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May 13, 5:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, First Presbyterian Church, Wilmington, N.C.

June 10
Guest recitalist, Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church, Rochester, Minn.

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

« Dear Teacher | Main | Franck-ly speaking, Part II: Prelude, Fugue, and Variation »

Franck-ly speaking, Part III: Cantabile

This is the third installment in a series on my take on playing the twelve large works of César Franck. Today we look at the Cantabile. See the first post in the series for background information.


The Cantabile is the shortest of the big twelve. Perhaps it’s also the easiest, but none of them is truly easy, so don’t get too excited.

I insert a lot of inter-manual “thumbing” to keep things legato, and therefore I try to place the hands on two adjacent manuals whenever possible. If the Great is the middle manual, then keeping hands on adjacent manuals will require a couple more pistons to convert the Great into the Positif and back several times. This also brings up the issue of fingering for a Great on the bottom or a Great in the middle. Solution: finger it both ways, and write it all in. Things won't always work in both directions, of course, but when it is possible, I’ll draw an up- and a down-arrow to show which direction to travel to the other manual, and then I’ll write in the fingerings for both configurations. Then it’s only a few extra minutes for me to memorize both ways and then be ready for anything at the recital site.

Throughout the piece, you’ll need to make innumerable decisions between tying and breaking repeated notes. Don’t forget that Franck composed vertically, not contrapuntally, and so he didn’t mind when notes were tied across. But of course, repeated notes in melodies should be broken. I break repeated notes among other voices to hear/show a beat better, and I break when a voice sounds imitative of a melody. I try to break in voices that aren’t terribly exposed, so that the beat is merely heard rather than hammered.

Registration: our American Swells can be sorely lacking in the colors Franck is looking for. Trumpets are too strong or weak, Hautbois are too weak or strong, and there’s very little in between. You might consider adding the 4’ flute and/or the 8’ string to the Récit texture. They might come in handy later as the piece winds down; more on that later below.

In the U.S., rarely does the Positif/Choir have enough 8’ flues to do what Franck asks, and so I usually add a stop or two from the Great to give the Positif more presence. Of course that’s not always possible, but if you have the stops, the pistons, and the time to switch stops back and forth between the "real Great" and "contrived Positif," then surely Franck would approve. For the Cantabile, that means I use one piston for the first two measures of pedal “solo” against Great and Positif 8’, then I hit another one in measure 3 to reduce the pedal and remove some of the Great to sound like a Positif. All while remaining on the Great. Back and forth like that we go: measures 6 and 8, measures 11 and 12, measures 25 and 27, etc.

Franck’s initial dynamic of p is unnecessary. To the French organist, a dynamic indication is a box indication. But the Récit is not playing there, and when it does show up in measure 3, the dynamic is mezzo forte. So set the box to mf before you begin, and for heaven's sake don't lunge for the box in a panic at the last second. But on the other hand, if you choose to hit extra pistons as explained in the paragraph above, you could add Récit fluework to the Great to strengthen the 8’ registration when the solo is not playing, then operate the box accordingly. If you have time to do all that in the moment, it’s a nice idea that helps our American organs nudge closer to what Franck heard.

Franck marks the piece Non troppo lento, so don’t get stuck on half notes and quarter notes. The piece still needs to pulsate with some life.

Measure 1: notice that the Pedal foreshadows the real melody coming up in measure 3. Franck even registered those first two measures and their later siblings to bring out the Pedal, but for whatever reason the registration was watered down at publication. In his complete Franck recording, Jean Guillou registers a quiet reed in the Pedal for those. I also try to bring it out a bit, but I try to use fluework.

Measure 5: It’s curious that Franck does not insert the global quarter rests from measure 5 into 6 and 10 into 11 that he inserts from, say, 2 into 3 or 7 into 8. Nevertheless, I insert the rest for all voices. It just begs for it, I feel. One exception is in Measure 11, where I go into measure 12 without breaking, not only because it’s possible but also because I don’t want things to get predictable. Non-breaking requires some quick fingerings and substitutions.

Measures 13-14. I get across that barline legato in the left hand.

Measures 15-16: I carry the melody from measure 15 without breaking. With the box closing, I feel it’s a nice enough arrival without the break.

Measures 18 and 67: I thumb the second quarter note in the alto with the right hand. I do the same thing in measures 24 and 73 for the first eighth in the left hand. See the discussion above regarding playing this piece on adjacent manuals.

Measure 27: I thumb the b in the alto with the left hand.

Measure 32: if you’ve been on adjacent manuals up to this point, you’ll need to move your right hand to the “real” Positif here (assuming it's on the bottom), to be in position for Measure 43, where all three manuals are needed on their own terms. Everything can be re-positioned as you wish at 65.

Measures 38-39: I don’t break the melody across that barline. I like the continued crescendo that allows.

Measures 51-61: The canon is exquisite. Register it carefully so that the Pedal gets its due, and phrase the Pedal melody exactly the same way as the right hand melody. Keep careful track of the couplers, and know that you could cheat with an extra coupler to the Pedal, if you need it.

Measure 59: I take the lowest right-hand note E with the left.

Measure 61, fourth beat: I take the lowest right-hand note E with the left.

Measure 62, third beat: I take the lowest right-hand note F# with the left.

Measure 64, third beat: I take the lowest right-hand note D# with the left.

I live for measure 74. I believe it’s a stunning repose the piece has been yearning for all this time. I start preparing for it in 72 with a subtly graduated ritard and a smooth closing of the box.

At 78, some Swells have little left when the Trumpet comes off. Here you could use those extra stops I suggested at the beginning, such as the string or a 4’ flute. Hopefully, there’s an Oboe that would also have been on from the beginning. The reason I mention all this is because I remove all but the Oboe from the Swell at 82. It helps with the decrescendo, and it gives me a chance to get rid of any lingering stops (such as my added 4') that may not contribute to a quiet ending.

Measures 86-end: Use the slowdown to buy successively more time on each note so that you don’t have to add a fermata at the end where Franck didn’t write one.

Measures 88-89: I add a stop or two to the Pedal so that it can be heard. This is especially important if the left hand has been coupled all along to the Pedal. (Sometimes coupling the accompanying manual to the Pedal makes a more subtle 8’ than the Pedal’s own.) Play those Pedal quarters with a nice tenuto; don’t clip the penultimate one prematurely.

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