Thursday, February 19, 2015

Cesar Franck and his Single Symphony

This weekend's concerts with the Harrisburg Symphony and Stuart Malina open with a Latin American dance by Mexican composer Arturo Marquez, continues with a "Spanish symphony" that is really a violin concerto by Edouard Lalo with soloist Augustin Hadelich returning to Harrisburg for the performances, and then concludes with one of the great Romantic symphonies from the late-19th Century.

The concerts are Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3 at the Forum in Harrisburg. The pre-concert talks with Assistant Conductor Gregory Woodbridge begin an hour before each performance.

You can read more about the Lalo and listen to clips of the Symphonie espagnole as well as some performances by Augustin Hadelich in this earlier post.

(Incidentally, the Harrisburg Symphony Youth Orchestra will be giving their Winter Concert on Monday, February 23rd at 7pm at the Forum, with a performance of the complete "New World Symphony" by Antonin Dvořák. You can read David Dunkle's article for the Carlisle Sentinel, here.)
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Cesar Franck at the Organ, 1885
Like Lalo, César Franck's reputation in the concert hall is based on only a few works, his only symphony, one of the great “war-horses” of the repertoire, the Violin Sonata, and the Symphonic Variations for Piano & Orchestra. It might be surprising to realize these were all written in a span of three years, between 1885 and 1888. Considering he died in 1890, it's almost as if, once he had achieved success, his career, barely begun, was cut short at the age of 67.

Franck's Symphony in D Minor is one of those works that is easy to play badly. I have heard more performances where I was convinced the conductor thought it should be nicknamed “La turgide” or “Le tedieuse” (which are not French for turgid or tedious)... It's not just the tempos – the famous 2nd movement is not a true slow movement: it's marked Allegretto, a moderate tempo – but also understanding where his harmony is headed, often converted into a mass of directionless chords with no tension to resolve, merely spinning to fill time. It can make a world of difference.

So, I was happy to find this recording on YouTube with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic. I hope it will give you a more positive feeling about Franck's symphony than the one I've grown up with...

(The 2nd movement begins at 17:09, the finale at 27:06.)

This is a three-movement symphony – not the usual four-movement format – where the middle movement takes on the roles of both slow movement and scherzo. There's nothing particularly “jocular” about Franck's scherzo section (as indeed, some of Brahms' scherzos are more laid-back intermezzos) but it gives you the necessary contrast between the dramatic first movement and the triumphant third.

English Horn (left), Oboe (right)
The most famous complaint against the symphony at its premiere – it was not well received – was its use of the English horn (an alto oboe, basically), a voice perfectly suited to the range and mood of the 2nd movement's main theme (listen to the clip above, beginning after 17:09). Traditionalists, even in 1888, were shocked – shocked, I say – at its appearance in the orchestra. Symphonies didn't have English horns in them!

Others were uncomfortable with Franck's melodic and harmonic language, very chromatic in a dark and slithering way. Where most tunes are built on a mixture of step-wise and triadic motion, Franck's often creep up or down half-step by half-step, as if the melody unwinds rather than unfolds, coiled around close but often remote-sounding harmonic motion.

You may also hear people talking about its “cyclical” form which has nothing to do with slowly-spinning harmonies. Basically, this refers to themes from previous movements being restated in the last movement. While most of Franck's themes germinate from similar sounding motives – the very opening reminds people of the questioning motive of Beethoven's last quartet, “Must it be?” – in the manner of Franz Liszt's “thematic transformation” (particularly in his tone-poem, Les preludes). But Beethoven had brought back previous themes in last movements (most famously to open the 5th Symphony and, with a different approach, in the finale of his 9th), something Anton Bruckner, another organist-composer, was doing in his latest symphonies (he had completed his 8th by 1887 but it wasn't performed until 1892).

When I mentioned to Stuart Malina last year that I've never been fond of the Franck, he immediately responded with his usual enthusiasm that he has always loved the piece. Given his ability to communicate that sense to his audience, I'm looking forward to his changing my mind.

