Some Thoughts on Playing Franck’s Chorale #3 in a

Part I Setting the premise

I saved learning the Chorale #3 in a by César Franck until later in life for very personal reasons, mostly regarding my reverence of mon Maitre as a composer and an organist.  The Third Chorale is Franck’s last major work.  Some consider it (as do I) his very last work — deathbed work, so to speak.  And it’s very evident to me that he was very much aware that this was so.  Knowing this, I made a conscious decision to hold off learning this psychologically and spiritually overwhelming work until I was mature and life-experienced enough to to it justice.

Technically the a minor is the least demanding of the three chorales.  Any second or third year organ student with a solid piano background can master this piece in a matter of weeks.  However, fathoming its profoundly emotional and spiritually fervent content, well, that’s another matter altogether; and, it is this aspect of the piece which makes it the supreme challenge of any serious organist.

We have this image, as perpetrated by his students, Vincent d’Indy in particular, of César Franck as this placid, spiritually serene, retiring man; a patient, equanimous teacher, mentor and friend.  However, Franck was an highly conflicted man.  A failed concert pianist (his father, like the fathers of so many prodigies, tried desperately to make young César the equivalent of another Mozart or Mendelssohn), his unassuming disposition prevented him from taking to the glamour of the concert stage. He married into a family which expected him to be another Delibes, Messager or Adam, writing for the theatre being the fashion in those days rather than the concert stage or the church.  Franck was never comfortable with the concert stage.  He played recitals primarily as a means of promoting his own compositions; otherwise he was more than content to simply guide his students, compose, and improvise at the organ console.  He was a man of great faith, and to his students and close friends he was both disarmingly modest, though not without wit, rather ingenuous; yet, his music, I believe, belies much of this image.  The harmonic language in Franck’s later works, from the 1878 Piano Quintet in f and on, is not only complex because it’s chromatic, rather — unlike Liszt and Wagner whose chromaticism were essentially “colouristic,” for its own sake — Franck’s chromaticism was primarily functional: facilitating modulation, his expanded use of cyclic development, and his constant use of counterpoint tell me that this was no guileless dullard, but a well disciplined, musically sophisticated, psychologically complex man.

The Chorale in a embodies the culmination of Franck’s musical/spiritual thinking and life experience.  It is his “Schwanengesang,” so to speak, and it needs to be played with that in mind; hence, the need for a certain amount of life experience — especially disheartening, even painful, life experience.

Music stirs the emotions.  That much is true: however, as to which specific emotions, that is strictly a personal matter for each individual.  Therefore, allow me to make this caveat:  The emotions to which I allude are strictly my own impressions; i.e., what this piece says to me and how I envision its meaning.  Although I will try to limit highly subjective feelings, it is not entirely possible in light of the deeply passionate nature of the music.  To me the Chorale in a gives us an insight into Franck’s struggle with his faith as he approaches death.  Now, that may seem to be a bit extreme; but, it is not all that uncommon for people of strong and heartfelt faith to raise questions about what they’ve believed over the years.  Soul searching is a troubling process and often creates more questions than answers.  The a minor Chorale is full of questions and agonising deliberations; much of it — as we shall see even from the very opening — tortuous.

We’ll discuss the particulars in Part II.

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