Thursday, May 10, 2012

Music of the Great Composers - César Franck (1822-1890)

We now come to the first in a pair of musicians who were best known during their lifetimes as organists, though they are remembered these days for the music they composed for other instruments. César Franck (imagine having Caesar for a first name all your life!) was born in the city of Liège, which was under control of the Netherlands when he was born, later becoming part of the kingdom of Belgium. Some perhaps have regarded Franck as the first Belgian composer of international recognition, but realistically his art lies totally within the French musical orbit, besides which, as anyone who knows Belgium at all well, the Belgians have no national culture of their own. Come on now, César Franck was a French composer even more than the other composer with a French last name who was “more Polish than Poland.” In fact, we will suggest that being a recognized French composer had more to do with one's direct participation in French culture than actually being born in the bosom of French soil.

Franck was given his exalted sounding name by an ambitious father, who it is assumed wished his son to go out there and conquer the world and bring fame and fortune home to his family. We know of many such persons in music and sport, who had to endure similar family tensions. His full given name was, César-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert Franck (Caesar-Augustus John William Hubert Franck). He would dispense with all that and become just César Franck.

He had some difficulty establishing himself as a French composer because he wasn't born and raised in France. So, it was tough to get in even if one spoke French, though probably not the Parisian variety, which is the only one that ever counts. Franck's father got his sons provisional French citizenship as required to attend the Paris Conservatoire in those days. Very oddly, he would later in life have to go through the whole bureaucratic process again in order to get a teaching job there.

Through whatever difficulties he faced, Franck remained a very mild mannered, even shy person, who established himself within two typically French institutions; THE music academy of music academies, the Paris Conservatoire and the Church, as an organist, but not as an ordained religious (as had been Franz Liszt).

Franck's life begins within a family run by ambitious parents who send their artistically promising son to the local music school. He performs his first concerts at the age of 12, one before the new king of Belgium. Since Mozart's day, many ambitious parents had dreamed that their son would be as gifted, so they could tour them around Europe as a “wonder child” and make lots of money. The more modern idols of his day had been Liszt and Thalberg. But it wasn't to be. Instead, young César (age 13) was taken to Paris, along with his younger brother Joseph (a violinist). They took music lessons and performed popular music concerts around Paris and became somewhat successful. The music they played was probably incidental dance music, salon music of the times, rather than anything classical or weighty.

The Franck brothers entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1837: César was fifteen and his brother Joseph even younger. César got the first prize in piano his first year and kept up his performance skills while there. He begins his musical life as a pianist, but wants to be a composer and win the same prize Hector Berloz worked so hard to finally win; the Prix de Rome, which entitled the winner to an all expenses paid year in Rome to study art and, it was hoped, write some exemplary musical composition while there.

But César's plans were hampered and eventually broken by his father who during this period was always a factor, demanding that César teach private students and give concerts. In fact his father got directly involved in promoting his sons' musical efforts, much to the disgust of Parisian music critics. Franck's father eventually demanded César and his brother leave Paris and return to Belgium, just two months before César turned 20. There were no prospects in Belgium so within two years his father takes César (and his brother) back to Paris where he is ordered to teach students and give concerts.

In the 1840's César is writing what he considers his first serious compositions. We are fortunate to have access to a good performance of the first of these; Trio Concertant No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1 #1, for piano, violin and cello (1840). The players are Sviatoslav Richter (piano), Oleg Kagan (violin) and Natalya Gutman (cello) recorded in 1983 in Moscow. This piece is in three movements.
I. Andante con moto
II. Allegro molto
[PART 1]
III. Finale: Allegro maestoso

While there are occasional traces of stylistic elements that certainly derive from Beethoven, there is more space, more atmosphere, a bigger texture, almost symphonic. Franck had huge hands and a tremendous pianistic technique. A nice gliding series of octaves or chords would have been nothing for him. The second movement elides into the tortuous finale, where the effect he seems to want to accomplish is … to express what it is like to live under the rigours of an oppressive father who may be lurking as a menacing force behind the scenes, occasionally stomping forth to upset things. When that force is not present, the mood seems to become more relaxed, more spatial and happier, though sort of long winded near the end. It's quite a strong work, and promises much more to come from this 18 year old composer.

