Upcoming Performances

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.

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Franck-ly speaking, Part VII: Prière

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


“Prière” is one of those titles that seems as if it might have been born of desperation to find a title. Picture Franck agonizing over what to call this piece and then discovering that he could call it what we all need in the first place: a prayer! Not a true story, but the title is perfect, really. The piece sounds like a prayer – more like a litany – with a single theme being presented and re-presented in full and in part for fifteen minutes.

And I wonder if Franck suspected that people would resort to prayer to play every note of this piece and still maintain their dignity! This piece is the hardest thing the man wrote, I believe. It’s piano music without a damper pedal. It’s ten-key data entry for a hand missing two fingers. It’s a leap across the Grand Canyon with a sack of bowling balls. Everyone knows that Franck had huge hands, and this piece proves it. [Check out that photo of him seated at the Ste-Clotilde organ. Notice how long his fingers on that stop knob are.] The Prière is full of tenths, elevenths, cross-rhythms, and everything else that makes us want to take up knitting instead. I can usually provide good advice to someone with small hands how to get through a spot or two in a given piece, but when that “spot” is fifteen minutes long, we’d need to publish a separate edition! Ah, but what beautiful music it is. Let’s see what we can do with it:

The entire piece should be ultra legato, which means going to some trouble here and there to preserve the legato. Only melody notes should be broken when they are repeated in the score. Virtually everything else may be tied; the only exceptions I make are when a beat needs to be heard more clearly in another voice.

At the beginning: BUT OF COURSE, couple the manuals to a dead Pedal to help get through the wide spreads. People who don’t do that are just showing off, or they’re compromising the integrity of a complete legato. Franck was fine with using the feet to achieve manual legato – don’t forget that he composed vertically, not linearly in these sections; and he was also saving paper this way. When I use the Pedal in these manual-only sections, I use it only when needed, rather than playing every one of the lowest notes down there. For example, I’ll use Pedal for the first three measures and then I’m able to cover everything with my hands for a few beats, then I use the Pedal to cover the wide stretches in measures 6 and 7, etc. The Pedal here is a convenience, so I use it only when necessary.

Measure 49, beats 2 and 3: The alto has the same melodic fragment that the soprano just played, and so I repeat the alto E notes to announce that fragment.

Measures 50-51: The melodic fragment mentioned just above seems a little obscured here, to my ear. I clean things up a bit by omitting the tenor E in 50 and the alto B in 51. Heresy, I know, but I like how it makes the melodic fragment in the alto clearer. It’s just two little notes, you know…

Measure 71: I “finger” the alto D-sharp with the right hand until the left can get to the scene from the previous measure.

Measure 72: That same D-sharp mentioned just above can be released from the left hand on beat three. The right hand now has it in the alto.

Measure 79: I delay the left hand’s arrival on the Great until 81. I feel that makes a more effective and smooth crescendo. The entire section that follows is full of opportunity to re-distribute notes among the hands. Don’t ask the poor left hand to do all the work there.

Measures 95-96: Most people just jump the left hand to the Positif, and you can hear the bump when they do. That can be smoothed out: in 95, take the alto D-sharp with the right hand on beat 2. Then in the 3rd beat, take the tenor F-double-sharp with the right hand. Now your left hand has only the final C-sharp to play, during which time it can be positioning fingers on the Positif to set up for 96.

Measures 108-109: The transition to the Positif can be smoothed out by moving a beat earlier in the lower two manual voices, leaving only the final G-sharp on the Great.

Measure 110: Theoretically, both hands are still on the Positif here, but on some organs, the right hand may be well served to play those few remaining melody notes on the Great.

Measures 114-158: This is the “development” section, if one is required. It would probably be well served to sound like an ongoing improvisation rather than a series of events. Even Franck indicates at 120 “with a certain liberty…” as opposed to a disorderly one. Keep things moving; it’s still only one theme.

Measures 146-147: I use the (dead) Pedal to help maintain legato in the manuals.

Measures 149-158: Don’t rush through here. That would be out of character with the piece, and you’ll only have to come to a screeching halt again for the recap at 159.

Measures 159-174: Plenty of opportunities to redistribute notes among the hands. Don’t be lazy.

Measures 175-187: This is that section that sends people screaming into the night in their underwear. There are some obscenely wide reaches plus some nasty cross-rhythms. General suggestions: 1) If you have large hands, congratulations. Use them well. 2) Keep the melody legato at all costs. 3) Jump the left hand lightly when necessary. Do not lunge for notes – astute listeners can hear the panic in the sound when you do that. 4) People with small hands deserve every permission to leave out some notes, re-configure some octave placements, etc. Do what you have to do; feel free to ask for help.

Measure 182: In the interest of melody legato, I move the final alto note E-sharp up an octave. Who’s going to notice?

Measures 190-196: Left hand still on Great.

Measures 197-198: I play the left hand on the Positif for some extra decrescendo. The left hand goes back to the Great for 199.

Measure 198: If the left hand takes the final C-sharp in the alto, that will allow complete legato for the right hand’s return to the Great.

Measure 205: Second beat, lower alto: I add a G-sharp (second line) on the final triplet of that beat. I feel we just need another pitch there to keep the texture from thinning so much in that little spot.

Measures 212-222: This is one of the most beautiful passages I know of for the organ. I go into some interesting contortions to keep the right hand legato. It is possible, but it will require your absolutely best Gleason “Finger Crossing” technique. If you’re interested in the details, I’ll send you a copy of those measures with my fingerings.

Our Prayer is concluded. Amen.

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