Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, Op. 21
Belgian-born César Franck was a twelve-year-old piano prodigy when his parents moved to Paris so that their gifted son could have the advantages of the sophisticated musical city. At the Conservatory, young César carried off prizes in piano, organ, and fugue, a circumstance that seemed to assure his career as a concert pianist and a composer. But alas, César suffered an affliction well known to talented youth, namely an overly ambitious parent.
Soured by being exploited, the innately serious prodigy withdrew from the public arena as soon as he was old enough to assert himself. Marrying at 26 – and, to his father’s chagrin, to an actress – he embarked on a circumscribed life as a composer, as organist at Sainte-Clotilde, and as a teacher at the Paris Conservatory well-loved, even deified, by his students, among whom were the composers d’Indy, Chausson, and Duparc.
The short list of solo piano pieces in Franck’s catalog reflects his disenchantment with the instrument. There are multiple entries dated from his touring years in his early 20s, one when he was about 43, then three when he was in his early 60s; the Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue, written in 1884, is the first of the latter group. In writing a prelude and fugue (the chorale was added as an afterthought), Franck was obviously paying homage to Bach. The actual composition, however, points to a number of other allegiances, namely Beethoven, Schumann, and Liszt, the latter man occupying a special place in Franck's heart for having befriended him at the beginning of his career. Yet, whatever the influences, the music is pure Franck, which is to say that it engages repeatedly in conflicts between organ loft ruminations and fervent rapture, sets up arguments in a harmonic language of intense chromaticism, and freely employs cyclical form, wholly endorsed by both Liszt and Wagner.
The Prelude, in B minor, begins with and is dominated by fleet figurations that are interrupted twice by a strong motivic idea that anticipates the subject of the Fugue. The Chorale, in the distant key of E-flat major, seems to strive for Bachian sturdiness but is most notable for achieving Franckian mysticism and loftiness, the latter by way of an imposing seven-note motif that is brought back in the Fugue and then combined with the fugal subject in grand manner.
Franck’s writing for the keyboard reflects his own formidable skill at both the piano and the organ. His vacillations between religiosity and virtuosity probably are unavoidable given his role as the high priest of French music and his early life as a crowd-pleasing performer. At any rate, the Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue, with its many intimations of the masterworks to come – the Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra, the Symphony in D minor, and the Violin-Piano Sonata – remains Franck's most viable solo piano piece, a distinctive work masterfully crafted.