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César Franck 200th Anniversary of birth


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This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of César Franck.  His music is appearing in recital programmes, and today at Carlisle Cathedral Edward Taylor is playing in tribute Franck’s Third Choral in A minor - fittingly the very final piece which, it is said, Franck corrected on his deathbed and never heard played: literally, musically, his final testament.

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One thing I've always liked about Franck's works is that, when a major change of registration is necessary, he sometimes inserts a longish pause - to enable you to do it perhaps on an organ without the benefit of today's registration aids?  It occurs, for example, towards the end of Piece Heroique before the Piu Lento final section begins.  S S Wesley did the same - for example just before the final section of the Larghetto in F# minor where, again, he gives you nearly a bar of silence to do it.  Of course, the intentions of these composers might have been nothing of the sort - perhaps they intended to heighten the drama of the piece.  But I've heard players on modern organs with general pistons or steppers ignore these convenient breaks and plough straight on, so that theory perhaps doesn't hold water.  Is there a definitive answer?

If you haven't come across it there's an extremely useful and entertaining booklet, short and to the point, by Harvey Grace entitled 'The organ works of Cesar Franck' (originally written as a series of articles in MT in 1923 but not published by his widow until 1948).  Only 37 pages.  Few other authors would have been able to cover so much in so terse a form as he did.  It's also highly amusing, containing many examples of his pithy witticisms to the extent that you can almost hear him speaking them.  E.g. : 'the organ music of this time was that of the Lefebure-Wely type, and there are not a few traces of that cheerful writer in Franck's earlier efforts.'  Or 'apart from the Andantino in G minor and these two books [of short and easy pieces], which do not call for discussion .... '  Ah well, I quite like the Andantino myself, but perhaps I should defer to Dr Grace's better judgement.  Never mind.  And again 'it is simply an example of Franck's weakness for sharps' (referring to a long passage written in A sharp major in his Final in B flat!).

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I don't find Frank's music very easy! I'm sure I will upset some when I say that I find some of it rather trite! I have to say that I don't know a lot of his organ/harmonium music but, in a previous life, I played one of the Piano Trios (in F#?) and the D major String Quartet. The D minor Symphony leaves me completely cold - I'm sorry, but I think it is a terrible piece of, very dreary, music!!

 

 

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10 hours ago, S_L said:

I don't find Frank's music very easy! I'm sure I will upset some when I say that I find some of it rather trite! I have to say that I don't know a lot of his organ/harmonium music but, in a previous life, I played one of the Piano Trios (in F#?) and the D major String Quartet. The D minor Symphony leaves me completely cold - I'm sorry, but I think it is a terrible piece of, very dreary, music!!

I sort of concur in the sense of knowing what you mean.  But both he and others in that era deliberately wrote (because they had to) for the burgeoning population of amateur organists with little technical attainment - hence all those dreary and interminable Adagios/Andantes.  If you need to make a living you must keep an eye on your market.  (Elgar anyone - the Vesper Voluntaries?)  But is it also something to do with their limited compositional toolkit - sequence-heavy, interminable tunes that seem to go nowhere, oompah accompaniments, continual descending sevenths, etc.

As an antidote I sometimes have to switch to Bach to clear my head (and definitely after too much Wagner).  But even then I eventually tire of all that restless polyphony - why didn't he just keep still for a while and stop jigging about! 

I think the bottom line is that it must be me - I'm never satisfied ...

 

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I’m pretty shocked by these comments!  In particular, I expected S_L to have a higher opinion of the violin sonata, but maybe I have misread him, and it certainly can’t be called trite!  In fact it’s one work which has been described as erotic!  

Franck’s output was varied, but the Three Chorals stand in a class entirely of their own.  Felix Aprahamian considered them to be the summit of the Romantic organ repertoire - and he didn’t limit that opinion to just the French school.  I have heard my own favourite, the Troisième in A minor murdered in insensitive performances, in one case by a distinguished UK specialist in the French school.  The A minor is full of deep meaning, strongly spiritual, and you don’t get remotely near that meaning by merely playing the written notes!  I remember being at the St Albans Organ Festival in a Franck masterclass by the Canadian organist Bernard Lagacé in which he said this work, literally Franck’s final testament, must be approached - and played - with reverence.

