The noble French organ tradition offers no finer exemplar than César Franck (1822–90), who took up his duties as organist of the basilica of Paris’s Sainte-Clotilde in 1858 and spent the next thirty-two years conjuring magic on Aristide Cavaillé-Coll’s superlative instrument. In particular it was his after-service improvisations that made his skill known to the larger public. A set of six pieces for organ produced between 1856 and 1864 cemented his reputation as an unparalleled master of French organ composition.
With the second piece of this set, Grande Pièce symphonique, Opus 17, Franck more or less invented the genre of the organ symphony, a multi-movement work for solo organ that imitates orchestral effects and texture, soon to flourish under composers such as Widor and Vierne. Grande Pièce, together with its siblings, is nowadays considered to mark the onset of Franck’s second period. With this work Franck introduces techniques that were to become associated with him, particularly cyclic form in which a recurring theme threads through the entire piece and acts as a unifying element. Cyclic themes have their counterparts in Wagnerian leitmotifs, obviously, but Berlioz’s idée fixe is their likely direct ancestor.
Grande Pièce symphonique is ostensibly in a single movement, but it divides comfortably into three large sections, each comprising the equivalent of a movement. The first-place Andantino serioso introduces the bulk of the thematic material, in particular the cyclic theme— which bears more than a fleeting resemblance to the cyclic theme of Franck’s acclaimed Symphony in D minor. The following Andante is itself in three parts, with two lyrical passages flanking a central scherzo. The finale begins by recapping the previous material, then goes on to a gigantic fugue with an exuberant coda to close.—Scott Foglesong
Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.
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