French music before the First World War, noted Ravel, was a severely partisan, factional phenomenon, divided broadly into two opposing schools. ï¿½The Old comprises the disciples of César Franck [d'Indy, the Schola Cantorumites, Duparc, Dukas], and Claude Debussy may justly be considered the principal initiator of the New' (Cahiers d'aujourd'hui, February 1913). Notwithstanding, artistic crossover and the open admiration of one for the other, wasn't discouraged ï¿½ witness Debussy in the Easter issue of Gil Blas (13 April 1903): ï¿½In Franck we find a real devotion to music. We must take it or leave it. Nothing in the world could have made him alter any part he considered right and necessary, however long it may have been ï¿½ we just have to sit through it [ï¿½] Franck is united with other great musicians, those to whom every sound had an exact meaning taken in its context: each sound is used in a precise way, and it asks nothing but to be taken for what it is. This is exactly why he is so different from Wagner, who is uniquely beautiful but impure and seductive. César Franck serves music without any glory. What he takes from life, he puts back into art with modesty that is almost selfless.'
Master of the organ loft (Ste Clotilde, Paris), artist of ï¿½truth and luminous serenity', messenger of ï¿½spiritual [light], excluding the least touch of violent colour' (d'Indy's ï¿½gospel', 1906), ï¿½enamoured of gentleness and consolation; (Camille Mauclair, La Religion de la Musique, 1909), was the image of Franck nurtured by his disciples. The emotions of the Piano Quintet and Violin Sonata, the eroticism of Psyché, the high peaks of the D minor Symphony, tell a different story, however, posing an earthier man, less chaste, freed of starch and wingcollar. Central to this perspective was a woman. Not his dutifully religious consort, Félicité (married in 1848), but a decorously rampant student twenty-five years his junior, Augusta Holmï¿½s (who had entered his organ classes at the Conservatoire in 1875). An ï¿½impure and seductive' Wagnerite of Irish/Scottish descent, this imperious, politically-charged mademoiselle, we're told by Saint-Saï¿½ns' biographer James Harding (1965), was possessed of ï¿½bold, beautiful features, abundant golden hair, and handsome breasts of which she was justifiably proud'. ï¿½Trï¿½s décolletée', Rimsky-Korsakov could not help but notice at the 1889 Paris Exposition. Muse and mistress to an era, she bewitched Franck to the end of his life (he dedicated the third of his organ Chorals to her in 1890). And repeatedly turned down marriage proposals from Saint-Saï¿½ns, who was later to write: ï¿½We were all in love with her. Literary men, painters, musicians ï¿½ any one of us would have been proud to maker her his wife.'
The explosive cocktail of Franck and Augusta, Saint-Saï¿½ns and Félicité (rebuffed lover, rejected wife), ignited with the Piano Quintet (1878-79), premiï¿½red in Paris by Saint-Saï¿½ns and the Marsick Quartet at a promotion of the Société Nationale, 17 January 1880. In its pages Debussy found ï¿½true music'. Not, though, ï¿½lynx-like' Félicité (sensing almost certainly that after nearly thirty years of marriage the feelings displayed within had little to do with her) ï¿½ her loathing, ï¿½hatred' even, of the piece becoming a marital issue. Nor ï¿½tortured' Saint-Saï¿½ns, masculine pride dented ï¿½ whose public snub Vincent d'Indy recorded for history. ï¿½At the end of the concert, good old Father Franck, in great delight (he was always pleased with any
performance, however poor, of his works) went up to Saint-Saï¿½ns, with a wry smile (ï¿½grimaï¿½ant un sourireï¿½) ï¿½ those who witnessed the scene can never forget it ï¿½ twirled round and made off towards the exit, leaving the precious score on the piano. Long afterwards, an employee of the firm of Pleyel found it among a heap of waste paper' (Cobbett's, 1929).
