About this work
In 1874 a new pianistic star, the 19-year-old Marie Poitevin, blazed into the pianistic firmament, taking first prize at the Paris Conservatoire. A pupil of Elie Miriam Delaborde, she was praised not only for her transcendental mécanisme and her powerful, richly colored sonority, but for "an all too rare artistic conscience, which makes it a duty to sacrifice nothing to effect and lends her playing a remarkable purity of style" (Victor Dolmetsch, Le Ménestral, March 12, 1882). Franck, who taught an organ class at the Conservatoire, could hardly fail to be captivated, and for her debut at the Société National de Musique, Marie was entrusted with the second performance of his Quintet for Piano and Strings. On April 8, 1880, Marie gave the premiere of six of the Dix pièces pittoresques by his friend, Chabrier. Franck's comment on the occasion -- "We have just heard something quite extraordinary -- music which links our era with that of Couperin and Rameau" -- no doubt owes nearly as much to Mlle Poitevin's style sévère "purity" as it does to the scintillant crispness of Chabrier's muse, which lends a clue to the clarity and dry brilliance (difficult to obtain on a latter-day grand piano) which Franck's age took for granted. And she played Bach -- at that time a fairly recondite taste -- superbly. Franck, himself a great organist and a Bach devotee, was not only enchanted but creatively stirred, confiding to his pupils his wish to "enrich" the French pianistic repertoire with substantial works.
Not until the spring of 1884 did Franck come to grips, in an era contentiously preoccupied with Wagner and just beginning to appreciate Beethoven's later works, with the task of reviving the forms which had moved Bach. Accordingly, a searchingly ruminative prélude and the swiftly running fugue -- beginning with angst-laden drama to conclude in triumphantly incandescent peals -- were composed together. Only then did the lack of something expressively and architecturally linking become apparent, prompting the composition of the great harped chorale, resounding across the keyboard and requiring the left hand to reach over into the treble to chime the theme. The upshot is an elaborately figured, chromatically inflected, and texturally rich essay in which doubt and faith, darkness and light, oscillate until a final ecstatic resolution. Mlle Poitevin, to whom the Prélude, Choral et Fugue is dedicated, gave the work its premiere at the Salle Pleyel, under the auspices of the Société National de Musique on January 24, 1885. It was published in the same year by Enoch.