Movement 1: Prélude: Moderato
Movement 2: Choral: Poco più lento
Movement 3: Fugue: Tempo I
The decision to include a central section, separate from, yet linking, the Prelude and Fugue, came later (again according to d’Indy). Perhaps Bach was the influence with the poignant slow interludes of his Clavier Toccatas to say nothing of the very word ‘chorale’ which was eventually used. In the event, however, this central section became the emotional core of the work, its ‘motto’ theme (Example 2) used as a symbol of redemption and as a unifying principle at the climax of the Fugue.
When Saint-Saëns made his tart observation about the piece that the ‘chorale is not a chorale and the fugue is not a fugue’ (in his pamphlet ‘Les Idées de M. Vincent d’Indy’), he was completely missing the point. The forms here have become symbolic, the apotheosis of their academic counterparts; and, furthermore, Alfred Cortot described the Fugue in the context of the whole work as ‘emanating from a psychological necessity rather than from a principle of musical composition’ (La musique française de piano; PUF, 1930). It is as if a ‘fugue’, as a symbol of intellectual rigour, was the only way Franck could find a voice to express fully the hesitant, truncated sobs of the Prelude and the anguished, syncopated lament of the Chorale. Not that the Fugue solves the problem—this is the function of the ‘motto’ theme; but the rules of counterpoint have given the speaker a format in which the unspeakable can be spoken.
There are two motivic ideas on which the whole work is based: one, a falling, appoggiatura motif used in all three sections and generally chromatic in tonality (Example 1); the other a criss-crossing motif in fourths (the ‘motto’ theme, Example 2) which appears first in the Chorale section and then again as a balm at the point where the Fugue reaches its emotional crisis. The first motivic idea is clearly related to the Bach Cantata ‘Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen’, and also to the ‘Crucifixus’ from the B minor Mass; the other idea appears as the ‘bell motif’ in Wagner’s Parsifal.
from notes by Stephen Hough © 1997