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Certainly César Franck (1822-1890) stands as a cornerstone of the French organ tradition, leading an intrepid group of younger composers in Paris at a time when the imposing heights of Wagner’s chromaticism influenced French music, as much as a rediscovery of earlier French traditions of music. Written in the last year of his life, his Three Chorals for organ represent a mastering of motivic development.
In Choral No. 1 in E major, Franck invites a patient observer to discern and discover relationships between motives in a form which is basically a theme followed by three variations. At the same time, the almost hypnotic alternation between three manuals, all carefully indicated in the score, suggests not only antiphonal use of the instrument, but symbolism assigned to each manual as well.
Commencing with a meditative registration coupling flutes with the “flue” pipes, Franck presents the theme almost exactly in five-part harmony, all basically written within the vocal ranges of a choir. These opening 15 bars in E major are then repeated and embellished in G major, followed by a registration change for an 18-bar chorale melody, played very softly, which remains the most recognizable recurring melody of the entire piece.
Initially, the first variation is barely recognizable, sharing only the opening bass line of the theme and changing character with running 16th-notes. Nonetheless, it clearly ends like the theme with an almost exact statement of the chorale melody.
The second variation commences after a loud maestoso fanfare and canonic development of a new 16th-note idea. This new idea continues to develop, finally giving way to the chorale melody, which this time is repeated one more time and then yet one more time in the pedals. The third and final variation breaks briefly into a triplet motion, but then announces the loudest and most distinctive chordal statement of the chorale melody.