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ClassicsOnline Home » FRANCK: Great Organ Works, Vol. 2
By Benjamin Epstein
"Here we have a Franck set that is compelling not only because of Naxos' low cost, but also because of the quality of the performances, informative notes, good recorded sound, and an instrument appropriate for the music itself. The result is both a treat to the ears and a good representation of what it may have been like to hear Franck at his instrument. Naxos gives us thoughtful performances on an exemplary instrument at a very reasonable price."
By Scott Cantrell
The Dallas Morning News
"The 12 major organ works of César Franck are such staples of the instrument's repertory that it's surprising how rarely players really penetrate their romantic idiom. Modern interpreters either wrap them in literalist straitjackets or else pull and tug them to the point that they lose all coherence and urgency. Not so Eric LebrunKMr. Lebrun keeps the music moving even as he gives it the most natural ebb and flow - and breathing roomKThe organ provides precisely the sonorities Franck had in mind, by turns plush, piquant and brazen, and recorded sound is clear vivid and spacious."
César Franck (1822-1890)
The Great Organ Works Vol. 2
Long regarded as inconsistent, with many of his allegedly old-fashioned works left gathering dust in libraries, Cesar Franck, along with contemporaries such as Alkan, at last seems to be recovering from relative neglect. The centenary of his death aroused little interest. Although Liège, his birthplace, redeemed itself by organizing a major international symposium, beyond the very limited circle of organists there was no particular enthusiasm. Nevertheless his work is becoming more widely known, subject now of a variety of musicological studies.
Questions must arise about Franck's personality and his very slow artistic development, his place in any particular national school and in the great aesthetic movements of his time, the exact nature of his religious inspiration, or the technical or expressive difficulties encountered in the performance of his compositions. Late nineteenth-century observers, notably Widor, described him as an indulgent, middle-class fellow, with a little culture, no ambition and scant awareness of his genius. The view put forward by disciples such as Vincent d'Indy and Tournemire, however, presents him as an exemplary Christian, extremely devout, with idealised charity. The poem by Augusta Holmès, written in reaction to the shock of his death, similarly portrays him as the epitome of a loving father and virtuous artist. Franck was in thrall to this little red haired Irishwoman, worshipped his young pupil Clotilde Bréal, and wrote a passionate Piano Quintet, of which his wife disapproved. There is, therefore, speculation about his character, his habitual modesty and rather dull life, spent either in an organ-loft, lacking any great prestige, or with his Conservatoire students. There is at least enough known about him to appreciate the ambiguity of his character, in view of the seeming sensuality of works such as Psyche or the Violin Son la. Critics diverge too in their views of the basis of Franck's inspiration, to some German, to others essentially French. In fact his work shows traces of both, with neither dominant. His tendency towards instrumental writing undoubtedly reflects German taste. A brilliant pianist, his models were Beethoven and Liszt and, from the 1870s, he felt the attraction of Wagner, as did virtually all Paris, despite the political situation.
Like his chamber, orchestral and piano music, Franck's organ music shows various German influences in twelve compositions written between about 1859 and 1890, grouped as Six Pièces (1862, published 1868), Trois Pièces (written for the inauguration of the Trocadéro organ in 1878) and Trois Chorals (completed in 1890). Even a summary analysis yields evidence of Bach's influence. Indeed, from the 1860s, following Boëly's lead, French composers such as Benoist, Chauvet, Niedermeyer and later Loiret, admitted their debt. Though Franck himself saw fugue more as a means of development, never an end in itself, fugal technique dominates many passages in the Prélude, fugue et variation, Pastorale, the epilogue of the Grande Pièce symphonique and later in the second Choral in F, a piece also suggesting Bach's treatment of the passacaglia. The influence of Beethoven is much more obvious. This can be traced through the system of variation constantly applied, particularly in the first Choral in E, in the skill of the development in the Allegro non troppo e maestoso of the Grande Piece symphonique and even in the same work's recapitulation of themes, suggesting a debt to the Ninth Symphony. The influence of contemporaries such as Liszt and Wagner is heard more in chromatic writing, the exploitation of thematic cells and thematic development by means of successive modifications. The Pastorale is more Latin than Germanic, while the three chorales avoid Lutheran severity. In the martial tone and stately pomp of the Final, however, in the glory of the Grande Pièce symphonique and in the very structure of the Pièce héroïque we clearly hear the triumphant style dear to the French organ school. Unlike German organ composers, who tend to leave registration options to the player, Franck gives very meticulous details of the timbres he wants, showing himself as concerned about the quality of sound produced by the organ as an orchestrator would be about the sonorities required from an orchestra.
