About this Piece
In 1851, the French-speaking Belgian César Franck (1822–1890), became titular organist at the church of Saint-Jean-Saint-François-au-Marais in Paris. The church had recently accepted delivery of a new organ by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, and the instrument inspired a wellspring of creativity in its new custodian. “It’s like an orchestra!” Franck is said to have remarked. In 1858, Franck moved to the larger Sainte-Clotilde, which received one of Cavaillé-Coll’s masterworks and was inaugurated by Franck and L.J. Lefébure-Wély the next year. With access to the large three-manual instrument with its extraordinary palette of colors, Franck entered a period of intense compositional activity, producing masterpieces for organ, orchestra, chamber ensembles, and voice. He also became a musical ambassador for Cavaillé-Coll, performing on older instruments, premiering new ones, and advocating for future projects in large and small parishes.
Franck’s place in French musical culture was solidified in the early 1870s when he was named professor at the Paris Conservatoire and the Société Nationale de Musique. He fostered a generation of young French composers determined, according to the tenets of the Société, to break French compositional practices free from what historian Richard Taruskin calls “the Offenbachian bacchanale of the Second Empire; and [in the wake of the humiliating Franco-Prussian War] to overtake and surpass the achievements of German ‘absolute’ instrumental music.” Taruskin further remarks that “never was the music of any country so thoroughly transformed by an inferiority complex.”
The Trois Chorals were composed near the end of Franck’s life, in 1890. They are austere works and exemplify Franck’s profoundly personal and cerebral approach to the handling of musical materials such as harmony and form.