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« Help Yourself XV: Running low | Main | Franck-ly speaking, Part IX: Choral in b minor »
Friday
Mar202015

Franck-ly speaking, Part X: Choral in A minor

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

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This is the last organ solo piece we have from Franck. The popular perception is of him finishing the manuscript on his deathbed. Whether or not that is accurate, we do know that he was fighting an infection and died soon, and we also know that this music is the crowning achievement of Franck’s quest into transforming the organ into a concert instrument capable of playing its own symphonies. This is a profound piece indeed, and there is absolutely no shame in approaching it as a sacred treasure every time you sit down to it.

Of the three Chorals, this one is probably the easiest to play. That’s all relative, you understand; none is truly easy. And everyone will have his own opinion on which Choral speaks to him most deeply. This one speaks to me, if I listen to it through the lens of it being Franck’s final notes written for the organ. But my favorite Choral, indeed my favorite Franck, is the E major.

Measure 1: I would suggest that the opening tempo be determined by how you would like to play measure 30 and following. That is the real Chorale, and perhaps the ideal tempo for that should be transferred to the beginning. More often than not, the beginning is played far too fast, especially in proportion to the rest of the piece. This is neither a toccata nor a cadenza. The piece has something to say in the opening notes, and there might even be a phrase or a nuance or two to be had in this section. Give yourself time for them. And be very precise with the difference in length between sixteenth notes and eighth notes as Franck wrote them.

Measure 5: Metrically speaking, the last note of this measure is very unimportant. Therefore, it destroys the pregnant pause that follows when this note is held even slightly past its value. Other examples are measures 7, 14, 16, 18, 52, 54, and 56. I can tell that a performer is listening to every note (or not), based on their treatment of these cutoffs.

Measures 16 and 18: Notice the fermatas are on rests, not on notes.

Measure 27: Franck initiates the ritard here. Many people start it in 23, but that overblows all these quarter notes starting in 26 and makes the section interminable. Allow Franck’s slower rhythms to be their own slowdown on some level.

Measure 30: One should probably resume tempo here, so that we can discern the melody (which is the real Chorale). Otherwise, it’s just chords.

Measure 39: I take the alto E-flat with the left hand and then use (dead) Pedal to assist with legato on the third beat.

Measures 91-96: Don’t start this section too slowly. It will get tedious and labored otherwise.

Measure 96: The fermata is on the final note of the outgoing registration, not on the first note of the Adagio section. I would make the pickup from 96 into 97 be in your intended tempo.

Measures 97-116: This slow chorale (arguably not the Chorale in this piece) is among the most excerpt-able moments we have from Franck. Be sure the melody notes don’t blur together. If they do, it just makes that Trumpet loud and muddy. Play every note right where it belongs. I would suggest treating this section like Chopin, where there is a general pulse in the background that is stretched and compressed here and there but never loses count. Finally, in too many performances, the player gets stuck on the ties in the melody (96-97, 98, 99-100, 105-106, 107-108, etc). But it is directly on a tied note where the melody needs to regain its momentum after the longer note that precedes it. Listen, listen, listen.

Measures 117-141: This is one of those sections that needs to be “perfect,” plain and simple. Too slow, and it languishes in its repetitiveness. Too fast, and it takes the limelight from what follows it.

Measures 143-145: Don’t speed up. You’ll just have to slow right back down in a moment.

Measure 146: The fermata is on a rest, not on the manual note!

Measure 147: I put my left hand on the Récit to avoid sharing middle C among the hands and breaking eighth notes into two sixteenths. In 153, I bring the left hand back to the Positif.

Measures 147-173: Try entertaining the notion of a subtle accelerando, all the way to 173.

Measure 170: I move the right hand to the Great on beat 3. That’s a safer spot to move that hand accurately, and it doesn’t interrupt the flow into 171 that way.

Measure 173: The registration instructions appear to be aligned with the downbeat in the editions I have used. But I would suggest that that piston be hit on the third beat, to coincide with the first note of the “chorale” climax.

Measures 190-199: Of course, legato with manual octaves is impossible. I feel it is most unfortunate that composers for the organ write full chords or octaves for hands and then mark it all legato. The French are pretty sparing about that; when, say, Widor or Guilmant wrote full octaves and chords, the style was already march-y or heroic, so you knew that it would automatically sound right. But Franck was still experimenting. [The British are utterly notorious for such writing. It’s kind of like playing the organ like a piano that has a broken damper pedal. It drives me insane.] Anyway, there are some options in this section. You could separate the octaves and make them a bit more declamatory. You could jump from octave to octave in a panic trying to lunge for legato (please don’t!). You could leave out some notes, particularly to keep the upper melody legato. I still experiment every time I get to this section. It just depends on what you want to say with the music. How it sounds is most important. Making alterations toward legato would sound completely different from a declamatory broken style. Take your pick. Franck wouldn’t be allowed to complain about your choice, since he marked octaves and full chords legato in the first place!

Finally, I make the ritard in 190 last until the very end. Every note is a wee bit slower than the one before. Such a slowdown is very long, very gradual, and very subtle and requires lots of practicing and lots of listening. Keep the beat or any background pulse you have going. The danger is in overblowing it. We still have to get to the end, you know, so don’t park somewhere when you’re not arrived yet. Think of this like trying to stop an old steam locomotive. You can pull on the brakes, but it won’t stop for a while! You have to pull harder, harder, and it finally slows down, little by little, until completely stopped.

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