Franck lived at a time of instability, between what is generally known as Romanticism and Symbolism or Impressionism, marked by significant aesthetic changes. The Romanticism evident in the first movement of his Symphony in D minor, is in contrast to the mood of the beginning of his Violin Sonata, more akin, perhaps, to Debussy. It seems safest, in the end, to classify him as one of the most individual representatives of Symbolism.
It is true that Franck sometimes adopts clear classical forms, with the tripartite structure of the Fantaisie in C, and ternary form in the Prélude, fugue et v riation, Pastorale, Final and Pièce héroïque, but he strives above all to make composition an evolving affair, capable of taking on different aspects. In the Pastorale, for example, the two motifs presented in the first part are fully justified only in the last section, where they are superimposed to form a single entity, while in the Fantaisie in A the two main themes introduced at the beginning undergo a similar treatment. In moving from the individual to the collective, these two pieces give evidence of a structure based on a process whose only purpose is the fusion of initially disparate and independent elements, a procedure that has its parallel in Prière or Cantabile, where different thematic cells form a base for the development, giving the whole thing a virtual organic unity. The most significant example is in the first Choral in E, where the motif given importance in the epilogue appears only as a secondary element in the exposition, a simple harmonization concluding with a distant vox humana in a fine hymn made up of six phases, with different sections feeding the two central variations. After two hundred bars, indeed, the apparently subsidiary element slowly takes precedence, being laboriously tested through a few very different keys and finally reborn at the end of a dramatic crescendo. A very similar process may be seen in the last part of the third Choral in A. Here the general structure is akin to that of a sonata, with the exposition of two themes, toccata and chorale, a central Adagio and a final section at the beginning of which the second motif seems to wander through a labyrinth of complex modulations, over pedals which serve to cloud the issue further. At the end of this disturbed and almost painful episode, reinforced by a graduated crescendo, the return of the principal key is felt as a deliverance, when with the power of the Grand chur the two themes are combined in a brilliant finale. Procedures of this kind may persuade us to place Franck with Liszt and Wagner among the major figures of his time, like his best followers such as Chausson, holding a position between Berlioz and Debussy.
Among other questions raised by the twelve pieces, those regarding the relationship of music with liturgy or with religious feeling also merit attention. It has been suggested that the absence of any Gregorian reference in these pieces written for a church instrument gives them a generally secular nature. In the first place, the Fantaisie in A, Cantabile and Pièce héroïque were written for the organ in the Trocadéro concert hall, and hence need not carry or imply any Christian message. Their historically paired themes of love and war need cause no surprise. With the title Fantaisie-Idylle in Franck's original manuscript, the first is highly suitable for the expression of various states of happiness or languor and Léon Vallas compared the second, a love duet, with Wagner's Tristan. The very title Pièce héroïque precludes further comment. It is part of an instrumental tradition going back to Beethoven, the domain of most of the romantics, including Berlioz. On the other hand, it will be recognised that, even with their obvious Lutheran connotations, the Trois Chorals use musical motifs which do refer to the sacred. These invented hymns, however, treated in French style, are on a much larger scale than would be required liturgically, when shorter improvisation would be usual. Despite the suggestion of spiritual content in the title and the religious appearance of the harmonization and the shape of the motifs these pieces accord well with symphonic language and the classical forms of the variation, the passacaglia and sonata-form, and must still have been intended for concert performance, as is the case with most of the organ compositions of Chauvet, Widor, Saint-Saëns or Dubois.
