The anniversaries of the birth or death of a great artistic personality always offer the opportunity to reappraise and re-evaluate his or her contributions to the history of their discipline. This is done in the light of new scholarly research, of novel considerations on their role within their larger context, but also of how their works speak to today’s listeners, readers, or observers. The true mark of a genius’ value is when their opus loses nothing, and possibly gains, with time. As concerns composers of music, a substantial contribution to this reappraisal is represented by new recordings and performances, which constitute the ultimate evidence as to the artistic perspective from which today’s world regards an artist of the past.
It is to be wished that the year 2022 will represent such an opportunity for the oeuvre and personality of César Franck, who was born at the end of 1822, two centuries ago. Even though he is unanimously acknowledged as one of the great musical geniuses of the nineteenth century, his oeuvre is too rarely performed in public concerts, and the average audience knows well only a handful of his best works. Initiatives such as this Da Vinci Classics project, which includes (over the course of three albums) the complete major organ works by César Franck will doubtlessly contribute to this long overdue appreciation.
Franck came from a famous family of Liege. His father encouraged the musical activities and talents of both César and of his brother. However, at times this laudable attitude was accompanied by a less commendable eagerness to present his sons’ gifts and accomplishments in the fashion of child prodigies. Fortunately, when Franck was in his teens, the family moved to Paris, where César studied under the guidance of several great teachers. Fundamental, among them, was the mentoring he received from Anton Reicha, who initiated the youth to the secrets of contrapuntal writing. César was admitted to the Conservatoire, where he studied piano with P.-J. Zimmermann, composition with E.-A. Loborne, and organ with F. Benoist. As a student, Franck obtained many important successes. At the same time, his frequently unconventional and provocative treatment of the required tasks caused increasing tensions between his family and the Conservatoire. Having left the institution, and after a further period as a touring concert pianist, Franck finally settled in Paris where he began to focus on composition in the little free time which was left after his duties as a teacher and a church organist.
Franck would remain attached to the organ as a source of compositional inspiration throughout his life. His main works for the organ correspond to the principal stages of his compositional activity: the earliest works reveal above all the influence of Beethoven. Later, Franck began to develop a style of his own, characterized by a refined and very original treatment of melody, and by the efforts to build cyclic forms – developing an insight by Beethoven himself but already pointing towards the poetics of Richard Wagner. The last period of Franck’s life would be marked by novel explorations, where the language already anticipates many tendencies of the twentieth century, and clearly paves the way for the explorations of modality and of timbre which will characterize the French compositional school between fin de siècle and the new century.
During his lifetime, Franck was certainly appreciated, as a performer, as a teacher, and as a composer; however, there always remained some perplexity about some aspects of his writing, and he never enjoyed the full appreciation he deserved.
As concerns his religious output, this in turn elicited several questions. The most often repeated (and possibly least interesting) question regards the “genuineness” and “authenticity” of his spiritual inspiration. That Franck was personally and intensely interested in spiritual matters seems clear; at the same time, his unconventional attitude is also mirrored by the multiplicity of his interests, and by the somewhat hybrid style of his organ works. These clearly mirror “the sacred”, in the broadest meaning of the term, while also indulging in timbral exploration and harmonic turns which do not properly belong in the canonical tradition of church music.
This first volume of Rodolfo Bellatti’s project includes both the earliest and the latest organ works from Franck’s pen. This is a most appropriate choice, since this album opens a multi-volume project by also embodying its contents in a nutshell, as it were.
Franck’s Pièce en mi bemol dates from 1846. It reveals both the young musician’s talent, and his need still to develop his own personal style. At that time, he was the organist at the church of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette in Paris, and would soon move to the church of Saint-Jean-Saint-François. Here, different from what would happen with his later pieces, Franck was not writing with a specific organ in mind. However, the very language of organ writing and registration was still being crafted; thus, a puzzling aspect of this piece is that it includes pedal notes which are not found in a normal organ pedalboard. In Bellatti’s opinion, this unusual choice might mirror Franck’s desire to indicate the sounding pitch he wished to produce, rather than the notes to be actually played on the pedalboard in order to obtain it through registration.
