César Franck - Prélude, Fugue et Variation, Op. 18 (1860-1862)
Cavaillé-Coll was one of the most distinguished and respected French organ builders of the nineteenth century. By bringing a whole host of technical innovations into organ building, he had developed a new aesthetic, and ultimately built nearly 500 pipe organs. The three-manual symphonic Great Organ of Basilique Ste-Clotilde in Paris, inaugurated by Church Organist Franck in 1859, is one of Cavaillé-Coll’s masterpieces. As the inaugurator, Franck showed huge interest in exploring the innovations of the instrument. The new expressive division, mechanical assists, new types of timbre, and the expanded pedal division had allowed Franck to bring more artistry to his regular organ improvisations after church services. Some of the improvised materials and Franck’s strong attachment to this new organ had eventually become the sources of inspiration for his Six Pièces pour Grand Orgue.
Published in 1868, the Six Pièces pour Grand Orgue contains six very different and original compositions. French organ pieces up to that point usually lasted no more than four minutes. However, even the shortest work in this collection lasts over nine minutes, and the longest one has a duration of almost 30 minutes. Besides, these pieces exploit the power and colours of this new Cavaillé-Coll organ to the fullest, contributing to the establishment of the distinctive French School of symphonic organ music.
The high originality of these six compositions does not prevent Franck from writing in old styles. Prélude, Fugue et Variation, Op. 18, is dedicated to Saint-Saëns; the dedication does not imply any portrait, but the balance and clarity of Op. 18 indeed suggest Saint-Saëns’s Classical orientation. In addition, the substantial fugue of this piece is clearly influenced by Franck’s thorough study of Bach’s music. It is absolutely amazing to see how Op. 18 displays the aesthetic of the Romantic organ, while adapts the classical forms to suit the instrument, the canonic, as well as the fugal language of the music.
The haunting oboe melody of the pastoral Prélude is a typical Franckian theme - mostly stepwise and with an emphasis on specific notes of the scale. A brief bridge passage introduces the next movement, a solemn fugue. The vocal character and clear textures make the Fugue relatively easy for listeners. After the stretti, the music moves on to the Variation without a break. The oboe cantilena from the Prélude now returns, but this time, it is accompanied by rippling semiquavers. The work quietly ends in B major.