But as his chance to become a famous (and well paid) travelling concert artist doesn't seem very likely, as he is now no longer a child and the critics, either because of his father or other considerations, just aren't interested, Franck retired from the public limelight to become a teacher and accompanist.

One of César's students is a girl from a theatrical family, who he had known while at the Conservatoire. His friendship with this girl and her family enraged his father. Things finally come to a head in the summer of 1846. César is 23 and according to French law his father has the right to forbid their marriage until his son is 25, so he takes all his belongings out of his parents' place and moves in with his girlfriend's family who welcome him. César intended from that time to make a clean break from his father. He waits until he is 25, informs his father that he would marry the girl and does so in early 1848 while the February Revolution brought the Orleans monarchy to an end. Apparently his parents were sufficiently reconciled to his marriage that they showed up and signed the guest register. It was a successful marriage by the way, but I was unable to find any pictures of his wife and children.

During this time Franck was also set on the course to become a professional organist, having gained a position at his local church. A succession of promotions over the next few years strengthened this professional trajectory until he became really the most famous organist since J. S. Bach and a link in a succession of French organ composers reaching into the 20th century. He loved his Cavaillé-Coll designed organ which he said made him feel as if in command of a great orchestra. It may come as a surprise to modern organists that back in those days most organs really didn't have a full range of pedals as they do now. Franck worked with those who were among the first outside Germany to have expanded pedal boards installed on French organs. More than that, he expanded his own experience especially with pedalling, improved the rest of his organ technique and toured France to demonstrate new techniques on older French organs. Eventually he would hear Antron Bruckner (the other great organist of this period who comes next in this series) and learn how to play the German organ masters. His regular students are interested in playing the organ but increasingly also in Franck's compositions.

The organ at St. Clotilde in Paris
where Franck was an organist for most of his career
In 1869, about the same time he hears Bruckner play the organ, the 47 year old Franck begins work on a major composition, an oratorio choral setting of the Beatitudes. Work on it is delayed by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the complete work is not performed until after Franck's death. It is his longest work, lasting about 2 hours. Modern recordings of this work exist with stellar casts but it is not often performed.

The Franco-Prussian war had a profound effect on France and on Franck and his family. Poverty brought on by the war also scattered many of his pupils, a few might even have died. The trend for an Ars Gallica or art that could be distinctly French was growing. We have seen in the two previous posts in this series how nationalism became a growing trend during this period exemplified by Wagner and Verdi for Germany and Italy respectively. 

In France many of Franck's students became ardent supporters of what they wanted to consider distinctly French music, a trend that would culminate in the flowering of what became known as French Impressionism in the last decade of the 19th century into the 20th exemplified by the works of Debussy and Ravel. In truth, César Franck became "Père Franck", the “Papa Haydn” for a number of French composers.

In 1872, Franck is 50 and is proposed to succeed an organ teacher at the Paris Conservatoire but it is discovered that he isn't technically a French citizen and must go through all that to become one. He finally gets his post a year later. He and his students, in or out of school, become a tight knit group who will focus on what they consider to be real authentic French music to counter the new thrusts from Germany, particularly from Wagner and his students and followers.

But there is treachery and politics in academe as everywhere else and Franck's style of teaching was considered lax and unsystematic. Always a great improviser, Franck advised his students to modulate from one key centre to another as the surest means of making interesting music. His “simple and trusting nature” tended to make it seem that he was either indifferent to the criticisms of others or immune from their often malicious attacks.