Dating from the decade of the Symphony, String Quartet, Violin Sonata and Prélude, Chorale and Fugue for piano, the Quintet, like them, is organised cynically, its 36 minutes bound (hovered over, d'Indy says) by a melody ï¿½in the highestdegree expressive' ï¿½ the (Symphony-anticipant, second beat emphatic) second subject of the first movement, motto-melody of the work. Post-Liszt-fashion, this recurs in different keys, tonal relationships, rhythms, meters and time-stretches, without ever losing sight of its critically tensioned opening dominant-minor sixth/dominant-major sixth oscillation. The ascending contour of the gapped interval is faithfully preserved too, albeit floating between a minor third and fifth. Franck was drawn to tripartite schemes and triptych structures. Here, the outer movements, in F minor and F major, are sonata designs with introductions, binary expositions, toughly argued developments, and Beethoven-descended codas orbiting around the motto-melody variously contextualised and psychologically aspected ï¿½ initially calming, latterly ï¿½called upon to fill the office of regulator [ï¿½] with the object of setting all in order' (d'Indy). The elegiac 12/8 Lento in A minor is striking for a subsidiary figure (initially a descending minor triad followed by the motto's minor sixth falling to the dominant) proving sufficiently significant to be reworked in the finale as the basis of the second subject (major triad replacing minor). The motto-melody is recalled in a D flat middle section, its remoteness of key, d'Indy suggests, lending it the presence of ï¿½some holy mountain til now untrodden'. Franck's melodic casting is distinctively personal ï¿½ as much for the cellular interrelationships he fashions and draws upon as the minor/major flux of their modal habitat. In isolation, stripped of harmonic underlay, the seven pitches of the twelve notes of the slow movement's opening four-bar phrase are typical, tracing falling sequences in D Dorian, D Aeolian/A Phrygian, and A major. Relying often on pivotal links, sometimes shock tactics, the tonal dynamic is similarly very fluid. In the exposition of the first movement, the motto-melody only reaches A flat (the relative major of the classical F minor model) via the unpredictability of D flat, E and G. In the finale the second subject comes first in B major/minor, before being spirited into F sharp minor for the largely F major recapitulation (remembering possibly the F major/F sharp minor digression in Beethoven's Eighth Symphony?). Together with Brahms and Bruckner, Franck's Renaissant counterpointing of themes was legendary ï¿½ at the beginning of the finale reprise, when the first subject is entwined with the opening idea and subsidiary figure of the slow movement, we encounter his art at its most dramatically concentrated.
The celebrated A major Sonata (1886, according to the second edition for either violin or cello), was written as a wedding present for Augï¿½ne Ysï¿½ye, who gave the first performance at a concert of the Société des XX in Brussels, 16 December 1886, together with Léontine Marie Bordes-Pï¿½ne (dedicatee of Franck's later Prélude, Aria and Finale) ï¿½The Séance, which began at three o'clock', d'Indy recalled, ï¿½had been very long, and it was rapidly growing dark. After the first allegretto [ï¿½], the performers could scarcely read their music. Now the official regulations [of the Musée Moderne de Peinture] forbade any light whatever in rooms which contained paintings, even the striking of a match would have been a matter for offence. The public was requested to leave, but the audience, already full of enthusiasm, refused to budge. Then Ysï¿½ye was heard to strike his musicstand with his bow, exclaiming ï¿½Get on, get onï¿½. And then, unheard-of-marvel, the two artists plunged in gloom in which nothing could be distinguished, performed the last three movements from memory, with a fire and passion more astounding to the listeners in that there was an absence of all externals which could enhance the performance. Music, wondrous and alone, held sovereign sway in the darkness of the night. The miracle will never be forgotten'. (Cobbett's). Cross-referenced thematically (the intervals of the minor/major third being particularly important) and cadentially (dynamically swelled tonic key groundings suspended to heighten tension), the work ranges in character and mood from rhapsody to fantasy, Classical discipline to Romantic abandon, tender reflection to elated climax. Its impulsion is splendid, the sweep grand, the voluptuous fruit of the Quintet sweetly mellowed into a wine of rampant bouquet. Resolving the ruminative ï¿½question' of the opening 9/8 movement, the swirling rhythms and restless tonal/tempo currents of the second (a sonata-ï¿½scherzo' in four), and the speech patterns of the formally liberated third, the easy song of the finale, a canonic rondo lyrical and lordly, is justly famous.
Ates Orga, 2005