César Auguste Franck – A Holy Week Playlist – Part II (Live and Live-Streamed Concert Script)

NB: This continues an IAM post from last week about this week’s two Holy Week organ recitals, Wednesday April 13th, 12:30pm at All Saints’ Kingsway, Toronto and Saturday April 16th, 4:00pm at Beach United Church, Toronto. Herein I provide the concert script, and thus, the thought process that drew me to connect abstract secular works of Franck, the bicentennial of whose birth we celebrate this year, to the story of Jesus’ life and ministry.

When Caesar Augustus (‘Caesar the Great’) reigned over the first Roman Empire a remarkable story – some have called it the greatest ever told – was begun with the birth of a boy in Bethlehem, the City of David, who would save his people from sin and found, and head for all time, a worldwide church. 

Centuries later, in 1822, a Belgian boy was born and named for the great Roman Emperor – and he would become an important voice in the music of that church.  In addition to becoming titular organist at Paris’ beautiful Basilique St Sulpice, César-Auguste Franck became professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire.  Indeed, little of Franck’s beautiful organ music is explicitly sacred: but in this Holy Week dedicated to the culmination of Jesus’ ministry I have chosen and free-associated several works with His story. 

To be clear, there is no indication whatever that Franck made associations like mine between his abstract compositions and this (or for that matter, any other) story – he might very well have thought, as did many in the 19th century, the very notion to be complete rubbish! But I defend my use of this great man’s great music uniquely to illuminate a tale we know well – perhaps too well – suggesting like every year that, perhaps, we hear it again.  Join me now in following the young rabbi from Nazareth on his journey from Bethlehem to Golgotha.

AdventNoël suite (extraits de l’Organiste)

Music’s compelling power and persistence enters into our heads and hearts at the slightest invitation, and it comes to describe moments and movements of seismic importance and power. That Christmas carols as disparate as Silent Night, Hark the Herald Angels Sing and ‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime can propose such different affects and aspects of the same story speaks not just to music’s power, but perhaps still more to our own hunger for meaning, for connection – for belonging. The celebration of Jesus’ birth is synonymous with the melodies we sing in its honour… but as you just heard in my first group of Franck’s works, the noël melodies as familiar to the French as the carols I named above are to us seem strange – unknown. Perhaps if, as I assure you, they tell the same story to the French people as our Christmas carols do to we English, you might be able to open yourself to Franck’s organ music doing the same?

I would like to take us first outside of Bethlehem, to a familiar setting. The urban lens that has made the “pastorale” a fixture of Western classical music is often overlooked, but it deserves mentioning here – particularly because of Franck’s take on the idea. If we recall the ‘Pastoral Symphony,’ or ‘Pifa’ in Handel’s Messiah; Bach’s well-loved Pastorale BWV 590 for organ, even Haydn’s picturesque depiction of grazing animals in The Creation, we are reliably given elegant triple-metre, barely jig-like pieces to evoke shepherds cavorting at their rural business. These graceful musical depictions of ‘country life’ probably bore little resemblance to the music, instruments, dances and other aspects of whatever was customary to actual shepherds-in-the-fields.

In Pastorale, op. 19, César Franck gives us an even more idealised glimpse of things pastoral – he does score a reedy “shepherd’s pipe”- like stop, but uses more academic, dotted rhythms instead of the traditional triplets – perhaps following the more ultra-genteel concept of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Nor can he resist giving us a vigorous middle section that seems far more at home in the recital hall than on the slopes amid grass and manure. Notice, too, that the work’s ABA form gives us a basic presentation, and following an interposed diversion, another take on the same music… perhaps in this we can imagine the angels giving praise and worship in the skies, and later, the shepherds doing likewise at the manger, the middle section being their hasty trip to find the babe they were told would be there.

ChristmasPastorale, op.19

In regarding French organ music in Franck’s day we often miss the detail that an enormous amount of the repertoire of the great composers was written either explicitly for, or to be also playable, on the harmonium. The harmonium or reed organ is most familiar in the English-speaking world in the form of the pump organ once popular in homes, small churches and chapels. Unlike these smaller cousins, French harmonia often had multiple manuals, pedals, and even sometimes enclosed divisions that allowed a form of crescendo/decrescendo. They had the characteristic reedy sound you might know from more familiar pump organs here – but they were considered an entirely respectable and viable classical instrument – and one I will try here to emulate today on this very different instrument.

