I woke up early. From my bed I saw that the sky was clear. The sun was about to rise above the horizon. I got up, tiptoed down the staircase and through the windows separating the living room from the veranda, I saw the colours of the sky veering from orange to grey to light blue. We still have those old-fashioned glass panes made opaque through entangled floral ornaments. I love that Art Déco glass, it matches my occasional melancholy. Yesterday morning it beautifully refracted the light from the rising sun. A magic moment.
Piano music was the obvious choice, but what composer? Something calm, solemn, something with a serene touch. Franck… César Franck! In 1884 he wrote his first major piano work: “Prélude, Chorale et Fugue”. I have a beautiful recording by the French pianist Bernard Chamayou, whom I admire for his precise and yet emotional style. Franck (1822-1890) wrote this piece with the declared goal to create a French counterpart to Felix Mendelssohn “Six Preludes and Fugues, op. 35”. And if you listen to Mendelssohn’s piece and look at the structure – it’s the Romantic echo of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-tempered Piano. Bach – Mendelssohn – Franck: We are speaking about musical lineage here.
In 1871, at the time when Camille de Saint-Saëns founded the Société Nationale de Musique to promote French musicians and composers, Richard Wagner interfered by becoming the new reference in musical development across Europe. A German reference when the French had just been defeated by Prussia in Sedan during the short war of 1870/71! But Bach, Mozart and Beethoven remained the reference points for many French composers and Wagner was just the latest emulation of German music. One of the elements that makes art so beautiful and valuable is its freedom to disregard political developments and to oppose the “Zeitgeist”.
Franck went back to the earlier German Baroque style (Bach) and to the German Romanticism, exemplified by Mendelssohn. “Prélude, Choral et Fugue” is a prime example of French-German aesthetics. The chorale is the centerpiece of this work and has been characterized by French pianist, composer and music scholar Alfred Cortot as a “latent vibration of emotion”. Franck’s genius become apparent in his use of counterpoint*, in the melancholy embedded in the first movement and in the masterful harmonic transition from the second to the third movement, where the final bars of the chorale announce the theme of the upcoming fugue.
That moment I listened to the piece while watching the sun rise through that old-fashioned glass – I characterized it as magic and serene, but actually it was something different. It was a religious moment, one of these instances where you catch a glimpse of God and his eternal beauty.
© Charles Thibo