Exploited as a child performer by his unprincipled father, Franck was a late developer when it came to composition, writing his most famous works a few years before his death.
Few men can have been so unsuitably christened as César Auguste Jean Guillaume Hubert Franck. He looked more like a suburban clerk than the Roman emperors whose grandiloquent names he bore. Passers-by in the Paris streets would see an absent-minded figure trotting along in voluminous black overcoat, stove-pipe hat and trousers that flapped high above his calves. His unworldliness was proverbial. One day, for a joke, his fellow composer André Messager took him to the Folies-Bergère. Glancing around him at the women who lingered in the promenoir, he innocently asked, ‘Who are those ladies? I don’t seem to know any of them.’
Born in Liège, then a part of the Low Countries, he inherited from a German mother his guttural tones, and, as a boy, spoke habitually in German or Walloon. His father, a harsh and avaricious man, sought to compensate himself for his own mediocre success in life by fulfilling his ambitions through César’s and his brother’s musical promise. At 12 César had already composed his first work and was being driven hard in his career as a pianist. In 1835 the family came to Paris, where Franck senior took out naturalisation papers that enabled the boys to study at the Conservatoire. Before César could develop his early brilliance as an organist, however, he was snatched away by his father to resume his lucrative engagements as a piano virtuoso.
After a childhood made miserable by paternal ambition he broke with the tyrant and left the family home for good. A few years later he met and married a young woman with whom he set up house in Paris. Here they lived in genteel poverty on his fees as a church organist and on the ill-paid drudgery of private music lessons. Gradually it dawned upon Franck that in marrying he had only exchanged one form of tyranny for another. Madame Franck was destined to rule him for longer and in a more insidious fashion than his father had ever done.
In those days the quickest way to riches for a French composer was to write a successful opera. Madame Franck constantly nagged him to compose one. He did as he was told, but the results were unimpressive as he totally lacked the essential sense of theatre. He was far happier in the organ loft at the church of Sainte-Clotilde where he played with exquisite mastery, his commonplace features transformed by the glow of inspiration. Yet for all his meekness he had very definite professional opinions. He is said to have scribbled the word ‘Poison!’ on his copy of Tristan und Isolde. When people began to enthuse about the new god, he would boast: ‘I don’t need to know what Wagner does!’
Franck, said Debussy, ‘had the soul of a child, so thoroughly good-natured that he could look upon people’s wickedness and the disorder of the world without a trace of bitterness’. It was this quality, together with the refusal to compromise his artistic integrity, that endeared him to a group of young composers who gathered around him. They included Vincent d’Indy, soon to be an influential figure in French music, Henri Duparc, destined to become one of the greatest French song writers, Guillaume Lekeu and Ernest Chausson. The ‘Pater seraphicus’, as they reverently nicknamed him, would improvise at the organ and exhort them: ‘modulate! modulate!’ as he named and demonstrated one of his favourite techniques. There is something rather touching in the homely spectacle of the old man discoursing music and crooning ‘J’aime! J’aime!’
THE AUGUSTA AFFAIR
And then, into the placid obscurity of his life, there suddenly erupted a beautiful young woman called Augusta Holmès. The daughter of an Irish army officer (though it was rumoured that her true father was the Romantic poet Alfred de Vigny), she composed lofty Wagnerian symphonies and operas much admired by Britain’s Dame Ethel Smyth. Like many other musicians, Franck was fascinated by this beauty, whom Rimsky-Korsakov, on a visit to Paris, had drily characterised as ‘a very décolletée person’.
It is pretty certain that Franck never so much as held hands with her. Yet she had a volcanic effect upon him. Under her influence he wrote one of his most passionate and artistically successful works, the F minor Piano Quintet. Here he uses the cyclical themes which permeate the whole structure and, while allowing variety, at the same time preserve an overall cohesion. In the opening Allegro, for example, two themes begin by opposing, even rivalling, each other, until at the end they are reconciled. Saint-Saëns played the piano part at the first performance, and when it was over Franck gratefully offered E him the manuscript and the dedication. With an irritated grimace Saint-Saëns angrily dumped the bundle of paper on the piano and stamped off the platform. The reason, of course, was that he too was in love with Augusta.
The Piano Quintet used to send Madame Franck into the blackest of rages, for she knew, as did everyone else, of her husband’s infatuation. While he was composing it at the piano it was her custom to sit listening in the next room. If she heard something that displeased her she would open the door and shout: ‘César, I most definitely dislike that!’ But Franck was to have the last word. The raging intensity of the Allegro con fuoco builds up to a glorious finale in which he at last seems to exorcise his obsession. Augusta had served her purpose. The unrequited lover, the henpecked husband, no longer mattered: it was the artist who had triumphed.
A LATE DEVELOPER
Until now Franck had remained little known outside a small circle of admiring friends. Then something strange happened. Suddenly, in his early fifties, he started to produce his best and most mature works. Up to then his chief distinction had been his organ music – a noble Pièce héroïque, a Grande pièce symphonique which foreshadows in style and theme the D minor Symphony, and other small but carefully wrought items which enriched and refreshed the then scanty French organ repertoire. From time to time he overdoes the chromaticism, a legacy perhaps of his frequent improvisation, which also appears in the choral works such as Les béatitudes and Psyché. In these his taste for genteel banality and cloying sweetness shows an unexpected kinship with Gounod.
A streak of sombre German Romanticism breaks out in the tone poem Le chasseur maudit, inspired by Gottfried Bürger’s feverish ballad: brooding forests, an accursed huntsman and howling devils in ripe, almost Straussian scoring. A similar exercise, Les Djinns, based on Victor Hugo, features the piano, not as soloist but as a collaborator with the orchestra, as it threads its way through a score which evokes the demons of Arab legend emerging from nowhere, multiplying fearsomely, and then fading away.
THE MATURING OF HIS STYLE
The best was yet to come: the moving dignity of songs like ‘La procession’, the majestic Prélude, choral et fugue for piano, and the stately architecture of the D major String Quartet. The Quartet’s premiere in 1890 was greeted with enthusiasm and gave Franck one of the very few concert-hall triumphs he was ever to know. At the age of 67 he remarked: ‘The public is actually beginning to understand me.’
His long-delayed maturity flowered in a trio of masterpieces completed within a period of three years at the end of his life. The Variations symphoniques for piano and orchestra, written perhaps with Schumann’s Études symphoniques at the back of his mind, are a reminder of his youthful career as a virtuoso. The delicate filigree work of the piano part is no mere ornamentation, however, but grows naturally out of the development, while the sparkling finale resolves what has been a Brahmsian conflict between moods that vary from the gentle to the pugnacious. In the much-loved A major Violin Sonata, the most likely inspiration for Proust’s fictional Vinteuil Sonata, he demonstrated his mastery of the cyclical form so closely identified with him. Of the three themes which
circulate throughout the piece and provide a framework, the first emerges from a ‘cell’ to produce a characteristically long-breathed melody which spreads itself luxuriantly over 27 bars.
Franck uses a similar technique in the massive D minor Symphony, where the main theme of the finale extends to thirty bars. The construction is solid, the harmony mellow and richly coloured, and the tension between darkness and light is released, as usual with him, into a glowingly optimistic conclusion. The work, alas, met with dislike and indifference. Unaware that one day it would establish itself as a major work in the repertory, Franck died not long afterwards of pleurisy after a traffic accident. His output needed time to achieve recognition. Yet, although seemingly untouched by the Gallic temperament, Franck nonetheless inaugurated a tradition of high seriousness and endeavour which was to have a tonic effect on French music.