France a form whose aesthetics have nothing at all to do with the liturgy. The Allegro non troppo e maestoso in sonata form follows an Andantino serioso, all in F sharp minor, with an Andante in B major, a ternary duple-time Allegro in B minor, and a finale in F sharp major introduced by a recapitulation of earlier themes. Priére, a title used also by Niedermeyer and Lemmens, creates an atmosphere of intense feeling, very human but scarcely in keeping with the mystical idea of contemplation later glorified by Tournemire and Messiaen. In this respect, its extremely dense writing and eloquent recitatives match the heady rapture and ambiguous lyricism which animate the church painters of the second half of the nineteenth century, from Signol to Laugée or Lenepveu, the last two of whom worked at Sainte Clotilde during Franck's tenure.

A last point concerns Franck's wishes regarding the registration and interpretation of his twelve pieces, which he himself played, we are assured, with remarkable freedom. Unlike Widor, whose indications are fairly general in the Maho edition of the first four symphonies, or even Saint-Saëns, who restricts his requirements to nuances, Franck sets things down with scrupulous precision, not only giving details of the colouring demanded, but carefully noting each operation to be carried out with the combination pedals (or manual couplers, manual/pedal couplers, Récit, swell, and so on). The authenticity of the performance clearly depends upon strict respect for these directions. On the other hand we must not forget that the composer created his work only for his Sainte Clotilde organ, a very unusual instrument compared with Cavaillé-Coll's other products, especially anything built after 1876. The organ had no Récit/pedal coupler, no Récit/Grand orgue coupler, a particularly fine basson-hautbois suitable for mixing with the fonds or coupling with the trompette, a fairly powerful cromorne, a classical seven-rank plein-jeu on the Grand orgue, but a more modern disposition on the Positif and a very efficient Swell, allowing for registrations impracticable elsewhere, as in the Adagio of the Grande Pièce symphonique, where the cromorne is supported by virtually all the ranks of the Récit, including the reed pipes. The nature of the organ at Sainte Clotilde needs to be taken into consideration, when, as happens on other instruments, liberties must be taken with the indications given by the composer, who himself opted for various solutions when playing at the Trocadéro or at Saint Eustache.

Among other similar questions, the possibility of using plein-jeu in the Grand chœur gives rise nowadays to much commentary and discussion, of which we ought to take stock. Indeed, Franck makes no mention of mutation or mixture in the published version of his twelve pieces, being content with the general indication 'fonds et anches' when he is looking for brilliant sonority. It must be decided whether to take this to mean 'jeux de combinaison' (i.e. perhaps with doubling, quinte and plein-jeu) or merely anches with the fonds. This ambiguity is accompanied by a further question, as to whether, in the Grand chœur, excluding mixtures is a general rule or a matter of Franck's own taste. There is evidence allowing us to be certain at least that the combination fonds, pleins-jeux and anches was in general use at the time of the twelve pieces, it being noted in the first place that, from 1857 to about 1876, Cavaillé-Coll provided the vast majority of his instruments with the means of blending with the reeds (cf. the 'principalising' mutations experimented with at Notre Dame de Paris). It seems apt to point out, however, that, during Franck's lifetime, mixtures and reed combinations appear in many editions, and in several forms. In his Sortie pour les Fêtes de la Sainte Vierge (1874), for example, Guilmant demands a 'grand chœur without plein-jeu', proof that the blend of fonds, mixtures and reeds is known or even standard. Charles Collin uses the expression Organo pleno in the final section of his Offertoire pour la Pentecôte of 1866, and seems, in the same year, to have been the first to use the term 'anches préparées' (prepared reeds), while Lefébure-Wély often ends his great pieces by asking for 'all possible power'. The indication 'tutti' is then adopted by Guilmant, and Clément Loret often indicates 'all the stops' of a manual or of the whole instrument. It is certainly possible, though difficult to prove, that, preferring a romantic and so naturally darker sonority, Franck would have been averse to the effect of mutations and mixtures, but it is none-the-less true that their use in the Final, the Grande Pièce symphonique or the Trois Chorals, would be perfectly justifiable, not only in the case of an instrument whose reeds are too bland to sound with the required brilliance, but from a purely historical point of view.

These more or less trivial details must not distract us from the essential. Following a slow development, Franck forged for himself a very original language whose richness we glimpse through some youthful pieces such as the Trios with piano and the oratorio Ruth. This quite personal idiom, founded upon a system wherein chromatic elements, harmony and modulation serve a progressive plan with cellular development, plays its part in the production of masterpieces as diverse as the Six Pièces for organ, Prélude, choral et fugue for piano and the chamber music. In this sense, the symphonic organ's triumphant later history owes much to the services of an artist for whom the fullness and nobility of melody, the refinement of harmony, the subtlety of tonal plan and the organization of discourse rose well above the meagre fare of the minor masters, the objects of such contemporary adulation.

François Sabatier


The Present Performance

If I deemed it best to play these pieces on the organ of Saint Antoine des Quinze-Vingts, that was, first of all, because it is my own instrument, and I am always amazed by the suppleness and variety of its mechanical and musical capabilities. A concert organ, built for a large salon, it can be considered the Trocadéro organ's little brother. An organ with a symphonic vocation in the primary meaning of the term, designed to replace Wagner' s orchestra, with the variety of its sound palette and the originality of its very design, it can give full justice to the utterly new poetic conception of this music.

