Clocking in at around 10 minutes, the very title Prelude seems a bit misleading. It is, in fact, a fully-fledged sonata movement, complete with developmental fugue (!), and is the largest in scale, texture, and density of any of the movements. The opening chordal theme, marked Allegro moderato e maestoso, is warm, lush, and (somehow not conflictingly), march-like. Here and throughout one hears organ textures aplenty—thick, chordal writing is standard, but it is always rich with counterpoint. Additionally, the formal proportions are quite clear—a cadential trill and pause will mark the appearance of the second, more pensive, theme, first framed in high register (here again the organ’s antiphonal facility is invoked, with soprano statements answered by mellower treble/bass statements). The first truly turbulent music will be seen prior to another clear break which precipitates the development, which itself begins with a dark, severe and jagged fugue subject (an unorthodox subject in octaves). This slow-burn fugue will reach a violent outcry, which is suddenly assuaged by the most luminous, cantabile melody, carried downward by a rippling undercurrent. The recapitulation is again framed clearly, and will arrive in a most sublime way at the coda (for those interested in harmony, one of the most beautiful and unexpected modulations occurs here, when Franck introduces by deft slight-of-hand, the Neapolitan key).
As its title suggests, this is a cantabile movement whose inspiration is most likely domestic/secular, but it often approximates in texture the Chorale movement of Franck’s other, more well-known work for piano (the Prelude, Chorale and Fugue). Things often occur in threes in Franck’s music, and this movement is a good example—after the improvisatory introduction, Franck gives three melodic cells; the first is child-like, simple, and seems to have the contour of a cradle song. The second is closely related, but intimates by its harmonic complexion more troubled inner impulses. The third melody is truly “Franckian”; the most chromatic, and with Wagnerian harmonies underneath. When each melody appears it is stated twice—once in the soprano and then in the bass—and throughout the movement this happens twice (for a total of six). Franck’s reliance on this scheme verges on dangerous—one further statement could weary the listener. In fact, it may be an intentional red herring—the very opening (and closing) melody, in high relief atop a swath of arpeggios, will prove to be a much more important component of the whole work (this is seen in Finale).
This is one of the truly virtuosic, exciting Romantic finales (and remains, along with its two preceding companions, undeservedly under-played). The opening chromatic rumble will be recognized as a counter-subject in the dark fugal development of the Prelude—here it is a theme in its own right, and one of malevolent intentions. Its harmonic twisting and side-stepping is nearly exhausting, and is only supplanted by the most heroic impulses of the second theme whose march-like chords reach the physical extremities of the keyboard. This theme will be framed again under a shimmering, joyful right hand just prior to the development. Franck’s love of cyclical music (if not clear from the Finale’s outset) is certainly obvious around the middle of the development—after the opening rumbling theme, the Aria’s childlike theme appears, almost celestial amidst a constellation of arpeggios. But it is the moment of the coda’s onset which is perhaps the most exhilarating cyclic achievement in the entire work—here, over a thundering torrent of octaves in the bass, the opening maestoso theme of the Prelude appears triumphantly. Immediately following is a passage of sublime beauty—Franck has wedded this theme (the Prelude’s opening) to the first theme of the Aria in an opalescent couching of arpeggios. This is at once recognized as the moment of complete cyclical consummation—all themes have been brought together. Listeners will be struck at the optimistic, patient way Franck achieves this; where the cyclical point of the Prelude, Chorale and Fugue is certainly on a more thunderous, epic scale, the one seen here is quietly understated, and is allowed to play out and deliquesce with a graceful tranquility.