After trying large and elaborate choral and orchestral pieces that never really worked, Franck instead sets about composing his great mature works. We have in Franck an example of someone who though he might have already written much in his life, really doesn't get down to it until he's already nearly an old man, and then when he does, his students are inspiring him to do daring things while his wife is concerned for his reputation with the rest of the conservatoire faculty. His students included Vincent d'Indy, Ernest Chausson, Louis Vierne, and Henri Duparc; we might call them Franck's four. They will form the Ars Galica style centred around Paris, that would blossom into Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.

Franck's mature works include the symphonic poems Le Chasseur Maudit (1882) and Les Djinns (1883–1884), the Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue for piano (1884), the Variations Symphonique (1885), and the opera Hulda (1886). Of particular note is the Piano Quintet in F minor (1879) which Camille Saint-Saëns disliked. But I'll note here that there was nothing much, if anything, that Saint-Saëns liked of Franck's compositions. Franck had given Saint-Saëns a copy of his violin sonata which supposedly he wouldn't even see, but threw in the trash.

Let's hear a really great performance of the Quintet as it is quintessential Franck. The work is in 3 movements and is here played by Jorge Bolet and the Julliard String Quartet in a recording made in 1978:

I. Molto moderato quasi lento
[PART 1] 
[PART 2]
II. Lento, con molto sentimento

The climax, the last few years of his life saw Franck's Symphony in D minor which he completed in his 66th year, breathed new life into the idea of a truly French symphony long after the form had been neglected by most French composers. That being said, there were contemporaries of Franck's who wrote just as convincingly, and we shall inevitably encounter them, for this was the high flowering of late 19th century French orchestral romanticism, a long neglected repertoire. For now, since this majestic symphonic gem is timeless and essential and as it established Franck's undying fame, rather than trotting out the workhorse recordings, let's hear it from people who just played it yesterday in the overall scheme of things. This symphony is in three movements:

Symphony in d minor (1888)
I. Lento; Allegro ma non troppo.
II. Allegretto
[PART 2]
III. Finale: Allegro non troppo
[PART 1]

The Duna Symphonic Orchestra was conducted by Tamás Dániel Csűry. The recording was taken on 3 June 2009 in the Great Hall of the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. Bravo for them! Imagine hearing it live!

A word about this Ars Gallica period, because that's what it was after 1870 in France, after the political upheavals there and the war with Germany. From then on, there was a cleavage drawn between the followers of Wagner and what the French composers centred around Paris wanted to put forth as alternatives. Where the Germans went in for stronger even military forms and rhythms, the French style was said to be more “natural” or “naturalistic” having they said, more to do with the natural beauty of France, etc.  In some cases which we shall discuss in future posts in this series, perhaps that is even overtly true.  But in the case of much of it, Franck's symphony in particular, and other works by his students, there is every bit as much sadness, grief, angst, etc. as in the German works. It is instead of being on an epic scale, rather on an intimate scale. You feel the German music as a majestic sometimes brutal sweep of energy pass over and through you, whereas you feel the French music intuitively and personally.

To me, this symphony has always represented the expression of heroic torture, the acceptance of the suffering state of humanity, the French people, Franck and his family among them, clearly suffered the effects of their war with Germany, nevertheless surviving as a people and a nation. The composers of Ars Gallica music were certainly as nationalistic as their German counterparts. At the close of the 19th century, nationalism was becoming a natural part of musical traditions in many nations. We will encounter them all sooner or later in these posts.

There are quite a few who are of the opinion that nationalism is always bad, that it leads to war, etc. and must be discarded in favour of some internationalism or globalism. For the sake of argument, we will just say that we sharply disagree, and believe that war has always been contrived by certain interests with ulterior motives as an excuse to ensnare and destroy nations per their whim, that nationalism per se, had little to do with anything other than to corral people into believing that their lives and livelihoods were endangered by foreigners as an excuse to have them kill and get killed during countless pointless wars.