At birth, my wife of 23 years was given the name Marcia – she pronounces it identically to the Italian term Franck in his Quasi marcia, op.22, like other composers, used to evoke a musical March – not “Mar-CI-a” or “MAR-shaw” as many assume. Seeing Marcia’s name in the title of a piece certainly caught my attention, and not just because her name, coming from the Latin, means ‘dedicated to Mars (the God of War)’ – I will not comment further!

The thing that struck me was the dual meaning within this name… one of the synoptic gospel writers was named Mark, and in Hebrew, his name generally means ‘polite.’ How interesting that in the Latin form coming from the Roman occupiers of Israel… where names like Markus, Marshall, – and yes, Marcia – associate the name with the God of War.

I know this of the entry of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem thronged by his ranks of supporters: despite the raucous crowd He came willingly, (perhaps politely?) to die; he was heralded with shouts from his legions of Hosannas to a King thought from Messianic prophecy to conquer and overthrow the Roman occupiers – yet, as the days unfolded he would save his people not through power of might, but through submission and service.

March into the Holy CityQuasi marcia, op.22

Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper”

Franck’s most famous work is without a doubt a sacred song he wrote as part of his Mass op.12, to the penultimate stanza of the hymn “Sacris solemniis” written by St Thomas Aquinas for the Feast of Corpus Christi. Franck scored the hymn Panis angelicus originally for tenor voice with harp, cello, double bass and organ accompaniment. The organ arrangement I’ll play today by Pierre Gouin of course gives the vocal part to the organ, but it also respects the familiar canonic scoring of the repeat with cello (a low voice), entrusting it, in the tenor range, to the pedals.

Last SupperPanis angelicus op.12, arr. Pierre Gouin

After they had sung a hymn Jesus and the disciples went to a garden called Gethsemane. In Jesus’ lifetime, only twice do the gospel writers ascribe to Jesus specific words he spoke, in prayer, to his Father in heaven. Though Jesus prayed to his Father throughout his life, we are only made privy through the Bible to two instances… the first, being in that garden, “Father, if it be your will, let this cup pass from me.”

To reflect the horrifying story of Jesus’ Passion I chose Franck’s beautiful Prélude, Fugue et Variation, op.12. During its haunting opening melody I think of Jesus’ desperate – yet resigned – plea to be spared the suffering he knew would come. The Fugue, with its short, ominous introduction, to me represents the inevitable march of events comprising his betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion. Then, as we hear the return, almost dreamlike, of the opening melody with a more elaborate accompaniment, the only other scriptural instance of Jesus addressing his Father, as he hung broken on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” and “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.”

The Story of the Passion
Prélude, fugue et variation, op.18

Today’s program began with a short collection of the songs Franck and his countrymen used to remember and celebrate Jesus’ birth. It ends with one of the set of three usually considered to by Franck’s greatest organ works, the three Chorales – which, perhaps in respect for their posthumous publication, have never been given an opus number. These large-scale works have in common an epic, fantastical structure, rich ultra-romantic chromatic harmony… and an original hymn-like tune, the presence of which gives them the name ‘Chorale.’ These simple melodies are presented at the works’ outset, and reprised at their end, offset by free improvisatory and stunningly beautiful melodic passages designed to show off the rich colouristic possibilities of the King of Instruments. They seem like stories unto themselves, each identified by a hymn – but one that is never sung. ‘Les Trois Chorales‘ were first published in 1892, two years after the death of their author, César Auguste Franck.

The story of salvation is not only what has been called the “greatest story ever told.” Like in Franck’s idea of a hymn never sung, it is a story that is never over – it continues, these two millennia later, in churches like this one, in hearts like ours, and even in a world such as this, still filled with the beauty, the wonder, the evil and suffering – and we pray, the redemption it exists to tell to all time.

Today I have proposed that music never associated with this story can nonetheless help us to tell, and receive it. I do not ask for you to agree with my associations or pretense in making them – but together, let us look to the reborn world promised in Jesus Christ, in which (as Jesus put it entering Jerusalem) even the stones, and the creations of God and man (including music), cry out.

The Story of SalvationChorale #3, a minor

– FIN –

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