Imagine a vast, darkened church, built on a huge scale, with candles flickering in the gloom before statues in alcoves along the aisles. A slight whiff of incense lingers in the air. Far up in the organ loft at the west end, a light appears. Stops are pulled out, and the organist starts to play softly, running his fingers over the keys, improvising, modulating, exploring.
That’s the image I always have in mind whenever I perform Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue for piano, written in 1884. From 1858-1872 Franck was organist at the church of Sainte-Clotilde [pictured], the third of his posts as an organist. Although he trained as a pianist, the sound of the organ looms large in this piece, both in the style of writing and in its technical demands. Franck wrote a Prelude, Fugue and Variation for organ, and a Prelude, Aria and Finale for piano; his improvisations on the organ at the church were legendary. He was well versed in the ‘prelude’ genre.
The Prelude has an unusual texture; the melody falls on the second note of each set of eight demisemiquavers. It is highly chromatic and colourful, and in the mournful key of B minor, written in a harmonic language which is unique to Franck. It couldn’t be by anyone else. Silences are important as it progresses: to clear the air harmonically, to give room to breathe, and time to think. It should sound extemporised, the melody encircled by falling patterns which swell and diminish.
Declamatory, questioning sections, based on new motifs, visit a rich assortment of keys above a walking bass which sounds literally like feet on the pedal-board. A soft, pp reprise based on the opening texture adds the sweetness of a brief visit to B major, before a forceful modulation to G sharp minor interjects, itself dismissed by a return to the home key. Frank adds two modulatory chords after what seems to be the final tonic, so that, rather like being on a revolving stage, we are transported elsewhere …
The music has moved from B minor to the warmth of E flat major for the Chorale movement, and from the Prelude’s falling cascades of demisemiquavers to block chords moving on each crotchet below the melody. An introductory section soon moves to C minor for the actual, hymn-like chorale, and it is here that Franck the organist can be witnessed. The well-shaped melody is in a high register in single notes. Chords lie beneath, and below them another walking bass in octaves, as if on a pedalboard, supporting the texture. But how to play all 7 notes simultaneously, covering 4 octaves – a melody, chords and a bass line – with only two hands? Franck’s ingenious solution is via an arpeggiation; the LH arpeggiates the bass line octave, the RH follows and arpeggiates the four-voiced chords above, during which time the LH flies over the RH into the treble register on each beat to pick out the notes of the melody, before flying back to the bass line for the next beat. It takes longer to read about it than to play it, but there is an inevitable time delay involved in this pianistic process, creating an aural effect not unlike the acoustic vagaries of a vast cathedral. The chorale is heard three times, each time more loudly and in a higher key, with intervening interludes. The piece comes to a close at the end of the third hearing of the chorale, the last two chords forming a plagal cadence. Amen.
Più Allegro – an episode prepares our ears for what is to come, by introducing a three-note figure which will be part of the Fugal subject, stopping and starting, hesitating, then making a decision to launch itself into the Fugue proper via an anxious, spiralling flourish. The subject is torturous chromatically, as is the counter-subject, with semitones pulling against each other as each voice enters the fugal exposition. Highly contrapuntal episodes enrich the texture, and listen out for devices such as inversion, imitation, and fragments of the subject calling and answering each other amidst flowing triplets. The music reaches a mighty climax; a pungent neapolitan 6th gives way to a pause on the harmonic precipice of a dominant 7th chord. So we’re going to the tonic, yes? N0 – Franck launches into a furious coda, the fugal theme pounded out in the midst of a swirling texture taken from the Prelude. Here is Franck the organist, revelling in colour. The tension gradually subsides, ushering in an ethereal version of the chorale melody. Save your most magical sound for this moment. More modulations and huge dynamic growth lead to a climactic collision where Franck pulls off the extraordinary feat of the fugal subject, the chorale melody and the Prelude figuration – all at the same time. Tonality moves to the major, and a dominant pedal point, so beloved of organists, can be heard; then at last, we are rewarded by the longed-for relief of the tonic chord of B Major and the chorale melody in the major key. Peals of bells, jubilation, triumph. Journey’s end, at a satisfying destination.
I was privileged to learn this work with Roy Shepherd, who studied it with Alfred Cortot at the Ecole Normale in Paris. Below is Cortot’s recording.