Franck frequently asks for a mixture of fonds 8' with the hautbois of the Récit manual. The latter, very discreet at Sainte Clotilde, allowed for the creation of nuances, whether radical or subtle, without appreciably changing the overall sonority (one of the difficulties when adapting this work to a standard organ). The hautbois of the Récit of the Saint Antoine organ is very sensitive and performs this task perfectly, but I occasionally use the cor anglais of the Positif; which also is expressive. By working with these two options within one piece, as in the first Choral and the third, or having them sing in concert to make the parts more distinct in the channing Pastorale, very subtle effects are achieved. The comfort provided by the availability of two swell-boxes allows one to emphasize dynamic contrasts and to mix their sonorities in the correct proportions, as an orchestral conductor might demand of his players (special blends required in the Grande Pièce symphonique, for example). Finally, the brilliant tone, brassy and very bright, of the Grand chœur allows one to avoid using the fournitures except at the culminating points of works high in contrast, without sacrificing the intelligibility of the score in any way.

Eric Lebrun


The Organ of the Church of Saint Antoine des Quinze-Vingts in Paris

Albert de l'Espée was born in Metz in 1852, a descendant of the de Wendel family, one of the most powerful in Lorraine, controlling the greatest iron and steel empire of the mid-nineteenth century. He learned the piano, harmonium and organ in Metz and with the Paris World Exhibition of 1867 discovered more about the wider world, without leaving the banks of the Seine. In Paris he visited his cousins regularly in the Rue Las Cases, near the Church of Sainte Clotilde, where he may well have heard César Franck improvising on the instrument installed there by the great Cavaillé-Coll. It seems that his ambition to own such an organ for himself dates from this time. From 1870 he spent several periods in Paris, exploring the organ lofts, visiting the Conservatoire where César Franck taught and Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in the Avenue du Maine. His desire was to possess a cathedral organ and from 1875 he continuously compared the qualities of various instruments. Very rich, weak in health, protecting himself from any pollution and always searching for the ideal climate, clever and a great builder, Albert de l'Espée came to own, among the estates he inherited, his acquisitions and the places he had built, some ten properties throughout France, seven of them with organs.

In 1880 Albert de l'Espée installed a Cavaillé-Coll instrument with ten stops, identical to that of Eugène Gigout, in the family château at Antibes. For the World Exhibition of 1878 Cavaillé-Coll installed a powerful instrument in the great hall of the Trocadéro. Essentially a concert instrument, this was exactly what he hoped one day to have for himself. The acoustic of the hall was appalling. He would have his own room with a faultless acoustic. In 1890 Cavaillé-Coll was given a commission for an instrument around which the Baron would have a house built. For this he settled on Biarritz, on the place called Ilbarritz. The château was completed in 1897 and the great organ installed, an instrument with 72 stops, four manuals, three swell boxes, 16', 8' and 4' chamades, and three 32' pedal stops. Soon the darkness of the night was disturbed by the sounds of Parsifal and Tannhäuser. After a disappointment in love, in 1898 the Baron decided to sell the château, but found no buyer. He played the instrument for the last time in 1902 and the following year Charles Mutin, Cavaillé-Coll's successor, bought it back and installed it in the company workshops in the Avenue du Maine. It stayed there until 1913, when a place was found for it at the Sacré-Ceur in Montmartre, with a new organ case but keeping the magnificent console, an instrument that was the third of its kind, together with those of Saint Sulpice and Notre Dame. In 1905 Albert de l'Espée decided not to sell Ilbarritz and ordered a new organ from Charles Mutin, an eccentric plan, with 62 stops and three manuals. Part of this instrument was later re-used in the organ at Uzurbil, near Bilbao.

During this period Albert de l'Espée had bought in 1892 an enormous private mansion, No. 50, Avenue du Bois de Boulogne (the modern Avenue Foch). Cavaillé-Coll was again asked to build an organ of three manuals and 42 stops that was soon to bring objections from the whole district. Tired of the late-night noise that the Baron made, his neighbours joined together to make a complaint. He decided to sell the organ and it was bought in 1907 by Count Berthier de Sauvigny, who had in his own house in the Rue Legendre a 28-stop organ by Merklin. The Count presented the instrument he had bought to the new Church of Saint Antoine des Quinze-Vingts and it was installed there by Merklin in 1909 with a new organ case, keeping the original console. Count Berthier was the first to be appointed organist and was followed by successors that included Jean Langlais, Gaston Litaize and others. Since its installation the organ has been restored three times, in 1956 by Pierre Chéron, in 1982 by Jacques Barbéris, and in 1993 by Yves Fossaert, who has since maintained the instrument.

A remarkable man for building, Albert de l'Espée had started on a new site in 1893 at Belle-lle, the château of Taillefer. Cavaillé-Coll installed there an organ with three manuals and 46 stops, similar to that in the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne. The instrument and the château were completely destroyed by fire when the Germans left Paris in 1945.

Travelling thousands of miles by railway, the Baron was elusive. About 1897 he succeeded in having another mansion built, on the banks of Lake Montrion. Here he had Merklin install an orchestrion, a curious mixture of mechanical piano and barrel organ with music rolls.

Passing over the order for the last of the Alexandre harmoniums for his property at Saint Vallier de Thiey, near Cannes, We find the final instrument built by Mutin for the Villa Henriette, between Monaco and Menton. Having learned from his experiences in Paris and the legal action with which he had been threatened, the Baron modified his ambitions, commissioning an instrument of a mere score of stops. When the villa was sold, in about 1913, the greater part of this instrument was re-used for the organ in Monaco Cathedral.

Based on Christophe Luraschi’s book Albert de l'Espée, Genie – Démesure, Edition Atlantica, Biarritz, 1998

Yves Rousseau

English versions by Keith Anderson and Wil Gowans


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