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.

Entries in Franck (12)


Franck-ly speaking, Part II: Prelude, Fugue, and Variation

This is the second installment in a series on my take on playing the twelve large works of César Franck. Today we look at the Prelude, Fugue, and Variation. See the first post in the series for background information.


The title is problematic. Not only is there only one Variation (not Variations), but also the use of the Oxford comma gives some of us fits. Against my usual punctuation morality, I insert the extra comma just to show the three sections at a glance. The original edition cleverly gets around this with the title “Prélude, Fugue, Variation,” omitting et [and]. I don’t recall as of this writing what Franck called it in his manuscript/autograph. The later Durand edition says, “Prélude, Fugue et Variation” (no Oxford comma). Anything is possible, and I’m over it. All I'll ask is that when printing the title, stay in one language: use the accent in Prélude with the French conjunction et, or use no accent with the English and. I’ll stay in English below:

The truncated version which omits the Fugue is a bastardization and should never be used in public. The original piece is a complete whole, for heaven’s sake. The interlude alludes to the Fugue subject, so it makes no sense to play the interlude without the Fugue attached. And it makes no sense to play the Prelude by itself, because it ends in the wrong key. So about the only excerpt-able section is the Variation itself, which is hard to play, in which case you might as well learn the whole thing.

The Prelude and the Variation are trios. The left hand spends a lot of time in the alto range, and the feet spend a lot of time making surgical little movements from note to note in the tenor range. The whole body is put into traction to play this piece, and there are just too many pitfalls to be checking music AND feet AND hands. If one of those gets derailed, the others are likely to follow. Therefore, this is one of those pieces that will go better if it is memorized (and well).

Throughout the Prelude and the Variation, play the melody and make the accompaniment fit around that. The most common error I hear is the left hand rushing into the second eighth note of each beat, following the rest. Once that is under control, the piece flows quite naturally beautifully. Sometimes I think it’s silly to hear a different instrument in your head when you play a melody on the organ, but in this case it works: pretend you’re an actual oboist, and the melody will speak for itself. First eighth of each beat stronger than the other two eighths.

Measure 10: obviously, the right foot needs to make the crescendo in this measure, rather than lunge for the box AND high B at the same time for measure 11. You can hear that panic every time otherwise, so just take care of the box earlier. This applies to the other similar spots throughout (31, 156, etc.). Remember that Franck’s organ had the box lever placed all the way to the right, which means that he could have (but did not necessarily have) had someone moving the box for him. Franck was known to have said that you should play as many pedal notes as possible with the left foot so that the right could operate the box. But myself, I sacrifice neither notes nor their legato for anything. So I work out some box movements at other times as required to preserve line and legato. Throughout Prelude and Variation, only slight box movements need be used; just enough to hear a difference is plenty.

Throughout Prelude and Variation, obey Franck’s every rhythmic command. He built the breaths into it, so don’t cheat the breathing voices. And don’t hold left-hand notes into rests. Keep it clean.

Measures 39-42: it is suddenly about the pedal, so let that melody rule the rhythmic motion of everything else. The same goes for 177-180.

Measures 51-59: the interlude is just an interlude. Don’t make it an event. Notice that it alludes to the Fugue subject, so make it sound that way. And notice that the fermatas have been placed on notes, not on rests, so don’t go out for coffee during the rests.

Fugue subject: I cheat a little by making a slight(!) break after the half notes in measures 64 and 65 and all other similar passages in other voices (72, 73, 82, 83, etc.) throughout the fugue. Such is (barely) legal in Franck – don’t forget that he was developing organ playing from ordinary touch into legato, but that did not fully arrive until Widor and later. So don’t arrest me.

Measures 117-122: fingering here will be unorthodox to many. Don’t be lazy – work out a legato fingering. It is possible.

Measure 128: I decrescendo here. I love that arrival on the Picardy.

Make the Variation flow. Again, make that left hand obey the rhythmic wishes of the melody. Yes, I know that 162-169 is difficult for the left hand. Tough! Learn it cold and make it fit.

This is one of those pieces that is beautiful to the ear but horribly awkward to play. Go with making it sound good; never telegraph how difficult it is. Sit up straight, and refuse to lunge for any note or swell shoe in a panic.


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.



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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