Cesar Franck (1822 - 1890) was the composer, organist, and pedagogue of Belgian and German descent who lived in France. He is considered as one of the most influential figures of the late Romantic period in the second half of the 19th century. In 1858, he became the organist of the famous Basilica of Saint Clotilde where he worked until his death.
The first compositions of this composer were published only in 1868 when he was 46 years old. From 1872 until his death Franck was professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire. Among the most famous of his students are Vincent d'Indy, Ernest Chausson, Louis Vierne and Henri Duparc.
As an organist, Franck was mostly appreciated because of his notorious improvisational talent. Although he wrote only 12 major organ works, Franck is considered by many as the most important organ composer after J.S.Bach. His compositions layed the foundation of the French symphonic organ style. Among his organ compositions perhaps the most influential was Grande Piece Symphonique, which paved the way to the organ symphonies of Charles-Marie Widor, Louis Vierne, and Marcel Dupré.
Piece heroique, M. 37 was composed for the organ of the concert hall of Trocadero. For this reason it is not a religious composition. It continues the tradition of Beethoven, Berlioz, and other Romantic composers. Two major thematically contrasting ideas dominate the piece: the first is written in minor (the heroic theme) and the other is in major (lyrical theme).
At the beginning of the work, these two themes are presented one after the other. In the middle of the piece, these two different ideas have a musical fight. Franck develops the themes and reveals their true melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic potential. At the last major episode, or Recapitulation, both themes are brought back, only this time the second theme becomes a triumphant and is performed with a Tutti registration.
Because of the clash of the two themes, this composition has many similarities with the Sonata form. However, in a classical sonata concept, at the exposition the second theme is presented in a secondary key, usually in the Dominant (or in the relative major). It is important to point out that both themes here first appear in the Tonic key of B minor.
Nevertheless, Piece heroique fascinates listeners and organists because of its chromatic harmonic language, sudden modulations which explore the range of major-minor scale, and very balanced form.
I use the most reliable scholarly Wayne Leupold edition of Franck's organ works which also includes a sixty-seven page preface including essays on Franck, the Organs, Touch, Rhythmic Alteration, Tempo, and Ornaments; twenty-nine pages of Interpretive and Critical Notes etc.
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