It cannot be doubted that Franck was one of the most gifted musicians of the nineteenth century. After a brief, frustrating career as a reluctant child prodigy and virtuoso, Franck escaped from his tyrannical father into marriage and the modest life of a church organist, though his ambitions were anything but small. By 1847, when he took his first post as organist, at Notre Dame de Lorette, the greatest challenge facing a serious composer was the attainment of a comprehensive certainty of style. If Saint-Saëns, Gounod, and Bizet looked back to Classical models for their symphonies, Franck -- with his preternatural aptitude for counterpoint -- espoused the works of Bach and the later Beethoven as his models, though his assimilation of these two (at that time) rather recondite tributaries proved both haphazard and creatively transforming.
When Franck moved into a new post as organist of the just-constructed, soon-to-be fashionable Parisian basilica of Sainte-Clotilde, with its superb Cavaillé-Coll organ, he was spurred to his first attempt to cut through the Gordian knot of style with his Six Pieces for Organ. Though their precise dating is disputed, they seem to have taken shape between 1858 and 1864. As one might expect, they are a rather mixed bag, with the Prière essaying facile religious sentiments, yet with that touch of chromatic yearning which marked Franck as a mystic to his contemporaries; the Prélude, Fugue et Variation looking ahead to the great piano triptychs of the 1880s; a Final touched with the spirit of Offenbach; and the imposing Grande Pièce symphonique which demonstrated that the great Romantic organ could rival an orchestra in works of symphonic scope.
Revealingly, it is dedicated to Charles-Valentin Alkan, a composer and virtuoso given to facetious stylistic toying. More to the point, in 1857 Alkan had published his monumental Douze Études dans tous les tons mineurs, Op. 39, which included -- for solo piano -- a symphonie in four movements, and the stupendous concerto in three. Though played without a break, the Grande Pièce symphonique is usually analyzed as being in three movements -- the development of the central Andante leads to a scherzo-like Allegro, as in the great Symphony in D Minor (1888). The opening Andante serioso makes large gestures soon halted by a second, anxiously questioning theme, and the two are developed in something very much like sonata first movement form. The central Andante is notable mainly for its cloying, chromatically pleading melody. After reminiscences of the foregoing, in the manner of the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the initial theme is fugally worked to a brilliantly resounding peroration. It was heard for the first time with Franck's premiere of the Six Pièces at Sainte-Clotilde on November 17, 1864.