“Style and substance” in the new and serious French music: Franck’s heavenly music


We cannot stop thinking about César Franck’s music; Franck is certainly a different composer to Mozart and Beethoven and is today remembered only for a few works.  But what works these are!  These works have continued to attract love, adoration and devotion: yes, there’s that alluring song Panis Angelicus (here sung by the incomparable Jessye Norman) for which Franck is perhaps most famous.

But for the pianist, it is the Prélude, Choral & Fugue that makes Franck most remembered for: slotting a vocally-inspired Chorale in between a Prelude and a Fugue, this piece is filled with chromatic harmonies and transcendent form (do find Argerich’s recording if you can, though there is Richter’s, Kissin’s, and Chamayou’s, all beautiful).  But Franck – who did not write any sonata for the piano – wrote two other 3-part, triptych piano pieces that are quasi-sonatas; the first of these – also based around adding something to the Prelude and the Fugue – is the Prélude, Fugue & Variation (written for the harmonium and the piano, with an arrangement for the organ, and transcribed for the piano by Harold Bauer, and like the Prélude, Choral & Fugue, in B minor with a B major ending!) (here with the wonderful pianist Jorg Demus and here the magnetic organist Xaver Varnus recorded live on the Cavaillé-Coll organ at the church of St Sulpice in Paris).  Franck himself gave the first performance of this piece that is dedicated to fellow French organist-composer, Camille Saint-Saëns.

The second of these 3-part, triptych piano pieces is the Prélude, Aria & Finale (listen to Bolet playing this) which was written only 2 years after the Prélude, Choral & Fugue; the two pieces have obvious kinship, with significant similarities including the use of cyclic form, the central sections being inspired by the human voice, and a shared vision of final redemption, with the triumph of good over evil.

There are differences too: where the Prélude, Chorale & Fugue has a distinctly religious flavour, the Prélude, Aria & Finale sounds more secular (the Chorale is a religious motet, the Aria a secular song); and where the former work is universal in its message, the latter seems almost domestic, though no less spiritually serious.

Away from vocal and keyboard works, Franck is also well-known today for his violin sonata (1886) (he wrote only one) (here in Argerich / Solozobova pairing and here in Oistrakh / Richter pairing) as well as his Piano Quintet in F Minor (1879) (he also wrote only one of these), one an ever-popular sonata for the accomplished violinist, the other a stalwart of the chamber musicians’ repertoire, both of which perfect monuments of a warm and noble musical nature and a strong, thorough craftsmanship that have survived all trends and changes of attitudes and taste.

This and his organ pieces mark him as one of the most powerful French composers in the second half of the 19th century.  In fact, Franck and his pupils are responsible for the “new seriousness” of French music in the last quarter of the 19th century.

Franck’s friends record that he was “a man of utmost humility, simplicity, reverence and industry.”  Louis Vierne, a pupil and later organist titulaire of Notre-Dame, wrote in his memoirs that Franck showed a

constant concern for the dignity of his art, for the nobility of his mission, and for the fervent sincerity of his sermon in sound… Joyous or melancholy, solemn or mystic, powerful or ethereal.”

He has also been called:

at once a Platonic philosopher and an admirable musician.

Seriousness, humility, simplicity and philosophy aside, Franck’s music is marked by soaring, almost improvisatory melodic flights.   Franck was an enormously gifted improviser and his improvisations after church services were major public attractions.  It has been recounted that none other than Franz Liszt had, upon hearing Franck at the organ of St. Clotilde, remarked that

This man is either the devil himself or a reincarnation of J.S. Bach!

and who had commented early on that

My dear friend, M. César-Auguste Franck . . . writes very beautiful music very seriously … I do not know three in France who match him”.  

Is Franck the composer a model of ascetic efficiency?  For French music that is about both style and substance, one can do worse than listening to some exemplary Franck.


P.S. For those who love Saint-Saëns’ music, he was pallbearer at Franck’s funeral that took place, appropriately, at the St Clotilde, which is where Franck spent many years as organist.

P.P.S. And for those interested in lineages, Franck was indeed born in 1822 in Liège that is in today’s Belgium but was at the time of his birth part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands; it is understood that his father is the descendent of a family which originated, so it is said, in the Antwerp region (a line of descent analogous to that of Beethoven).

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