Nationalism in art and music were inevitable, and it took on a veritable flowering during the late “romantic” period of the 19th century. These works began as paeans to local national traditions, but were in fact swept up, championed and heard within months if not weeks of their première, all over Europe and beyond. Orchestral scores were being rented out and orchestras were forming and touring, providing a larger slice of people's musical awareness than it does now, especially in Europe of course, but even in the Americas. Yes, European orchestras began touring North and South America by the 1880's. The last 20 years of the 19th century into the first quarter of the 20th saw the Golden Age of this phenomenon, which produced many world renowned “star” conductors. Before leaving this point concerning nationalism, it is also a very clear pattern that frequently a composer found his chief proponents and backers among people and in nations the music was not strictly written for. Wagner had a strong following in England and America, the French very often did well in Germany and Russia. Italian opera went everywhere outside Italy and did well.

Another of César Franck's great contributions was an equivalent to a piano concerto in one movement, which is really maybe two fused together, his Variations Symphonique (1885). This was just a few years prior to his symphony, he was 62. This majestic and magical piece, also expressive of pain, sadness, doubt, wonder, mystery, humour, joy, farce all through modulation of tone centres, one of his favourite techniques, was employed throughout this thoroughly French composition!

Simon Grisdale played it at the 12th Soirée des Grands Amateurs de piano at the Opéra Comique in Paris, with the Orchestre de la Garde Républicaine, conducted by François Boulanger.

Eugène Ysaÿe
Franck's Violin Sonata, the Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano, of 1886, the composer's 63rd year stands as one of perhaps a half dozen of the greatest works for this combination of instruments in the entire classical repertoire. Some stories indicate ideas for this work were in Franck's head or on paper as long as 28 years before its completion and that it was intended for, of all people, Cosima von Bülow, the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt and future wife of Richard Wagner. It was given instead as a wedding present for the 31-year-old violinist Eugène Ysaÿe who toured it and played it all over Europe. It was soon taken up by nearly every great violinist then and since. The work has classical structure to it, at least on the surface. It is a cyclical composition all tied together by certain thematic and harmonic ideas which culminate in something that really does seem an anthem to celebrate some kind of consolidated enterprise, a family or a nation, after of course enduring painful hardships, of course a supremely Ars Galica kind of piece too.
II. Allegro

The Franck Violin Sonata played by Ray Chen,violin & Thomas Hoppe, piano, recorded at the Finals of the 2009 Queen Elisabeth International Violin Competition in Brussels. Chen is playing on 'The Macmillan' Stradivarius on loan to him through the Young Concert Artist's International Auditions. Chen currently studies at the Curtis Institute of Music under Aaron Rosand. Follow him here.  Yes, why not. Many promising musicians need encouragement and these days perhaps even more to continue working and finding an audience. His accompanist, Mr. Hoppe certainly seems technically up to the challenge too.

Organ music is not to everyone's taste, some can't help but associate it with funerals. Others regard organ music as symphonic. We have reviewed Franck's first published work, here is perhaps his last work, an organ Chorale, one of three which he was able to complete before his death. Here it is played by André Marchal (1894-1980). Organ: Grand Orgue de l'église Sainte-Eustache in Paris. Recorded in 1958:

Charale #3 in a minor (1890)
[PART 1] 
[PART 2]

In July 1890 Franck was involved in a traffic accident, riding in a cab which was struck by a horse-drawn trolley, injuring his head and causing a short fainting spell. While there seemed no after-effects; he completed his trip and considered it of no consequence. But walking became painful and he found himself increasingly obliged to absent himself first from concerts and rehearsals, and then to give up his lessons at the Conservatoire. Then following on rapidly, Franck started the new term at the Conservatoire in October, but caught a cold mid-month which turned into pleurisy complicated by pericarditis. His condition rapidly worsened and Franck died on the 8th of November, 1890, a month short of his 68th birthday.

Franck may go down in history as one of the least recognized of the truly great composers. His works are deep and difficult and require great forces and a great heart to bring out their best. But we trust along with anything that is worthwhile in life, that the efforts are justified by the immense musical rewards.


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