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Chorale #3 in A Minor, Cesar Franck

Cesar Franck was born in Liege, Belgium. His father had ambitions for him to become a concert pianist, and he studied at the conservatoire in Liege before going to the Paris Conservatoire in 1837. Upon leaving in 1842 he briefly returned to Belgium, but went back to Paris in 1844 and remained there for the rest of his life. His decision to give up a career as a virtuoso led to strained relations with his father during this time.

During his first years in Paris, Franck made his living by teaching, both privately and institutionally. He also held various posts as organist: from 1847-1851 he was organist at Notre Dame de Lorette, and from 1851-1858 he was organist at St. Jean-St. Francois. During this time he became familiar with the work of the famous French organ builder Aristide Cavaille-Coll, and he also worked on developing his technique as an organist and improviser.


In 1858, he became organist at the basilica Sainte-Clotilde, where he remained until his death. Here he began to attract attention for his skill as an improviser. His first set of organ compositions, however, was not published until 1868, when he was 46 years old, though it contains one of his finest organ pieces, the "Final in Bb". From 1872 to his death he was professor of Organ at the Paris Conservatoire. His pupils included Vincent d'Indy, Ernest Chausson, Louis Vierne, and Henri Duparc. As an organist he was particularly noted for his skill in improvisation, and it is on the basis of only twelve major organ works that Franck is by many considered the greatest organ composer after J. S. Bach. His works were some of the finest organ pieces to come from France in over a century, and laid the groundwork for the French symphonic organ style. In particular, his "Grande Piece Symphonique", a 25-minute work, paved the way for the organ symphonies of Widor, Louis Vierne, and Marcel Dupre.

Sainte-Clotilde Cavaille-Coll Organ

Many of Franck's works employ "cyclic form," a method of achieving unity among several movements in which all of the principal themes of the work are generated from a germinal motif. The main melodic subjects, thus interrelated, are then recapitulated in the final movement. His music is often contrapuntally complex, using a harmonic language that is prototypically late Romantic, showing a great deal of influence from Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. In his compositions, Franck showed a talent and a penchant for frequent, graceful modulations of key. Often these modulatory sequences, achieved through a pivot chord or through inflection of a melodic phrase, arrive at harmonically remote keys. Indeed, Franck's students report that his most frequent admonition was to always "modulate, modulate." Franck's modulatory style and his idiomatic method of inflecting melodic phrases are among his most recognizable traits. The key to his music may be found in his personality. His friends record that he was a man of utmost humility, simplicity, reverence and industry. Much of Franck's music is deeply serious and reverential in mood, often joyful, passionate or mysterious, but almost never light-hearted or humorous.

Sainte-Clotilde Interior

Unusual for a composer of such importance and reputation, Franck's fame rests largely on a small number of compositions written in his later years, particularly his Symphony in D minor (1886-88), the Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra (1885), the Prelude, Choral and Fugue for piano solo (1884) and the Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major (1886). One of his best shorter works is the motet Panis Angelicus. The Symphony was especially admired and influential among the younger generation of French composers and was highly responsible for reinvigorating the French symphonic tradition after years of decline. In 1890, Franck was involved in a serious traffic accident. It was after this accident that he wrote three masterful Chorals for organ. Franck died as a result of complications from the accident very shortly after finishing the Chorals. He was interred in the Cimetiere du Montparnasse in Paris. Franck's organ works have been recorded, in whole or in part, by many famous organists, including Jean Langlais, Marie-Claire Alain, Jeanne Demessieux, and Catherine Crozier.

recorded/sequenced on the Reuter opus #822 pipe organ, June 11, 2007

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