Franckly My Dear, I Do Give a Damn

A picture containing text, old, building, whiteDescription automatically generated

(Postcard of 1878).

Lionized by organists and audiences during his own time and through to our own, César Franck and his music are being vigorously commemorated this year, the bicentenary of his birth. As part of the ongoing Franck festivities in Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Organist Annette Richards and I will play an hour-long organ recital tonight at 7pm Eastern Time (link for the live stream found here). The program takes place in St. Luke’s Lutheran Church just across a deep gorge from campus. The church boasts an orgue de choeur (choir organ) completed in 2016 by the celebrated Montreal firm of Juget-Sinclair and modeled closely on instruments by the master builder of the nineteenth century, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, a towering figure closely associated with Franck. Though far smaller than the mighty instruments Cavaillé-Coll built for the great Parisian churches of St. Sulpice, Notre Dame, and Franck’s own St. Clotilde, the St. Luke’s organ offers a unique chance in North America to explore, if on an intimate rather than grand scale, the music of the Belle Époque. Below are our program notes for tonight’s concert.

César et Sébastien

On 1 October 1878, César Franck, professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire, performed on the spectacular new Cavaillé-Coll organ at the Palais du Trocadéro in Paris. His recital was part of the inaugural series of concerts on the organ that was the centerpiece of the 5000-seat concert hall created for the 1878 Paris World’s Fair. Seizing the global moment, Franck premiered his Trois Pièces before the thousands eager to hear the latest works of France’s preeminent organist performing on the newest instrument from the nations’ greatest builder. The Trocadéro organ was the ideal vehicle—technologically advanced and literally center-stage at the fair—for the exhibition of Franck’s gifts for melody, phrase, and thematic elaboration. In the searching Fantasie in A, sweeping Cantabile, and impassioned Pièce Héroique, Franck’s big-handed chords (requiring limber extensions and clever adaptations on the part of the Cornell University organist, as well as a few bars of surreptitious aid from her obliging assistant) drew lush sonorities from the Cavaillé-Coll organ’s sumptuous foundation stops, his melodies soared with the flûte harmonique, the brilliant yet expressive reeds ignited his genius for rhapsody and triumphant arrival.

At Franck’s death twelve years later, his students were similarly rhapsodic in their remembrances. “It was as though,” wrote the grieving Louis Vierne, who went on to become the long-time organist at Notre Dame, “I had been struck by a thunderbolt—crushed, annihilated. I adored that man who had shown me such tender kindness, who had sustained and encouraged me, inspired in me a profound love of music, and aroused my greatest hopes. And now, suddenly, he was only a shadow, only a memory! I had the horrible feeling of having lost my father a second time.” In tonight’s concert we imagine ourselves into a Parisian organ loft around 1900, reanimating the spirit of Franck and his dual sources of inspiration, the instruments of Cavaillé-Coll and the music of J. S. Bach.

Bach’s oeuvre had a profound impact on Franck the composer-performer. Indeed, when considered in light of influence on, abundance in, and centrality to the nineteenth-century repertoire, Bach’s organ works made him, not Franck, the greatest of the French Romantics: such a claim is more than a rhetorical gambit, but can be felt and heard in the age’s new music and gleaned from editions, pedagogical methods, and memoirs produced by the likes of Franck, Widor and their disciples.

As brought to sounding life by the organist’s four limbs, Bach’s works—their visionary harmonies explored through improvisatory spontaneity and rigorous, yet dramatic polyphony—were a revelation to the French. In 1844 the visiting German virtuoso Adolph Hesse astonished Parisian audiences with his Bachian pedal pyrotechnics; a few years later the Belgian organist Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens (long thought to have been Hesse’s student, though more recent research suggests otherwise) introduced many more of the master’s works to admiring colleagues, including Franck, who immediately set about upgrading his pedal technique. Over the rest of his career, Franck would frequently play Bach’s organ works in his own concerts, though perhaps not during the service, since he might have concurred with some of his Parisian colleagues who deemed the music’s devout Lutheranism inappropriate for presentation during the Catholic mass. Franck prepared a braille edition of selected Bach organ works for France’s National Institute for Blind Youths published in 1887—an anthology that includes tonight’s Prelude and Fugue in A Minor.

One of Franck’s youngest students, Charles Tournemire claimed that piece as a direct influence on the Chorale in A minor. The kinship between the two epic masterpieces can be heard (and felt in the hands) not just in the shared melodic outlines and restive energy; in contrast to the sustained fantasy of his Bach’s prelude, Franck’s opening is punctuated with expansive largo accumulations of pitches released into echoing silence in vast Parisian churches; yet the breathlessness of the model overtakes Franck’s Chorale as the work surges towards its—and the composer’s—apotheosis.

Tournemire took up Franck’s post at St. Clotilde in Paris in 1898 and made a famous and fascinating recording of the A-Minor Chorale three decades later on that church’s storied Cavaillé-Coll organ before it was mangled by neo-classical renovations; Tournemire’s is an unapologetically personal, possibly even eccentric performance that embraces the works impetuosity, rapt lyricism, hymnlike devotions, and transcendent grandeur.

Franck’s successor as the conservatory’s Professor of Organ, Widor was strict in his interpretation and teaching of Bach’s music, a corpus central to his pedagogical method. In collaboration with his student Albert Schweitzer, Widor prepared a seminal scholarly edition of Bach’s organ works published from 1912 to 1914. The volumes’ prefatory material offers rich insight into fin-de-siècle organ performance, many of these ideas informing tonight’s interpretations. The recommendations and strictures of Widor and Schweitzer prove that Bach’s works were not viewed as museum pieces, but as vibrant resources of an evolving present. Which are the more Romantic sonorities, the suspended enchantments of Widor’s Andante sostenuto from his last organ symphony, or the lavish lament with its transfiguring final bars of Bach’s setting of the Good Friday chorale, “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß (O Man, weep for your great sins)? The answer: both.

Widor and Schweitzer conclude the “Preliminary Observations” to their Bach editions’ fourth volume, which includes the Prelude and Fugue in A minor, with these words:

“Where men meet in a common striving after perfection, [they] hear a voice saying: ‘Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground’; and feel that in being permitted to touch the sacred instrument and set forth the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, a blessing has entered into their lives.”

No, this is not a call to play in stockinged feet (these men wore substantial shoes at substantial organs), but to approach this music with reverence, rigor and imagination—sentiments Franck not only shared but lived and played by.


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at