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March 9, 2018, 12:15 pm Eastern
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« Franck-ly speaking, Part II: Prelude, Fugue, and Variation | Main | Life in the Big D: The tough questions »
Sunday
Sep212014

Franck-ly speaking, Part I: background and the Final

I have been on my way through performing the twelve large works for solo organ by César Franck. I have programmed them at a rate of about one per year, having begun in 2007. I have learned or re-learned them in order of my own preferences: Final, Prelude/Fugue/Variation, Cantabile, Pièce Héroïque, Pastorale, Choral in E, Prière, Fantaisie in A, Choral in b, Choral in a, Grande Pièce Symphonique, Fantaisie in C. As of this writing, I have just put the A major Fantasy to bed and will move on to the b minor Choral for early 2015.

This music is groundbreaking and very popular among organists, audiences, and audiophiles. I played several of these pieces during college, but I discovered their true difficulty when I started working back through all of them with a professional fine-toothed comb. These pieces are HARD sometimes, but their nobility forbids you from glossing over a single note. I love this music; it fits my sense of phrasing at the organ. I say a lot with these pieces in less time than with others. They “learn” quickly, and they speak to me and my listeners immediately. But they must be approached somewhat carefully to keep them from sounding like halting organ demonstrations or unnecessarily mad dashes to the finish.

This blog series will outline some of the usual troubles we encounter in these pieces. I’ll add some of my own hints and personal reflections on each. Then there are the other well-known sources to get more information, such as Rollin Smith’s two books, the Durand edition, the Craighead/Goddard corrections to the new Durand, the Dover compilation, the Wayne Leupold edition, the Gunther Kaunziger edition, the complete recordings, etc. I gravitate toward the complete recordings by André Marchal and David Enlow. Marchal is musical and forward-moving. Enlow is all that, plus muscular.

In this series, I don't correct notes or other misprints in the score that haven't already been addressed in a critical edition. Consult those editions carefully, especially when you suspect something isn't right in your score -- it probably isn't.

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Final

It may be an omen to begin a series with a "Final," but here we are! What's more, when I performed this piece, I always placed it first on a program. It opened my recitals with the kind of bang I look for. This is a thrilling piece that has no sister among the big twelve. It has no slow section, and it keeps charging at you.

Beginning: I use measure 29 to determine my beginning tempo. I think about that measure first and then start the piece with that tempo, which tends to hover around 120 bpm. Thank God Franck adds “maestoso” to the tempo marking. Otherwise, people would play it too fast. Oh, wait, they already do. Folks, this isn’t the Sowerby Pageant. It’s only coincidental that the main melody appears in the pedal. It is still music. Make sure it’s played clearly and musically. Throughout this pedal solo, decide carefully how long any given note before a rest will last. Too short, and it sounds clipped. Too long, and it invades the rests. Give as much attention to the releases as to the attacks. And depending on the acoustics and my mood, I may cut dotted quarters at the dot, replacing the dot with a rest -- Franck does that later on the piece, in measures 207-211.

Measures 13-27: This is that hard part in the pedal solo. This section needs a steadfast refusal on the performer's part to play it any way other than nobly. Usually a more majestic tempo will fix it. In any event, focus on playing every note in this section, without rushing anywhere just because it's awkward to play. Use the feet equally in this section; don’t ask one foot to do all the work without exploring more innovative pedaling. Prepare your ankles for some interesting contortions!

Measure 33: Take Franck seriously when he thins out the texture by dropping out the alto and tenor. You’ll need that space for the soprano to be heard. Keep all triplets even; don’t allow the left hand to call the shots; make the melody rule all rhythms and rubato.

Measure 87: Notice the difference on the second beat between a full quarter (manual) and a quarter staccato (pedal). I play the difference.

Measure 94: I decide in the moment how long I’ll hold the second beat in the hands. Maybe that beat should be staccato like the notes leading up to it. If holding them through threatens to make the second beat (a weak beat in 4/4) too strong, I'll release them early.

Measure 99: Don’t lose the tempo; keep things moving. In the pedal is a preview of coming attractions, namely, the second theme. So let the pedal call the shots; don’t get hung up on how angular the hands are there.

Measure 125: I move Franck’s registration directive to measure 119, and I make it last until 127. It’s a smoother registrational descent that way; I tend to use three to four generals to thin things out. Then throughout the second theme that follows, you’ll need to make a lot of decisions on voice redistribution among the hands, plus when to tie and when to break. Franck wrote vertically, and so we are at full liberty to tie when desired. I break for voiceleading clarity and when a beat needs to be heard. Same directions apply to the recap later on.

Measure 155: By now, you have probably slowed down more than you intended to. An abrupt return to the opening tempo is too abrupt. Use 155-163 to make a (smooth!) accelerando.

From measure 173, it's all about the pedal. Don’t telegraph how difficult the hands are.

Measure 187: I put the right hand on the Great. In this country, the Positif/Choir rarely has enough 8-foot to support that soaring melody.

From measure 206, it's all about the pedal again, not about how hard the hands are. Don’t let the left hand rush the pedal; make the left hand obey the melody’s wishes.

From measure 215, it’s all about the left hand. Make the right hand notes fit exactly where they are supposed to go to support the melody.

From measure 245, you might go somewhat faster. But not too fast, because you still have a long way to go to the applause.

From measure 305: This is still Franck, so no one is authorized to fly through this section! If anything, you might consider making it sound somewhat halting and improvisatory and getting bolder while things make their way back to the home key and the home melody. People tend to play from here to the end somewhat detached. I do that, too, but it’s nowhere near pecking. Be careful, and stay noble. This brings me to the notion of detaching Franck where he didn't say to. We get away with a lot of re-interpretation of what Franck wrote or didn't write, but that's okay because this was the beginning of a style that was codified after Franck. In some cases, it was still played with "ordinary touch," and we can detach. With today's hindsight, decisions can now be based on musical and/or acoustical instinct. See Wayne Leupold's comments in his edition.

From measure 360: Be sure the hands don’t derail the pedal. Many times, those chords are played in such a way that the pedal eighth notes get compressed into a faster rhythm, which tends to over-rush the whole thing. Make smooth trades between manual chords to pedal notes.

From measure 372: No slower; we’re still not there yet! You can ritard at 378.

From measure 379, I make the eighth notes a fast flourish and the final quarter-note chords a guessing game of, “Is it really over?”

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