A last point concerns Franck's wishes regarding the registration and interpretation of his twelve pieces, which he himself played, we are assured, with remarkable freedom. Unlike Widor, whose indications are fairly general in the Maho edition of the first four symphonies, or even Saint-Saëns, who restricts his requirements to nuances, Franck sets things down with scrupulous precision, not only giving details of the colouring demanded, but carefully noting each operation to be carried out with the combination pedals (or manual couplers, manual/pedal couplers, Récit, swell, and so on). The authenticity of the performance clearly depends upon strict respect for these directions. On the other hand we must not forget that the composer created his work only for his Sainte Clotilde organ, a very unusual instrument compared with Cavaillé-Coll's other products, especially anything built after 1876. The organ had no Récit/pedal coupler, no Récit/Grand orgue coupler, a particularly fine basson-hautbois suitable for mixing with the fonds or coupling with the trompette, a fairly powerful cromorne, a classical seven-rank plein-jeu on the Grand argue, but a more modern disposition on the Positif and a very efficient Swell, allowing for registrations impracticable elsewhere, as in the Adagio of the Grande Pièce symphonique, where the cromorne is supported by virtually all the ranks of the Récit, including the reed pipes. The nature of the organ at Sainte Clotilde needs to be taken into consideration, when, as happens on other instruments, liberties must be taken with the indications given by the composer, who himself opted for various solutions when playing at the Trocadéro or at Saint Eustache.
Among other similar questions, the possibility of using plein-jeu in the Grand chur gives rise nowadays to much commentary and discussion, of which we ought to take stock. Indeed, Franck makes no mention of mutation or mixture in the published version of his twelve pieces, being content with the general indication 'fonds et a ches' when he is looking for brilliant sonority. It must be decided whether to take this to mean jeux de combinaison' (i.e. perhaps with doubling, qui te and plein-jeu) or merely anches with the fonds. This ambiguity is accompanied by a further question, as to whether, in the Grand chur, excluding mixtures is a general rule or a matter of Franck's own taste. There is evidence allowing us to be certain at least that the combination fonds, pleins-jeux and anches was in general use at the time of the twelve pieces, it being noted in the first place that, from 1857 to about 1876, Cavaillé-Coll provided the vast majority of his instruments with the means of blending with the reeds (cf. the 'principalising' mutations experimented with at Notre Dame de Paris). It seems apt to point out, however, that, during Franck's lifetime, mixtures and reed combinations appear in many editions, and in several forms. In his Sortie pour les Fêtes de la Sainte Vierge (1874), for example, Guilmant demands a 'grand chur without plein-jeu', proof that the blend of fonds, mixtures and reeds is known or even standard. Charles Collin uses the expression Organo pleno in the final section of his Offertoire pour la Pentecôte of 1866, and seems, in the same year, to have been the first to use the term 'anches préparées'(prepared reeds), while Lefébure-Wély often ends his great pieces by asking for 'all possible power'. The indication 'tutti' is then adopted by Guilmant, and Clément Loret often indicates 'all the stops' of a manual or of the whole instrument. It is certainly possible, though difficult to prove, that, preferring a romantic and so naturally darker sonority, Franck would have been averse to the effect of mutations and mixtures, but it is nonetheless true that their use in the Final, the Grande Pièce symphonique or the Trois Chorals, would be perfectly justifiable, not only in the case of an instrument whose reeds are too bland to sound with the required brilliance, but from a purely historical point of view.