I don’t know the Harvey Grace critique.  Probably the best assessment of Franck’s organ music currently available is “Toward an authentic interpretation of the Organ Works of César Franck” by the American organist and musicologist Rollin Smith, and for specific works, by the same author, “Playing the Organ Works of César Franck”.  I have to admit that most of my reading of in-depth discussion of this subject has been in the ‘American Organist’.  

Changing the subject slightly, I don’t think Wesley consciously wrote anything with lesser players in mind, nor do I readily see Franck having done so.  On Colin’s other point, I’m pretty certain that Franck had usual C-C registration aids, ventils etc., at Ste Clotilde.  Wesley certainly did, Willis thumb pistons and composition pedals at Winchester, although, of course both managed without today’s multi-memory gadgetry.

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Rowland mentioned the registration of the Ste Clothilde organ.  Here is what is almost certainly the specification in 1859, from which you will see the playing aids and lots of other information about the original instrument and its subsequent changes:

https://organhistoricalsociety.org/OrganHistory/history/hist050.htm

I was there for a recital recently and it is in fine voice!

 

 
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3 hours ago, Rowland Wateridge said:

I’m pretty shocked by these comments!  In particular, I expected S_L to have a higher opinion of the violin sonata, but maybe I have misread him, and it certainly can’t be called trite!  In fact it’s one work which has been described as erotic!  

Yes. My omission of the Violin Sonata I thought might cause comment. I didn't mention it because it's a work I don't know at all. I don't think I have ever heard a performance of it in its entirety. The only thing I do know is that the piano part is incredibly difficult - to say the least! (Somebody once told me that there was a version of the Violin Sonata for 'cello - but I've never come across it and, perhaps, my opinion of Franck's other orchestral music made me not want to search it out!) I've played one of the Trios, I think the one in F# and I have played the D maj. string quartet. To be honest they were not experiences I particularly enjoyed and, in my opinion, there is an awful lot better 19th century chamber music. In my defence, I did say, in my initial post, that there was a huge amount of organ/harmonium music that I didn't know and therefore couldn't comment on. However I know the D minor symphony well - and I maintain it to be a work of tedious mediocrity!!

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13 minutes ago, S_L said:

I know the D minor symphony well - and I maintain it to be a work of tedious mediocrity!!

I have heard it described as “organ music transcribed for orchestra”!  I like it, but haven’t heard a performance for many years.  

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2 hours ago, Keitha said:

https://organhistoricalsociety.org/OrganHistory/history/hist050.htm

I was there for a recital recently and it is in fine voice!

It's a long time ago, the early 1970's, but I spent a semester in Paris at the Conservatoire, and lived in Rue Villersexel, close to Solferino and five minutes walk from Ste Clotide. I went to Mass there a few times but mostly walked down Bvd. St. Germain to St. Germain-des-Pres or caught the Metro (not always easy on a Sunday morning) to go to  Saint Eustache or to St. Merri. I remember the liturgy at Ste. Clotide as being 'very French'!!!!

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1 hour ago, Rowland Wateridge said:

I have heard it described as “organ music transcribed for orchestra”!  

Yes - there is an element of truth about that. I once wrote in an essay that Bruckner's orchestration was 'like an enormous organ'. I'm not sure I could justify that now though!!!

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Well, I’m glad that a post about Franck in his Bicentenary year has produced discussion, if not unanimity!  In fact I started this thread by mistake - another senior moment - believing that we had already reached the anniversary when, in fact, it falls on 10th December.

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I would agree that Franck is not for everyone but he was very much a product of his time which was, shall we say,pretty lively.  

There is more than a whiff of sentimentality, even mawkishness, one may say of several of his works but overall his music is graceful and masterly.

I think the sleeve notes on the" Abbey " recording of FJ playing " 19th cy Organ Music "  pretty well sums up Francks general modus operandi so I won`t plagiarise!

The A major sonata is outstanding as well as the introduction and Interlude from his " Symphonic Variations "   ( IMHO only ) to name just two works.

One final interesting point re` his final Chorale.    Ian Tracey, who knows a thing or two about Franck , and French organ music in particular,  has introduced us to a piece by Franck which was given to him  by a relative of the aforesaid Great Man.  It is handwritten and not complete  but Ian has worked on it and it is certainly " a chorale ".

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