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César Frank

César-Auguste Franck

Liège 1822 - Paris 1890

Organist on Cavaillé-Coll organs in Saint-Jean-Saint-François (1842-1857), then at Sainte-Clotilde (1857-1890)

The "Douze Pièces" (six dated between about 1856 and 1863, three in 1878 and three in 1890) are universally considered to be the summit of XIXth Century organ music. Barely conceivable without Cavaillé-Coll's organs, they are to organ music what Beethoven's piano sonatas are to the piano.

An unending search for colours, gestures, a great form that springs from very personal themes. Like no other person before him and (very few since) Franck used the ranges, dynamic possibilities, good attack, acoustic effects and many other features unique to his friend's instruments.

It is true that he was not particularly appreciated as a recitalist and innovator. He was best known for his performances with his colleagues (Saint-Eustache, Notre-Dame…) and the critics emphasised his extreme accuracy and the great care he took in developing themes. These were qualities appreciated by connoisseurs but the general public - who, in the final analysis financed the organs - didn't want as much. No doubt he was aspiring to an even more prestigious appointment than Saint-Clotilde. However that may be, that magical instrument played a big role in the masterpieces he gave birth to. What would Franck's organ music have been like if he had played elsewhere, Saint-Sulpice, for example? (Likewise, we may ask ourselves whether the composer of the Quintette and the Symphonie would have blossomed in the same way if he had had one of the much-coveted professorships of composition at the Conservatory instead of being organ professor.

Without doubt, the loss of the improvisations of Franck and Bruckner can be ranked among the greatest losses to the world of music. Both integrated the organ into their symphonic works. Shortly before the master's death, a student paid a moving tribute to him: "both in his works and in French music, his organ compositions are an isolated and unique monument that has neither found its match nor been imitated".

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