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Young Cesar Franck
If Edouard Lalo's first lasting success came when he was 50, Cesar Franck was also something of a late-bloomer, though not for lack of trying.

Not quite 7 weeks older than Lalo, Franck was born in Liege, Belgium (then part of the “United Netherlands”) and following his first concerts there at the age of 12, his father was intent on turning his boy into a child prodigy along the lines of Mozart. The subsequent assault on Parisian audiences went unnoticed by the press but he stayed to begin his son's studies with those who taught the likes of Berlioz, Liszt and Gounod.

Had his father hoped for great things from his son? After all, he had named him “César-Auguste” and what child would want to go through life with the name “Caesar Augustus,” something the critics were quick to pounce on.

Young Franck produced a prodigious amount of music, most of it overlooked, but the disaster of his oratorio Ruth in 1846 prompted him to focus more on becoming an organist and teacher rather than a composer or concert pianist. That and his interest in marrying a woman his father thought “unsuitable” led to a bitter break with his family when he was 23 – and to the composer dropping the imperious “Auguste”...

As an organist and a practical-minded choir director, he sometimes supplied a number of pieces the position required out of necessity. In 1872, he composed the Panis angelicus which is still frequently performed and recorded. Franck would turn 50 that year.

His talent for improvisation led to a more serious attempt at resuming his latent compositional interests. One might say he was a composer who had an Early Period and a Late Period but no Middle Period. Eventually, when he was appointed the organ professor at the Paris Conservatoire, his organ class became an unofficial composition seminar that year, especially with his newly arrived student, Vincent d'Indy.

Franck then completed an oratorio, Redemption, which, badly performed, was a flop, leading to bitter disappointment. He would later revise it but this version wasn't performed until six years after the composer's death by which time, perversely, it was hailed as a great success!

But he continued to compose – his constantly evolving harmonic language especially inspired by having heard the Prelude to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. He wrote a considerable number of organ works but also some large-scale choral works like Les béatitudes (already begun in 1869) which he completed in 1879. His Piano Quintet, which he'd already been working on at the same time, was eventually premiered in 1880 with none other than Camille Saint-Saëns at the piano.

Unfortunately, they were stylistic opposites, Saint-Saëns the conservative and Franck among the Liszt-inspired avant-garde. Though he played brilliantly, Saint-Saëns made no secret of his dislike of the work: when Franck handed him the score with a dedication to him, one story goes, Saint-Saëns left it behind in the dressing room. Another story indicates Saint-Saëns sight-read the piece at the concert and became visibly more uncomfortable with the music as it went on (and it is over a half-hour long). He then stormed off the stage, ignoring the applause and the composer's effusive thanks for a “brilliant performance.” The work was certainly “ultra-expressive” emotionally and so harmonically advanced, people said it would make them blush to hear such “erotic” music coming from a church's organ loft.

Still, he persevered. In 1886, he composed two works – the Violin Sonata in A Major (one of his most successful peices) and an openly sensuous orchestral tone-poem, Psyché (as in the myth, “Cupid and Psyche”). A festival of his latest works the next year was jointly conducted by the composer (not a terribly effective conductor) and the unsympathetic Jules Pasdeloup, one of the leading conductors in Paris, yet the composer seemed to be the only one involved who was not embarrassed by the performances.

Then he began sketching what would become his first symphony and another opera. By this time, he was... 65!

As it turned out, it would be his only symphony.

At the time, his career as a performer was on the rise: in addition to weekly improvisation concerts at his church, he was now becoming recognized, once again, as a concert pianist. Psyché was revived and successfully received. He was working on a number of works for organ and had a cello sonata on the back burner.

