Grand Pièce Symphonique, op. 17 by César Franck
- Andantino Serioso
- All non troppo e maestoso
- Beaucoup plus largement
Brent Johnson, Organist, Third Baptist Church
On November 8, 1890, 123 years ago today, César Franck succumbed to an unknown illness. His health had been deteriorating rapidly as he suffered from pneumonia, injuries sustained in an accident a few months earlier, and from a constant and overbearing workload. Some of Franck’s greatest compositions date from this period near the end of his life. He died as a controversial figure in French musical circles, respected by his students, but not always lauded by music critics and audiences. Although he became a French citizen, his Belgian origins made him an outsider among the elite of Parisian music. However, he managed to rise the top of his profession in France as an organist, composer, and teacher. Among the attendees of his funeral were the notable composers Camille Saint-Saëns, Eugène Gigout, Gabriel Fauré, Felix Alexandre Guilmant, and Charles-Marie Widor.
Grand Pièce Symphonique dates from early in Franck’s career. Written in 1860, it was the second in a series of six works composed for the new organ of the church of St. Clotilde in Paris where Franck had been appointed titular organist just 11 months before the instrument was completed. The work calls for stops that did not exist in the relatively small organ of St. Clotilde, hinting that Franck intended for this work to be published and performed elsewhere as well. While the Grand Pièce is a monumental work in scale, it is not considered his best composition. It is, however, full of landmarks worthy of note. While the piece is composed as one complete work, it can be divided into sections which form together the semblance of 4 single movements, and for the sake of these notes, will be considered as such. Viewed in this manner, this work assumes the status of the first great French organ symphony, and predecessor to the great organ symphonies of Charles-Marie Widor, Louis Vierne, and other composers to come.
While the work might not have been composed only for the organ of St. Clotilde, it does require some of the registrational aids that were becoming available in organs of Franck’s time, thanks specifically to the work of organbuilder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. The ventil stop action used by Cavaillé-Coll is called upon multiple times. Ventils were mechanisms that allowed the organist to turn groups of stops on or off with the flip of a foot. While they were limited by the standards of today’s combination actions, they granted additional control to organists that were used to having very little. For example, this work includes the first instance in the organ literature of such an aid being required for a lone organist to create the desired effect. While a large chord is held, the Great reed stops are added via the ventils, creating the effect of trumpets making an entrance over the rest of an orchestra. Without these ventils, either an assistant would have to pull the stops, or an additional manual (and probably an additional hand or two) would be needed.
The choice of stops to use when performing Franck’s organ works is not usually up for much discussion. Like most French composers of the time, the composer was careful to specify exactly what stops he required in his works (which is why we know this piece could not be properly realized on the St. Clotilde organ). These registrations combined with the extant organs from the period allow us to hear the music exactly as it was originally performed. However, while the organ of Third Baptist is a beautiful instrument, it is not a Cavaillé-Coll, and strict adherence to Franck’s registration scheme does not create the same results here as in Paris. Instead, the composer’s ideas and the sounds of the intended organ have been taken into consideration when searching for combinations that are effective on this organ and in this space. Liberties have been taken to find tonal solutions outside the usual strict realm of French romantic registration to bring the work to life today and to allow the organ of Third Baptist to be utilized to its best effect.
The Grand Pièce Symphonique begins with a gentle opening theme. Franck spends a little time developing this first theme from mezzo-piano to forte before introducing the main theme of the work. This descending three-note theme appears in the pedal and then the manuals. The simple theme is displayed in numerous ways, set against a martial backdrop, and then played in both the pedal and the manuals against a triplet accompaniment. The first “movement” of the piece finally closes with a reprise of the opening.
The second section inverts the three-note theme into a melody that is both simple and haunting, and is filled with lush harmonies typical of Franck. In this section liberties again have been taken with Franck’s intended registration. The movement is reconsidered as an orchestral work and stops have been chosen for this effect. This allows a bit more dynamic depth and allows for sounds endemic to Third Baptist to fill the music created by Franck. A scherzo with arpeggiated figures more like Bach, but still with the harmonic language of Franck splits the movement before the opening melody returns and brings the section to a quiet close.
Much has been written about the third movement, due primarily to its similarity to the third movement of the 9th symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven. In that work, Beethoven takes time to revisit all of the themes explored in the symphony, as if he’s searching for just the right way to end the work. The same happens here, as we hear bits of the entire work replayed until Franck finds what he’s looking for. Finally he returns to the main theme, the three-note theme found in the first movement. This time, however, we hear the theme on the full organ in the bright key of F-sharp major, instead of minor, with a running pedal accompaniment, to boot. A fugue on a simple 4-note theme follows, and then that same theme is heard against a rhythmic backdrop and taken through a cycle of several keys before finally, in one last short section we hear the fugue theme joyously presented on the full resources of the organ.