Does the ending of the 19th-century composer’s passionate Piano Quintet point to a secret love, asks Rebecca Franks
There’s always something deliciously enjoyable about going behind the scenes of a performance, whether it’s nipping backstage at a concert, sitting in on a rehearsal or – as I recently discovered – going to the recording of a radio programme.
Cesar Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor had until last month been a bit of a blank for me, so I thought I’d head along to the recording of Radio 3’s Discovering Music programme on the work, presented by Stephen Johnson and featuring The Schubert Ensemble.
The process was wonderfully informal, with the presenter knocking things over, the first violinist grimacing at a dud note and making the group start over, techies rushing on stage to swap a not-so-infallible microphone. But, human touches aside, the real interest came from going behind the scenes of a piece of music, and being guided so masterfully around its harmonic staircases and melodic corridors by the musicians and presenter.
Written in 1880, Franck’s Quintet has all the traits you’d associate with the French-Belgian composer. In particular he uses his technique of cyclical transformation, which sees melodies recalled and transfigured, a bit like the evolution of our own memories. What’s especially striking about the piece is its stark ending – with string unisons rather than a harmonised cadence in either F minor or F major. What does it mean, asked Stephen Johnson. Good question. It’s an equivocal close, and its very unexpectedness seems to suggest it must be there for a reason.
No answer was forthcoming – though the troupe of chamber music explorers demonstrated various different endings for the audience to hear their impact. But in the hunt for an explanation, there was a detour into the story around the music.
At the work’s premiere, Franck’s French compatriot Saint-Saëns played the piano part. He was also the dedicatee. So you can imagine Franck must have been somewhat put out when Saint-Saëns denounced the work, and the autograph score was found in a pile of waste paper.
The reason for Saint-Saëns’s disdain? Well, in this case it was less the music, more the inspiration. For at the time of writing this Quintet, Franck had been infatuated with a pupil 25 years his junior – Augusta Holmès (who later became a fine composer in her own right). Who else happened to be in love with the young mademoiselle? None other than Saint- Saëns, whose repeated offers of marriage had been spurned. A juicy detail and amusing to know. Nevertheless, as violinist Simon Blendis suggested, perhaps it’s best not to look to the life to explain the music, but to the music to explain the life.
Discovering Music is on Sundays on Radio 3. The date and time of the César Franck broadcast are yet to be confirmed.
Rebecca Franks is online editor and staff writer for BBC Music Magazine
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