La Belle Epoque (2) – Franck

CESAR FRANCK (1822 – 1890)

Right, I can hear you say. César Franck was Belgian. So what is he doing in a series on French composers. Got it in one. Oh dear! So let’s get that out of the way first. True, Franck was born in Liège which in 1822 happened to be then part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Belgium only became a newly founded kingdom in 1830. So he was Dutch to start with. However, he was naturalized French…twice you might note . He was taken to France by his father when he was fourteen (1836) to be entered into the Conservatoire. But one had to be French for that. So his father became naturalized for himself and for César-Auguste and his brother. Much later in 1872, Franck was proposed as organ professor at the Conservatoire. The nomination exposed the embarrassing fact that Franck was not a French citizen, a requirement for the appointment. It turned out that Franck did not know that when his father had naturalized him on that earlier occasion he was only counted as a citizen until twenty-one at which age he had to opt to declare his allegiance to France as an adult. Franck had always regarded himself as French from that earlier time and he had not realized that he had reverted to Belgian nationality at his majority. So he went through the naturalization process a second time, what Oscar Wilde might well have described as a habit. Franck was therefore as French as Handel was English. Handel had been naturalised by Act of Parliament but only the once. Franck, did it twice. He became as French as the Tour de France. Maybe that’s why he developed the cyclic form of composition. Belgian he might have been once but he was no Eddie Merckx.

When one writes of a composer we usually trace a career from childhood to middle age and from middle age, if they get that far, to old age. With Franck it was different. The early promise did not materialize and his middle development would have only been of interest to organ enthusiasts. It was only when approaching 60 that he emerged out of nowhere as a mature composer, a cult figure with a youthful following.

 César Franck, in full César-Auguste Franck was born of a Walloon father and a mother of German descent. Later he would drop the Auguste as César and Auguste was somewhat too pretentiously imperial. He showed unmistakable musical gifts that enabled him to enter the Liège conservatory at the age of eight, and his progress as a pianist was so astonishing that in 1834 his father took him on tour and a year later dispatched him to Paris, where he worked with the Bohemian composer Anton Reicha and one time boyhood friend of Beethoven . In 1836 the whole Franck family, including the younger son Joseph, who played the violin, moved to Paris, and in 1837 César Franck entered the Paris Conservatory. Within a year he was winning prizes including first prize for fugue (1840) and second prize for organ (1841) which importantly he began studying that year. As a result his compositions became noticeably more serious.

 By then Franck was preparing to compete for the Prix de Rome, a prize offered yearly in Paris for study in Rome. However his ambitious father had other plans and was determined on a virtuoso’s career for both him and his violinist brother. His father therefore got him to leave the conservatoire in order to give concerts and hoping to earn much-needed money. The programmes he and his brother gave were mainly devoted to performing his own fantasias and operatic potpourris. Whilst Franck’s technical abilities as a pianist were acknowledged, his abilities as a composer were (probably justly at this point) felt to be wanting. Increasingly his father’s promotion of his sons antagonized the Parisian critics and there were quarrels between some of them and Franck senior. One does not know the reason but the father found it necessary to leave Paris post haste and return to Liege in 1842.The return to Belgium lasted less than two years and it was in those two years that Franck achieved his majority and unknowingly lost his French citizenship. No profitable concerts arose; critics were indifferent; patronage was not forthcoming and there was no money to be made. The prodigal return was a failure, and the family returned to Paris with some low-paying concerts and some low paying teaching. From this period emerged the first mature compositions, a set of piano trios. which were seen and taken up by Liszt. In 1843, Franck began work on his an oratorio, Ruth. It was privately premiered in 1845 before Liszt, Meyerbeer, and other musical notables, who gave moderate approval but a public performance in early 1846 met with indifference and critical snubs. The work was not performed again until 1872, and then only after considerable revision.

Unwilling concert giving, with bad press notices, and the teaching needed led to stress between him and his pushy father. This was made worse when Franck fell in love with an actress by the name of Félicité Saillot and who was his pupil, but because both her parents also worked in the theatre, the family was regarded as unsuitable by the elder Franck. This led to the son leaving home to live with his fiancee’s parents until marrying her in 1848. After his marriage Franck’s way of life changed little for his remaining 42 years. He earned his livelihood as an organist and teacher and led a simple, almost ascetic life. Thus it was being an organist which determined the course of his musical career but he was not your common or garden Sunday organist. His talents in the field got him head hunted. In 1851 he was appointed organist to the Church of Saint-Jean-Saint-François whose curé Abbé Dancel, on himself being promoted in 1858, took Franck with him to that of Sainte-Clotilde, where he was already choirmaster. From the organ loft of Sainte-Clotilde came the improvisations for which he was to become famous and also their elaboration in organ and choral works. Franck’s fame as an organist was as an improviser and seen as second only to J S Bach. For all his renown in the field of organ composition his total written output is contained on just two CD’s

 More important to Franck’s career as a composer was his appointment as organ professor at the Paris Conservatory in 1872, which came to him as a surprise. His general lack of sophistication were to make his colleagues hostile and to create a friendly following among his pupils. This enmity was increased by the fact that his organ classes soon became classes of composition, and his pupils not infrequently proved superior to those of the conventional composition professors.

 A nucleus of a school of disciples led by Ernest Chausson had already begun to form around Franck to pursue a more national style which he interested in writing and communicated to his pupils. When Vincent d’Indy, a French composer, joined the group of Franck’s pupils in 1872, he brought an enthusiasm, a propagandist zeal, and an exclusive personal devotion that played a large place in restoring Franck’s confidence in his powers. It was more Franck under the influence of his pupils than vice versa. He was seen as a lover of Wagner and more remotely related back to Beethoven. In mood he is more akin to Brahms but adapting these influences to a French connection such as cor anglais and harps in the second movement of his symphony. His wife was somewhat sceptical of the course he was following and tensions grew between her and the groupies who extolled him.

 As a composer Franck emerged and fulfilled his potential only in the last 10 years (1880–90) of his life. His Symphony in D Minor (1888), Symphonic Variations(1885), Piano Quintet in F Minor (1879), String Quartet in D Major (1889), Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano (1886), and several organ pieces mark him as one of the most powerful French composers in the second half of the 19th century. His music is marked by soaring, dark colours and almost improvisatory melodic flights. There is no trace of the likes of Massenet or Offenbach or the can-can school of composition. The symphony is dark and brooding, a more Germanic sound, but its main theme is wonderfully life enhancing. The second movement was claimed to sound French and original with cor anglais accompanied by harps. Not quite so original bearing in mind Berlioz had harps prominent in “Un Bal” the second movement of the Symphonie Fantastique and the cor anglais leading the show in Scène aux Champs, the third movement. The Symphonic Variations were more popular in the 1950’s than today but it is a captivating short work. The opening seems filched from the slow movement of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto, starting with gruff strings which are similarly calmed down by the piano bringing about a middle section which is as dreamy as Chopin.

 Franck died, partly as the result of a street accident, in 1890. The new seriousness of French music in the last quarter of the 19th century came about from him and his pupils. Much has been made of his simplicity of character, his selflessness and innocence in the ways of the world. These traits could be said to reflect in his compositional style in lack at times of strongly contrasting musical ideas. His music does at times lack development as in the symphony which according to cyclic form reverts to earlier movements rather than developing and analyzing his current themes. On the other hand, the Violin Sonata and the Symphonic Variations remain inspirational and almost improvisatory in manner reflecting a unique musical and, yes, a thorough craftsmanship.