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Franck Prélude, Choral et Fugue, FWV21

solo piano
1884

(This work is sometimes perfoemd in an orchestral version orchestrated by Gabriel Pierné)

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. heading up rather than down) 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 soundtracks.

Some forthcoming performances  of Franck Prélude, Chorale et Fugue:


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Selected Sheet Music of Franck Prélude, Chorale et Fugue

look inside 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).