These more or less trivial details must not distract us from the essential. Following a slow development, Franck forged for himself a very original language whose richness we glimpse through some youthful pieces such as the Trios with piano and the oratorio Ruth. This quite personal idiom, founded upon a system wherein chromatic elements, harmony and modulation serve a progressive plan with cellular development, plays its part in the production of masterpieces as diverse as the Six Pièces, Opus 16-21, for organ, Prélude, choral et fugue for piano and the chamber music. In this sense, the symphonic organ's triumphant later history owes much to the services of an artist for whom the fullness and nobility of melody, the refinement of harmony, the subtlety of tonal plan and the organization of discourse rose well above the meagre fare of the minor masters, the objects of such contemporary adulation.
The Present Performance
If I deemed it best to play these pieces on the organ of Saint Antoine des Quinze-Vingts, that was, first of all, because it is my own instrument, and I am always amazed by the suppleness and variety of its mechanical and musical capabilities. A concert organ, built for a large salon, it can be considered the Trocadéro organ's little brother. An organ with a symphonic vocation in the primary meaning of the term, designed to replace Wagner's orchestra, with the variety of its sound palette and the originality of its very design, it can give full justice to the utterly new poetic conception of this music.
Franck frequently asks for a mixture of, fondy 8' with the hautbois of the Récit manual. The latter, very discreet at Sainte Clotilde, allowed for the creation of nuances, whether radical or subtle, without appreciably changing the overall sonority (one of the difficulties when adapting this work to a standard organ). The hautbois of the Récit of the Saint Antoine organ is very sensitive and performs this task perfectly, but I occasionally use the cor anglais of the Positif, which also is expressive. By working with these two options within one piece, as in the first Choral and the third, or having them sing in concert to make the parts more distinct in the charming Pastorale, very subtle effects are achieved. The comfort provided by the availability of two swell-boxes allows one to emphasize dynamic contrasts and to mix their sonorities in the correct proportions, as an orchestral conductor might demand of his players (special blends required in the Grande Piece symphonique, for example). Finally, the brilliant tone, brassy and very bright, of the Grand chur allows one to avoid using the fournitures except at the culminating points of works high in contrast, without sacrificing the intelligibility of the score in any way.
Albert de l'Espée was born in Metz in 1852, a descendant of the de Wendel family, one of the most powerful in Lorraine, controlling the greatest iron and steel empire of the mid-nineteenth century. He learned the piano, harmonium and organ in Metz and with the Paris World Exhibition of 1867 discovered more about the wider world, without leaving the banks of the Seine. In Paris he visited his cousins regularly in the Rue Las Cases, near the Church of Sainte Clotilde, where he may well have heard César Franck improvising on the instrument installed there by the great Cavaillé-Coll. It seems that his ambition to own such an organ for himself dates from this time. From 1870 he spent several periods in Paris, exploring the organ lofts, visiting the Conservatoire where Cesar Franck taught and Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in the Avenue du Maine. His desire was to possess a cathedral organ and from 1875 he continuously compared the qualities of various instruments. Very rich, weak in health, protecting himself from any pollution and always searching for the ideal climate, clever and a great builder, Albert de l'Espée came to own, among the estates he inherited, his acquisitions and the places he had built, some ten properties throughout France, seven of them with organs.
In 1880 Albert de l'Espée installed a Cavaillé-Coll instrument with ten stops, identical to that of Eugene Gigout, in the family chateau at Antibes. For the World Exhibition of 1878 Cavaillé-Coll installed a powerful instrument in the great hall of the Trocadéro. Essentially a concert instrument, this was exactly what he hoped one day to have for himself. The acoustic of the hall was appalling. He would have his own room with a faultless acoustic. In 1890 Cavaillé-Coll was given a commission for an instrument around which the Baron would have a house built. For this he settled on Biarritz, on the place called Ilbarritz. The chateau was completed in 1897 and the great organ installed, an instrument with 72 stops, four manuals, three swell boxes, 16', 8' and 4' chamades, and three 32' pedal stops. Soon the darkness of the night was disturbed by the sounds of Parsifal and Tannhäuser. After a disappointment in love, in 1898 the Baron decided to sell the chateau, but found no buyer. He played the instrument for the last time in 1902 and the following year Charles Mutin, Cavaillé-Coll's successor, bought it back and installed it in the company workshops in the Avenue du Maine. It stayed there until 1913, when a place was found for it at the Sacrd-Cur in Montmartre, with a new organ case but keeping the magnificent console, an instrument that was the third of its kind, together with those of Saint Sulpice and Notre Dame. In 1905 Albert de L'Espée decided not to sell Ilbarritz and ordered a new organ from Charles Mutin, an eccentric plan, with 62 stops and three manuals. Part of this instrument was later re-used in the organ at Uzurbil, near Bilbao.
