Blending French sensitivity with quintessentially German harmony

Thinking about “early” or “late” works of a composer can often be rather misleading, though not when considering César Franck, as practically all of his works that are remembered and played today were written in the last fifteen years of his life. His style is instantly recognizable, as no other composer so seamlessly and convincingly blended French sensitivity with quintessentially (post-Wagnerian) German harmony; religious piety and reverence with underlying frustration and lust. Franck wrote two major piano works: the Prélude, chorale, et fugue in 1884; and the Prélude, aria, et final in 1886-7. The latter is his final work for piano, and was written simultaneously with his famous D minor symphony. Franck was a virtuoso organist and his piano writing was heavily influenced by the sound and possibilities of the organ. In fact, when playing his music, the left hand sometimes feels as though it takes on the tasks reserved for the organist’s feet on the pedals. The Prélude, aria, et final is perhaps Franck’s most optimistic, affirmative, and light-filled work. It is unique in that all of its movements are in a major key—something both unusual and significant for a composer who was so closely in touch with the realm of sinister emotions. The prelude begins with a sense of lyricism, nobility, and constancy; introducing and developing the main theme, which is then contrasted with a severe and tempestuous middle section, only to reemerge into the noble world of the opening. At the heart of the work is the aria, a benediction based on a theme strikingly simple and tender, yet intense. The finale reverts at first to the somber world of the middle section of the prelude, but then the music redeems itself with a celestial entrance of the theme of the aria (interestingly, the last movement of the D minor symphony has a reappearance of the second movement at exactly the same point in the music), leading to a triumphant return of the prelude’s opening theme. But whereas the D minor symphony finishes on that triumphant note, the Prélude, aria, et final recedes and vanishes into its own intimate and reflective world, leaving us suspended while we remember the bygone tenderness of the aria.

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