Liszt notwithstanding, in the second half of the 19th century, the geographical center of organ music shifted from Germany to France, thanks largely to the work of organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. A friend of some of the leading French scientists, he pioneered a host of technical innovations and eventually built almost 5000 organs. Cavaillé-Coll instruments inspired several generations of French organists, beginning with the Belgian-born César Franck (1822-1890). Franck was the organist at several churches with early Cavaillé-Coll organs, served the company as an artistic representative, and in 1858 was appointed organist at the new basilica of St. Clotilde in Paris, where he inaugurated one of Cavaillé-Coll’s best instruments. Franck’s improvisations after church services were major public attractions, and he set some of them down in the Six Pieces he completed between 1859 and 1862. These exploited the power and colors of the Cavaillé-Coll organs to the fullest and did much to establish the distinctively French school of symphonic organ music.
The third of the Six Pieces is the Prelude, Fugue, and Variation, Op. 18, which was dedicated to Camille Saint-Saëns, himself an organist of considerable skill. Franck’s dedications do not imply portraits, but the balance and clarity of the Prelude, Fugue, and Variation do suggest the classical orientation of Saint-Saëns. The flowing B-minor Prelude has a gentle melancholy, opening almost like Bach’s “Liebster Jesu” prelude with three repetitions of an asymmetrical five-bar phrase. The Fugue has its own little prelude and clean textures, the polyphony by no means hard to follow. Rounding the three-part work is the Variation, basically a repeat of the Prelude with a more active accompaniment, fading to the light of B major.