The Fantasy op. 16, FWV 28, dates from approximately fifteen years later, and opens one of the three major cycles of Franck’s organ music, that of the Six Pièces d’Orgue. The composer dedicated it to his friend, Monsieur A. Chauvet. It is evidently a piece conceived for the concert scene and for concert performance, rather than a liturgical work created to accompany worship. Its tripartite form is a clear allusion to the classicism which always formed one of the two poles between which Franck’s musical life wavered – the limpid rationality of the earlier masters, starting with Bach, and the seductive temptation of novel styles. This double polarity is evidently manifested in this Fantaisie, where the presence of canonic passages is intertwined with the quintessentially Franckian ideal of the “extensible phrasing”, as Charles Tournemire would later call it. The piece’s three sections include a touching and intense Poco lento (tripartite in turn), the reprise of whose principal motif takes place at the pedal. After a transition marked by floating and suspended harmonies, Franck inserts an Allegretto cantabile, again tripartite. Its elaborate ornamentation and beautiful singing tunes build up a majestic crescendo. The Fantasy closes on an Adagio, more restrained from the harmonic viewpoint and re-establishing the initial contemplative mood. In 1864, Franck performed this Fantaisies, with its five brethren, at the magnificent organ of Sainte-Clotilde.
The Trois Chorals pour Grand Orgue date from the last year of the composer’s life, when his health was already deeply undermined due to the consequences of a road accident. In spite of the condition in which he was left by this misfortune, the composer went on tirelessly with his work. At the beginning of September 1890, he noted: “I have composed a large piece for organ to which I am giving the title Chorale. It is indeed a chorale, but with a lot of freedom nonetheless. I hope that I shall also be able to write the two other Chorales”. He did so: the first Chorale had been completed on August 7th, the second on September 14th and the third by the end of the month. He tried some fragments of these pieces for his friends and students, and gave a complete performance of the cycle on his own piano, at the beginning of October. The small but selected audience included Charles Tournemire and Louis Vierne; the pedal part was played on the piano keyboard by Guillaume Lekeu. Unfortunately, the composer was never able to hear these pieces played on the organ, or to premiere them, or to oversee their publication, which took place posthumously. Vincent d’Indy bears witness that “very shortly before his death, [Franck] wanted to drag himself once more to his organ at Sainte-Clotilde, so as to work out, and write down, the registration for his three marvellous Chorales”.
Yet, what the composer could not accomplish has in some way been transmitted by the tradition of his students and pupils. And here a much-disputed matter arises, i.e. that of the tempi at which Franck’s organ works are to be played. No metronome indications appear on his published scores, but there is a certain homogeneity in the tradition dating back to his former students, particularly those at the Institution Nationale des Jeunes Aveugles. In recent times, the musicological world was shaken by the discovery of an annotated score where Franck had written the metronome marks for some of his works. These tempi were remarkably quicker than those at which these pieces were usually played; new recordings were realized following these indications.
Even more recently, however, there has been a debate among historians of music performance practice as concerns the interpretation of nineteenth-century metronome markings, and it has been argued that they might have to be interpreted twice as slow as they are commonly understood! And, if this interpretation is correct, the result would be in line with the received tradition. Bellatti has chosen this way for his recording, finding that it mirrors better the solemnity and interiority of these beautiful works.
His recording was realized on the magnificent organ of the Cathedral Church in Catania, Sicily. It is an instrument “in the French style”, and it sounds similarly to French organs of the 1830s. It is the kind of sound Franck might have had in mind when he wrote his Pièce en mi bemol: an instrument still bound to the earlier tradition. Later, as is well known, Franck’s name would become indissolubly tied to that of Cavaillé-Coll, whose instruments he played and cherished, and whose sounds he explored in the fashion of a symphonic orchestra. Even though the Catania organ’s sound would therefore be slightly out of place with pieces specifically conceived for the Cavaillé-Coll organs, the lack of an original registration by Franck for the Three Chorales and the fact that he never played them on the organ seems to allow for a greater interpretive freedom in their performance.
And, arguably, this interpretive freedom is one of the aspects which can throw new light onto Franck’s beautiful organ works, opening the way for the much-awaited “Franck-Renaissance”.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2022
Rodolfo Bellatti: He is currently organist of the Basilica N.S. della Rosa in Santa Margherita Ligure (Genoa - Italy). He studied organ and harpsichord with Flavio Dellepiane and Barbara Petrucci at the Genoa Conservatoire. He went on to obtain his solo diploma in the master class of Guy Bovet at the Bâle Hochschule für Musik, and his Master in Organ Music with Roberto Antonello at the Vicenza Conservatoire. In national and international competitions he won eight prizes to date.In addition to his concert-giving activities, he is also a researcher in the areas of organ building and musicology. He made a number of recordings for radio and produced several CDs devoted to historical instruments.
César Franck: (b Liège, 10 Dec 1822; d Paris, 8 Nov 1890). French composer, teacher and organist of Belgian birth. He was one of the leading figures of French musical life during the second half of the 19th century.