Upcoming Performances

July 12, 8:30 pm Central European
Guest recitalist, Cathedral, Rieux-Volvestre, France

July 22, 7:00 pm Eastern
Petr Eben Windows with James Stokes, St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Boone, N.C.

August 26, 4:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, Church of the Savior, Newland, N.C.

September 23, 4:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, Schantz organ 40th anniversary, Culpeper Baptist Church, Culpeper, Va.

September 28, 7:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, Camp Hill Presbyterian Church, Camp Hill, Penn.

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Franck-ly speaking, Part IV: Pièce Héroïque

This is the fourth installment in a series on my take on playing the twelve large works of César Franck. Today’s topic is the Pièce Héroïque. See the first post in the series for background information.


Trivia: this was the first Franck I learned in college. I also remember playing it in a masterclass with John Ferguson at Second Presbyterian in Knoxville. The things we remember.

This piece is rather heroic for Franck. He’s usually grand, noble, heartfelt, etc., but rarely does he grab his sword and mount his trusty steed like this. Even the Final is not this warlike. So stay heroic, never flabby – not even the soft, pretty part in the middle should be allowed to get too sentimental.

The title itself has three different accents on vowels. Learn how to mark those correctly by hand or how to make them on your computer, and make sure whoever is printing the program pays close attention to them, too, lest a font substitution sneak in.

I take the maestoso in Franck’s marking of Allegro maestoso seriously. This is a march, not a cavalry charge. If it’s played too fast, it becomes just another casualty at the hands of just another organist showing off.

Measure 1: I begin a bit under tempo and torque things up going into measure 2. I also begin with the box open, then closing it during the first measure. That lets the opening make a nice statement and then get out of the way for the melody. Keep the repeated eighths absolutely steadfast in their rhythm – Dupré would say they should be exactly half-values: sixteenth-note durations followed by sixteenth-note rests. I agree; such is the backbone of the heroic element of the piece. If the accompaniment gets flabby, our héro will fall off his horse.

Opening melody: Our American organs rarely have enough power in our 8’ and 16’ stops, and so I usually end up adding a 4’ flue of some sort to the melody. Fortunately, Franck allows some wiggle room by suggesting jeux de ____, rather than so many specific stops.

Measure 2, melody, last note C#: Here is one of those places where you might explore the notion of shortening that note just a bit, so that it doesn’t bloom too much in such a rhythmically weak part of a measure. For heaven’s sake don’t clip it to death, but see if the phrase might taper off by releasing that last note just a bit early. Any time a short, weak note is followed by a strong rest, you might explore that option, such as in measures 8, 22, 71, etc., and 60-64.

Measure 12: I take the right-hand alto B-sharps with the left, “thumbing” across the two manuals. Same goes for the E-sharps in measure 32. This is one of the many lengths to which I go to preserve legato whenever possible, in this case the upper voice of the right hand. Now, for those two spots, it will require some inventive fingering, but it can be done if your fingers have the length and you’re willing to go for it. See my post on the Cantabile for a discussion of fingerings for the Great on the middle manual vs. Great on the bottom.

Measure 14: Decision time: should the Pedal notes, marked as eighths, be half-value like the accompaniment, or should they be full-value eighths? I make them full eighths, while still keeping the accompaniment half-value. But it might depend on the acoustics or the fullness of the organ – if you’re not careful, it could just sound like bad rhythm.

Measure 15: Careful that the last note [C] of the melody doesn’t get clipped. Give it a little TLC to finish the phrase. Same for measure 17 and plenty other spots like that.

Measure 18: I hit a piston here to kill the Pedal and couple the accompaniment to it. I then use the Pedal to help out in measure 21 by taking the entire lower voice, just for that measure. After that, there is plenty of time to hit the original piston to return the Pedal into service.

From measure 34: Instinct tells me to play 34 and 35 detached, including the Pedal. Then instinct tells me to go legato for 36 and 37. Detached at 38-39, and legato again from 40 on. I can’t tell you why, but it works for me.

Measures 47-51: Just memorize that section! And don’t telegraph to your listeners how hard it is. Keep things heroic.

Measures 60-64: see the discussion above for measure 2.

Measure 79: I move to the Swell, just to continue the decrescendo.

Measure 83: I take the right-hand alto E with the left.

Measures 111-120: You might take a look at Dupré’s edition for some clever solutions to keeping (most of) those octaves legato.

Measure 129: by this time, we have probably slowed down or gotten a little romantic along the way. At 129, I pounce immediately back on the heroic tempo. No warning.

Measures 129-132: I keep the right-hand melody legato and the left-hand accompaniment detached. Can’t tell you why; I just like it. HOWEVER: In measures 130 and 132, I hold the tied melody note full value, while still keeping the accompaniment half-value. That sort of thing is a bit of trouble to keep up with, but it adds elegance to the sound by keeping each voice or ensemble consistent. For 133-138, see my discussion above on measure 2.

Measure 139: This section is clearly an older sibling to the final buildup in the B minor Choral. Don’t slow down here; it needs to continue building. Yes, we know it’s difficult. But we’ll be mighty impressed (and grateful) if you’ll keep the tempo absolutely steady and heroic.

Measure 151 will need some preparation by slowing down into it. I begin a ritard in 149 and make sure that my ritard does not get any slower than I intend to go in 151. That way, 151 simply proceeds out of 150, rather than starting a new idea. Practice the cross-rhythms in 152, 154, and 158 to perfection.

Measure 164: notice there are no fermatas leading up to this full rest. Don't sit on the last eighth of 163 -- you'll give away the surprise! Make 164 an unexpected pregnant pause. This measure is perfect to use against those parishioners who won’t shut up during the prelude. Spring this piece on them sometime and watch/listen them wither during that measure, then slap them over the head with 165! Priceless.

From measure 165, you’ll keep yourself busy deciding when to detach and when to go legato. For example, I play pretty much detached, but I go legato 167-168. For whatever reason.

Measure 168: the fermata is on the rest, not on a note.

Measures 173-179: I take the Pedal and the upper voices of the hands legato. I detach (heroically) the repeated notes in the hands. Notice the Pedal does not break going into 176. That can work to your advantage for giving the Pedal some direction into the next phrase. Same for 178-179, even though there’s a pesky repeated note to deal with.

Measures 179-183: This isn’t much of a pedal solo, and so it isn’t showoff moment. (There are no showoff moments in Franck’s organ music.) Make it musical. Make it build somewhere. Make your listeners wonder where this is going, how it's going to get back to B Major, and how it’s going to end.

Measures 184-end: More decisions between detached vs. legato. I play the pedal legato. For the B-F# “tympani” hits, I play the left foot legato and detach the right. That’s just a thing with me, but I feel the legato left foot adds weight to the passage, and the detached right foot adds clarity. I also play the hands legato 185-187; it gives a sense of crescendo to the hemiola.

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