César Franck’s Prélude, Choral and Fugue (written in 1884) was the result of the composer turning again to writing for the solo piano after almost 40 years, and it was to be the most deeply felt and serious work for the instrument to come out of France in the nineteenth century.
Franck’s original plan, according to his pupil Vincent d’Indy, was to write a plain Prelude and Fugue, the venerable form made immortal by Bach and neglected since Mendelssohn and a serious alternative to the plethora of popular virtuoso pieces.
The decision to include a central section, separate from yet linking the Prelude and the Fugue, came later. In any event, the central section became the emotional core of the work. As for the Fugue, it was as if the rules of counterpoint finally gave the speaker a way to speak of the unspeakable, after the hesitant sobs of the Prelude and the syncopated lament of the Chorale.
The Prelude, in B minor, is written in a harmonic language that is unique to Franck: it is highly chromatic and colourful, and the melody falls on the second note of each set of eight demisemiquavers, with the “silence” in the first demisemiquaver, i.e. a syncopation, featuring throughout the Prelude. The music has moved from B minor to the warmth of the distant key of E flat major in the Chorale, and from the Prélude’s falling cascades of demisemiquavers to block chords moving on each crotchet below the melody. An introductory section soon moves to C minor for the actual, hymn-like chorale, and it is here that Franck the organist can be seen.
More Franck the organist (he was organist at the Parisin church of Sainte Clothilde for almost 15 years, which is also where Franz Liszt heard him play in 1866 and where he organised a concert to promote Franck’s organ works thereafter) and extraordinary colours and modulations in the Fugue leads to a climactic collision where Franck pulls off the extraordinary feat of bring together the fugal subject, the chorale melody and the Prélude figuration – all at the same time. Tonality moves to the major, and a dominant pedal point, so beloved of organists, can be heard; then at last, we are rewarded by the longed-for relief of the tonic chord of B Major and the chorale melody in the major key. Peals of bells and jubilation bring the journey to an end.
This piece is a wonderful product of Franck the composer for the keyboard who brings to that task his inspirations as well as formidable skills at both the piano and the organ and his vacillations between religiosity and virtuosity. Liszt had commented on Franck that:
This man is either the devil himself or an incarnation of J.S.Bach”.
We think of this Frankian triptych, as for the Prélude, Fugue & Variation, as either a dance in the heavens or a dance to the heavens (see also “Style and substance … in Franck’s heavenly music”)