Thursday, May 31, 2012

Franck - Organ Chorale No. 2 in B Minor

The history of the pipe organ is a rich and ancient one, going back as far as the Roman Empire with its organ operated by water pressure called the Hydraulis. The organ slowly evolved from a monstrous instrument that had keys so big they had to be struck with the fist to the instruments of the early Baroque with their ranks of pipes and voices, multiple keyboards and foot pedals.

For many centuries the pipe organ was the most complicated mechanical device known, as it took the artistry and craftsmanship of many different disciplines to construct one.  Master cabinet makers to make the chests, keyboards and all the wooden parts, wood carvers to beautify the outside of the instrument, craftsman working in metals to make all of the pins and guide wires necessary, experienced makers to make hundreds and sometimes thousands of  organ pipes, craftsmen with a fine ear to tune the pipes, organ players to assist with regulation of the action. All of this craftsmanship and knowledge was learned by experience by each organ builder in each part of Europe that they worked. There developed styles of construction and sounds according to the locality of the builder. Each part of Europe created their own unique version of the instrument, and accordingly there developed schools of organ playing to match the instruments of the locale.

The school of French organ playing began in the 16th century and unlike some others, continued into the Romantic era. With composer/organists like Camille Saint-Saens, Cesar Franck and Charles-Marie Widor, French organ builders went on to include improvements to the instrument that allowed the French organ composers to write in a symphonic style for the instrument.

The most influential and beloved of these composer/organists was Cesar Franck. After his early years of composing and performing he settled into a life of teaching. It wasn't until his later years that he started to compose again, and in the matter of but a few years managed to compose a handful of masterpieces. He was a master improviser on the instrument, but only composed about a dozen pieces for it. nonetheless, he is regarded as the most important organ composer since J.S. Bach. High praise indeed, as it attests to the quality of his compositions.

Among those few pieces he wrote for organ (and the last three pieces he wrote before his death) are the Three Chorales For Organ. Franck was a composer that loved the traditional forms of music, but he made these forms his own by the way he used them. The second organ chorale is in B minor, and is in the form of a passacaglia and fugue, a passacaglia being a type of variation form in which the composition is based on a bass-ostinato which appears throughout the composition. Franck used a 16-bar bass theme:

In true passacaglia form, it isn't always confined to the bass part.  This work bears an outward resemblance at least in form to Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, but as with other works by Franck, his music is distinctive and speaks with a voice all his own.


  1. Actually, though ubiquitously mistakenly titled Passacaglia and Fugue, the proper title for Bach's BWV 582 is rather simply Passacaglia, as seen in the scores and the Schmieder BWV catalog. When properly played according to the score there is no interruption between the fugue and the preceding since rather than being a separate part as most wrongly interpret it, it's rather the final variation of the passacaglia. Only Bach was genius enough of a contrapuntal composer to be able to pull off the mind boggling idea of an already complex contrapuntal form like a passacaglia having an even more complex form, the fugue, as its final variation. Incredible. As to Franck, there is clearly no fugue, just a passacaglia, regardless of how much a nod he gave to Bach's Passacaglia.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I have heard performances of Bach's Passacaglia where there is no interruption between the first part and the fugue. Never thought about the fugue being the final variation of the passacalia, but you're right. It is.

    2. Actually there IS a fugue section in the Franck, occurring after the "con Fantasia" middle section, beginning at the return to 3/4. The subject is the first 8 bars of the original Choral, and has 3 entrances, an episode, and two more statements in high register of the instrument before returning to the variations proper.