Cesar Franck: CDs & DVDs: Best CDs & DVDs of Cesar Franck

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Cesar Franck: CDs & DVDs - The Best CDs & DVDs of Cesar Franck

Cesar Franck: Overview

Cesar Franck: Cesar Franck (b. Liege, 10 Dec 1822; d. Paris, 8 Nov 1890).

Cesar Franck's father was of Flemish stock and belonged to a family who had worked for more than a century as directors or superintendents in the mines of the Walloon district of the modern Belgium. Both Cesar and his brother Joseph showed marked musical gifts and were sent at a tender age to the Liege Conservatoire. When Cesar himself was twelve, he had already completed his first tour as an infant prodigy with his brother Joseph, who was a violinist. The ambitious father now removed the whole family to Paris, where Cesar first studied privately with Reicha, an admirable musician and author of a number of the oretical works as well as much well-written and attractive chamber-music. In 1837 he entered the Paris Conservatoire, where his feats of transposition and contrapuntal improvisation when competing for the pianoforte and organ prizes became legendary. His father, however, anxious to exploit his talents financially, removed him from the Conservatoire before he had time to compete for the Prix de Rome. Cesar spent the years 1842-3 travelling on concert tours with his brother and composing, in the first place showy piano-pieces for his own repertory, but much more interestingly four piano trios which won him an enviable reputation as the list of subscribers shows. This included the names of Liszt and Chopin as well as the internationally famous opera composers Meyerbeer, Spontini and Donizetti and such gods of the Conservatoire as Adam, Auber, Halevy and the rare French chamber-music composer Onslow. Cesar Franck's first orchestral composition, a biblical oratorio entitled Ruth, had its first performance in 1846, at the Conservatoire.

Cesar Franck was already resentful of his father's insistence on his continuing the most financially rewarding side of his musical career, but in 1846 this resentment was intensified when he became engaged to a young woman whose mother was the actress Desmousseaux. The conventional Cesar Franck family were horrified by this alliance, but after a wedding celebrated at the height of the 1848 revolution Cesar Franck settled down to earn his living not by concert-giving but by teaching. This involved him for almost the whole of the rest of his life in an unceasing round of drudgery, since it meant travelling all over Paris to the houses of his pupils, while at week-ends he was taken up with his work as organist and choirmaster at a succession of Paris churches - Notre Dame de Lorette, St Jean-au-Marais and finally St Clotilde.

His position at the Conservatoire, where he was eventually made Professor of the Organ in 1872, was complicated paradoxically by the extreme simplicity, even naivete, of the man himself. He confronted the many intrigues for position and pupils among his colleagues by a disconcerting innocence which won him the dislike and distrust of the majority, but the whole-hearted admiration, amounting in some cases almost to adoration, of the few. What was officially an organ class came to be known among the students as in fact the class in which much more general musical problems were discussed in the light of contemporary musical ideas, most notably those of Wagner which were tabu with the professors of composition. Before the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1 Cesar Franck already had a number of private composition pupils, including Henri Duparc and Alexis de Castillon, who were instrumental in attracting some of the most gifted and musically inquisitive of the younger composers. These included, during the 1870s and 1880s, Vincent d'Indy, Pierre de Breville, Charles Bordes, Ernest Chausson and the Belgian Guillaume Lekeu. In d'Tndy Cesar Franck found not only an extremely gifted musician but a man of ambition and determination with all the gifts for organisation and propaganda that he himself lacked. This group of young composers, known as 'la bande a Cesar Franck' soon became a force to be reckoned with in French musical life, which had received in the war and the Commune a salutary shock. While the Conservatoire retained much of its old complacency and continued to train musicians chiefly for the opera or the opera comique, Cesar Franck and his pupils devoted themselves to symphonic and chamber-music.

Cesar Franck himself continued until the mid-1870s to write music either for the church itself, or of a distinctly ecclesiastical nature; notably the two oratorios Redemption (1873) and Les Beatitudes, written between 1870 and 1880. The first of three symphonic poems, in which the influence of Liszt was immediately noticeable, was Les Eolides (1877), and this was followed by Le Chasseur maudit (1883) and Les Djinns ( 1 884), which contained an important part for solo pianoforte. In 1885 Cesar Franck produced another work for orchestra and pianoforte, Variations symphoniques, which many consider his masterpiece. Indeed, during the 1880s, when the composer was already in his sixties, Cesar Franck produced a large body of work incomparably more interesting and original than any that he had composed earlier. A piano quintet was followed by the monumental Prelude, choral et fugue and the hardly less ambitious Prelude, aria et final, both for pianoforte; and a symphony in D minor and a string quartet in D major completed the tally of this extraordinary 'second spring'. Two operas written during the same period, Hulda and Ghisele witness to his phenomenal productiveness at this time, although they reveal no real gift for the theatre.

Although Cesar Franck obtained little or no official recognition for his music during his lifetime, he was idolised by his pupils and no less a personage than Liszt was willing to attest to the superb musical character of his organ improvisations. The organ remains in fnany ways the key to his musical personality, and the Trois pieces pour grand orgue (1878) and Trois chorals (1890) were unique in the organ literature of the day. In his use of the orchestra he often betrays a taste for the sonorities characteristic of organ 'mixtures', while the frequent antiphonal passages standing between dramatic rests or fermatas reflect the physical habits of the organist moving from one manual to another or altering registration. Even the strongly chromatic character of his harmony, though no doubt derived ultimately from the music of Liszt and Wagner, suggests the action of the organist's fingers or feet executing a sliding semitonal descent on the keys or pedals. The note of high-pitched idealism or rapturous adoration, frequent in his music, is not always set off by a corresponding forcefulness of the same musical quality; and it was not without reason that he was charged with an inability to give musical expression to more mundane or negative moods. Even his mature pianoforte music occasionally reflects the showiness and facility of his early virtuoso music; and none of his works achieve the sustained grandeur and solemnity of his Austrian contemporary and, in many ways counterpart, Anton Bruckner. The violin sonata, which he wrote in 1886, for his fellow - Belgian Eugene Ysaye, is perhaps his finest monument, alone worthy to be set by the side of the Variations symphoniques.

Like many other men of his temperament, Cesar Franck unfortunately chose as his wife a woman who quickly succeeded to the position hitherto occupied in his life by his parents; and he only exchanged one set of tyrants, anxious to exploit his gifts financially, for another. He found consolation for this not only in the affection and respect of his pupils in general, but in the devotion of one in particular, the Franco-Irish Augusta Holmes. Although Cesar Franck died in 1890, chiefly as the result of being knocked over by an omnibus, his spirit was the guiding force in the formation a few years later of the Schola Cantorum under the direction of two of his favourite pupils Charles Bordes and then Vincent d'lndy, whose biography did much to present the idealised picture of Cesar Franck and his music which inevitably led in time to a reaction and a consequent under-valuing of Cesar Franck's music itself and of his influence in the development of French music.

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