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

 Exposition the 2nd Half

One of the lovely things that have always drawn me to the music of César Franck is, that even with his rich and sumptuously chromatic harmonic language, he was essentially a classicist. throughout his life as a composer his admiration of Mozart, Beethoven and especially Schubert; and the structure to the Choral #3 is a fine example of that filial devotion. Notwithstanding the fantasia-like, or improvisatory sounding nature of the the first forty-three measures, Franck has actually written what is basically the first half of the exposition of a sonata-allegro form exposition, even to the point ending this portion in the dominant.

However, here is where Franck makes a departure. This time the repeat of the opening, although still agitated, is now more subdued, quieter (p); instead of angry or stormy, the feeling is more nervous and uneasy — skittish. Therefore, the tempo can be a little quicker; more of a scherzo quality to it sans ritardando:

Choral_No.3_in_A_Minor 2Choral_No.3_in_A_Minor 4

Choral_No.3_in_A_Minor 5

I like to use just flutes 8-4-2, box closed except for a for a VERY small touch of the swell pedal on the last measure. We also have the “Largamente” arpeggios; but, again it’s much different. Here we sense that Franck is leading up to a repeat of the chaos we heard earlier. No, he’s leading to a very impassioned restatement of the “chorale” :

Choral_No.3_in_A_Minor 5

Choral_No.3_in_A_Minor 5

NOW you can play it a little faster. “Never repeat something the same way.” Here, along with the fuller registration, an increase in tempo, however slight, increases the sense or urgency, a sentiment which permeates this piece. Of course, no one his or her right mind would look at that forte marking and have anything more than 8 and 4 foot foundations with only a light reed or two. And the box must NOT be fully open. That should be saved for m. 58 when the theme soars to that high A. Even though it’s a literal restatement of mm. 30-34 the intensity is greater by virtue of the fact we are now a fifth higher, and psychologically whenever you raise the pitch the keenness of emotion is increased. But then, take a look: within the space of three beats you have to diminuendo from this (piu) forte to pianissimo! If the organist is lucky enough a decent swell box should be able to close up tight enough to produce the proper dynamic contrast; otherwise, the organist should be able to remove a stop or two at m. 60 by grabbing that e minor chord with one hand; and again at m. 61 whilst closing the box. In either case always save that final ½ inch for the last half of the chord so as to at least give the illusion of a true pianissimo. Then, suddenly, we’re back to the forte we had five measures ago, giving us the first complete statement of the chorale with the introduction new (but extremely important later) material:

Choral_No.3_in_A_Minor 2Choral_No.3_in_A_Minor 5

After the first three notes the decrescendo begins and Franck brings us down even further than before — meaning removing stops as well as closing the swell box — until he half-cadences at mm. 65 & 66:

Choral_No.3_in_A_Minor 2Choral_No.3_in_A_Minor 5Choral_No.3_in_A_Minor 6

There’s little in music that has the emotional, even jarring, effect as that of a cross relation; and the next 6 measures exemplifies that:

Choral_No.3_in_A_Minor 2Choral_No.3_in_A_Minor 6

Again, a slight change of colour to bring the dynamic up from pp to p as we approach the climax to the chorale and the conclusion to the exposition. At this point the level of emotional intensity increases exponentially with a molto cresc. which had been prepared by the beginning of the phrase on the second half of measure 70. Whatever had been simmering inside Franck’s feverish mind has started to come to a head. In order to achieve the full impact of this climax, stops have to be added at this point, but with the box closed. At measure 72 the molto cresc. begins on the two eighth notes in the left hand on the second beat by just slightly opening the swell box and the addition of a light reed or a diapason (if the box didn’t close tight enough before). In any event save the full opening of the box for the forte and the high F on measure 74:

Choral_No.3_in_A_Minor 2Choral_No.3_in_A_Minor 6Choral_No.3_in_A_Minor 6

Again, think of the orchestra. Think of how a conductor gets that group of musicians to push the dynamics and pull the tempo, or pianist, or singer, or violinist. Don’t think like an organist!  This not organ music, it’s orchestra music. Listen to how Pierre Monteux or Charles Munch, or Jean Fournet conduct the “Symphony in d;” or how Vlad Perlmutter, or Aldo Ciccolini, or Stephen Hough play the “Prelude, Chorale and Fugue;” or Oistrakh & Richter or Francescatti & Casadesus play the violin sonata. Listen to tempo and dynamic fluctuations — the rubati — that are not called out in the score, but are obvious to the passionate and perceptive performer who understands the nature of the music. Then go back and play this section and do what you have to do, no matter how long it takes, to achieve and communicate that passion.

From measure 74 to measure 79, for me, is a journey from desperate crying out to almost complete resignation in 5½ measures:

Choral_No.3_in_A_Minor 2Choral_No.3_in_A_Minor 6

Choral_No.3_in_A_Minor 6

Thus we come to the introspective conclusion to an emotionally and, dare I say, spiritually fraught exposition.

Our journey has only begun, but, I hope you can see that this piece is not for the immature or the beginner, notwithstanding its technical accessibility. It goes so far beyond the ability to get the notes right, or even what organists consider expressive. Because, let’s face it, the one thing organists don’t learn is expressivity (see my series “What Wrong With the Organ Anyway?).

We’re now getting to the good part. Stay tuned.


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