During this period Albert de L'Espée had bought in 1892 an enormous private mansion, No.50, Avenue du Bois de Boulogne (the modem Avenue Focht. Cavaillé-Coll was again asked to build an organ of three manuals and 42 stops that was soon to bring objections from the whole district. Tired of the late-night noise that the Baron made, his neighbours joined together to make a complaint. He decided to sell the organ and it was bought in 1907 by Count Berthier de Sauvigny, who had in his own house in the Rue Legendre a 28-stop organ by Merklin. The Count presented the instrument he had bought to the new Church of Saint Antoine des Quinze-Vingts and it was installed there by Merklin in 1909 with a new organ case, keeping the original console. Count Berthier was the first to be appointed organist and was followed by successors that included Jean Langlais, Gaston Litaize and others. Since its installation the organ has been restored three times, in 1956 by Pierre Chéron, in 1982 by Jacques Barbdris, and in 1993 by Yves Fossaert, who has since maintained the instrument.
A remarkable man for building, Albert de l'Espée had started on a new site in 1893 at Belle-Ile, the chateau of Taillefer. Cavaillé-Coll installed there an organ with three manuals and 46 stops, similar to that in the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne. The instrument and the chateau were completely destroyed by fire when the Germans left Paris in 1945.
Travelling thousands of miles by railway, the Baron was elusive. About 1897 he succeeded in having another mansion built, on the banks of Lake Montrion. Here he had Merklin install an orchestrion, a curious mixture of mechanical piano and barrel organ with music rolls.
Passing over the order for the last of the Alexandre harmoniums for his property at Saint Vallier de Thiey, near Cannes, we find the final instrument built by Mutin for the Villa Henriette, between Monaco and Menton. Having learned from his experiences in Paris and the legal action with which he had been threatened, the Baron modified his ambitions, commissioning an instrument of a mere score of stops. When the villa was sold, in about 1913, the greater part of this instrument was re-used for the organ in Monaco Cathedral.
English versions by Keith Anderson and Wil Gowans
One of Gaston Litaize's last pupils, Eric Lebrun went to the Paris Conservatoire where he studied the organ with Michel Chapuis, along with harmony, counterpoint, fugue, orchestration, and the analysis and history o music. He left with five first prizes. Winner of the 1990 Chartres International Organ Competition, he was granted tenure of the great organ of the Eglise Saint-Antoine des Quinze-Vingts in Paris. Professor of organ at the Conservatoire de Saint Maur des Fossés, he is also responsible for the advanced organ course at the Saint Maur Conservatoire. Eric Lebrun ha made many recordings including those with Marie-Ange Leurent on Minorca in the Balearics and on the Callinet organ at Issenheim in Alsace. For Naxos, Eric Lebrun has recorded Jehan Alain's organ works, and with the Michel Piquemal Vocal Ensemble and the Vittoria d'Ile de Franc Regional Choir directed by Piquemal, several discs devoted to Poulenc Ropartz and Honegger, as well as the complete vocal and organ works of Maurice Duruflé, a recording which in 1995 won prestigious classical music awards.
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FRANCK: Great Organ Works, Vol. 2