Friday, March 8, 2013

A Musical Mountain (part one)

Last time I said we'd do a little mountain climbing. The peak I've got in mind is Cesar Franck's Choral no. 3 in A minor. It's one of the cornerstones of the organ literature and I'm playing it this year for Lent.

Often these musical riches go by in one sudden rush for the listener. While the performer has spent weeks, months, years, thinking about the music he or she is playing, the rest of us get one listen. And if you've never heard the piece before, that's a lot to absorb. So for the next six blogs, Monday and Friday (on Wednesdays I'm going to write about something else) I'm going to take you into the world of this incredible piece of music.

We'll start with a tune. Franck is considered by many to be the most important composer of organ music since Bach, which is interesting in that he only wrote a dozen pieces for the instrument. But what epics many of them are! The three Chorals (the French spelling of Chorale leaves off the E for some reason) are the last pieces he wrote. Unlike other pieces with the same title, these Chorals aren't based on pre-existing hymn (or Chorale) tunes. Franck wrote the tunes himself. I'll play what is perhaps the most important tune in this 3rd Choral without any supporting harmonies:


It is a haunting, beautiful melody. You will hear it several times over the course of the near 15-minute long piece.   Because I'm going to be playing the piece in church as part of the passion I'm inviting us to use our homiletic imaginations. I've decided to call this tune the tune of 'sacrifice' or 'suffering'or perhaps 'sacrificial love.' You'll understand why in subsequent installments. For now, it is enough to get the tune in our heads.

Now for those of us sensitive to harmony Mr. Franck has an exquisite way of presenting this tune. I'll play it for you now with the supports underneath:


This is how we'll hear it the first time it is presented in the piece, about 45 seconds or so in.

Now as I mentioned a few posts ago in an observation about sonatas (the sonata principle) pieces like this usually have a musical foil, an opposite theme, running in a different direction. Just like in a good story, the antagonism between the two conflicting ideas often sets up drama and propels the story forward. Next time we'll meet the other side of this Choral's dual personality.

on to part two

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