As the story goes, he was on his way to give a lesson in the summer of 1890 when he was hit by a bus. That's not quite accurate as he was in a horse-drawn cab which was hit by a horse-drawn trolley, but most people seem to think he was run over by or at least knocked down by this trolley. He received enough of an injury that he had a fainting spell but still proceeded to his student's house. Later, walking became painful and there were other health issues that forced him to cancel lessons or going to concerts. In the fall, he resumed his Conservatory schedule but soon caught a cold which developed into pleurisy and pericarditis, whether or not his immune system (as we would call it today) had already been weakened by the after-effects of his accident. He died, then, a month and two days before his 68th birthday.

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There has always been a cultural antagonism between France and Germany (or rather, the German-speaking lands united by language if not by politics), visible during the Baroque era in the keyboard pieces of Rameau and Couperin compared to the works of Bach and which continued through the Classical and Romantic eras.

German music was generally considered more technical in terms of form, harmony and, especially, counterpoint and in general was considered to be more abstract and intellectual. The French viewed their music (if not their art in general) as more entertainment, more sensual (as in, oriented toward the senses) and more involved with surface appeal than integral structure (for instance, one of the hallmarks of the French Baroque, the detailed intricacy of melodic ornamentation).

These are, of course, generalities. Even more of a generalization would be comparing German (especially Prussian) punctuality (what was I reading lately where a German character was apologizing profusely for being a few minutes late?) to a certain French laissez faire vagueness. This might be more evident in French impressionism versus German abstraction or, musically, in the so-called impressionistic music of Debussy compared to the atonality and serialism of Schoenberg. The symphony, by nature, was German and the French had very little interest in its structural complexities: most French symphonies would be more like Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique, barely a symphony at all by Germanic standards (compared to Mendelssohn) or the sprawling literary canvases of his Romeo et Juliette or of the cosmopolitan Franz Liszt's based on Dante and Faust.

In fact, between the time Robert Schumann wrote his last completed symphony, the Rhenish, and Brahms finally completed his 1st, there are no major symphonies in the repertoire written between 1850 and 1876, not counting early symphonies by Bruckner or Tchaikovsky or those by composers rarely heard on modern orchestral programs like Raff or Berwald. 

In France, there are no symphonies of any consequence between Berlioz writing in the 1830s and Saint-Saëns' 3rd Symphony (the “Organ” Symphony) of 1886. There are, however, two “symphonies” by Frenchmen to be mentioned – Edouard Lalo's Symphonie espagnole which is really a violin concerto (and which is on the first half of this weekend's concert) written in 1873 and the Symphony on a French Mountain Air by Franck's pupil Vincent D'Indy which is a work for piano and orchestra (if not technically a concerto) based on French folk songs which dates from 1887.

Saint-Saëns was considered a reactionary composer in his day who, because of his interest in Germanic forms like the symphony, was often referred to as “the French Beethoven.” In France, this was not necessarily considered a compliment.

Then, in 1888, César Franck completed his Symphony in D Minor – three years after Brahms completed his 4th, the same year Tchaikovsky wrote his 5th, a young conductor named Gustav Mahler completed his 1st and a year before Antonin Dvořák wrote his 8th. For the French, Franck was too much influenced by the harmonies of Richard Wagner (who died in 1883) and Franz Liszt (who died in 1886) on the one hand and his expansion of classical structure inherited from Beethoven on the other.

Just for chronology's sake, I'll close by mentioning that four years after Franck died, a Frenchman named Claude Debussy composed his Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, one of the first major works in the new school known as “impressionism” with its vague sense of harmony and its thoroughly French view of the beautiful surface.

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Despite its tepid reception except from his supporters, Franck wrote to a friend immediately after its premiere, “What a lovely sound it makes! And what a splendid reception it had!”

When another friend asked him, considering the opening's similarity to Beethoven's “Must it be?” motive and the triumphant ending, if the symphony had been inspired by some literary work or dramatic idea (as many mid-19th Century symphonies would have been). He replied “No, it is just music, nothing but pure music. At the same time, while composing the allegretto, especially the first phrases of it, I did think – oh, so vaguely – of a procession in the olden times.”

Then he added, “I have been very daring, I know; but you wait till next time, I shall go much farther in daring then!”

Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to have a next time...

- Dick Strawser

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