Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough


Franck: Piano Music

IT IS a strange paradox that while organists comment how Franck wrote for the organ like a pianist, pianists point out how 'organ like' his piano music is. Both of these opinions have a certain validity, however, because although he spent most of his mature years of creativity in the organ loft Franck began his musical life as a pianist, taking up his first organ position as a means to supplement t meagre living teaching the piano. It was only when he was appointed organist at Ste-Clotilde in 1858 that he began seriously to study the use of the pedals - he had a Pleyel practice pedal-board delivered to his home to help him to use this 'third hand' with greater ease.

César-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert Franck was born in Liège in 1822 and began his musical studies at Liège Conservatoire it the age of eight. Two years later he won first prize for solfeggio and was presented with a large bound volume of Hummel piano works in which he proceeded to write fingerings with an earnest diligence. He went on to win first prize for piano in 1834 and early reports of his playing talk of 'self possession ... intelligence ... passionate energy ... expressiveness and musical feeling', although a mention by the examiners of an 'over-ardent manner of expression' is intriguing.

Franck's father saw the burgeoning talent of his son as pianist and composer and, being not unaware of the lucrative possibilities for a young virtuoso at the time, decided to take him on a small concert tour of Belgium. This was the beginning of period of irresponsible exploitation by a ruthlessly ambitious father which was to last well into the 1840s. Franck was forced to compose party pieces for superficial salon gatherings - everything was brillant or grand - and most of the works which have survived from this time show an uneasy and awkward attempt by an above-average virtuoso to emulate the acrobatics of a Thalberg or Liszt - a singularly 'low-wire' act. The rhinestone roulades show up as fake in the innocent light of Franck's shyness and humility, and the most effective moments by far are those of repose and lyricism.

In 1835 the family moved to Paris and a year later Franck entered the Conservatoire there as a counterpoint student of Leborne and piano student of Zimmermann. For the end of year examination he played Hummel's A minor Concerto (one of the jurors was Alkan), and performed the outstanding and audacious act of transposing his sight reading test down a third. Although this was done flawlessly, it needed the intervention of the Director of the Conservatoire, Cherubini, to overlook the 'law' and reward the 'spirit' with a special Grand Prix d'Honneur.

This same year Franck began teaching classes at the family home and also visiting numerous private pupils. His gruelling journeys all over Paris, in addition to his studies and salon performances, were to prove an intolerable strain on the young man over the following years. His father would calculate the travel time between pupils with a cruel exactitude to maximize his son's earning capacity and to make sure that he returned home as quickly as possible to continue his piano practice: "If you are disobedient, you know it is your mother who suffers for it."

It was during his student years at the Conservatoire that Franck composed three trios for piano, violin and cello, his first serious works which showed some glimpse of things to come, notably in their early use of cyclic form. Before being able to try for the Prix de Rome, Franck's father, either fearing that his son was becoming over-enthusiastic about composition and therefore neglecting the money-making concert tours, or seeing an opportunity to court the favour of the King of Belgium, moved the family back to Brussels in 1842. After only a few months, and (beyond a regal acceptance of the dedication of the trios) a failed attempt to interest the King in the young prodigy, the family moved back to Paris. The trip to Belgium had not been fruitless, however, for there the young Franck had met Liszt, who had been deeply impressed by his trios and who became a loyal and generous supporter over the years that followed. These Trios concertants were published by subscription in 1843 and there were some extremely impressive names on the subscribers' list: Meyerbeer, Liszt, Chopin, Pleyel, Donizetti, Halévy, and over a hundred others.

Back in Paris the endless round of teaching continued along with the giving of concerts, but when Franck's health began to break in 1844 and his oratorio Ruth was given a lukewarm reception a year or so later, the father reluctantly realized that his son was neither wunder nor kind, and he settled on a teaching life for him. It was around this time that Franck began to teach Félicité Desmousseaux. She was to become his wife and, in her colourful, theatrical parents, he found new friends and a warm, family atmosphere where he could escape from the wearying tyranny at home. He attended some of the lighter shows at the Comédie-Française with them (apparently without too much enthusiasm) and, we are told, even learned to dance! The Desmousseaux family gave him the support and courage he needed to leave his paternal home in 1846, and he married Félicité two years later.

For the next forty years Franck wrote nothing more for solo piano (except for one children's piece Les Plaintes d'une poupéé ('The Doll's Lament'), included here by way of an encore), which is hardly surprising considering the life of drudgery and pain which the piano had represented for the younger man. He certainly had no further use for opera paraphrases or Grandes Fantaisies in his new life of marriage and the obscurity of the organ loft. To be a pianist in nineteenth-century France meant being a virtuoso, and the piano was the archetypal vehicle for the most superficial kind of musical expression. It was with relief that Franck set aside the perfume and pearls of the salon for the incense and icons of the Church and it was not until 1884, with the confidence and experience of passing years, that he turned again to the solo piano and wrote what was to be the most deeply felt and serious work for the instrument to come out of France in the nineteenth century - the Prélude, Choral et Fugue.

  • PrÉlude, Choral Et Fugue, M21

Franck's original plan, according to his pupil Vincent d'Indy, was to write a plain Prelude and Fugue, the venerable form made immortal by Bach and neglected since Mendelssohn, a visibly serious alternative to the plethora of virtuoso pieces which were so popular at the time. After almost forty years writing mainly organ music and works inspired by sacred texts, the example of Bach was an affirmation that secular music could still retain a spiritual identity in an abstract form. In fact it is significant that the further Franck moved away from specifically sacred music (his liturgical works are particularly lifeless) the clearer and more pure his spiritual vision seemed to become.

The decision to include a central section, separate from, yet linking, the Prelude and Fugue, came later (again according to d'Indy). Perhaps Bach was the influence with the poignant slow interludes of his Clavier Toccatas to say nothing of the very word 'chorale' which was eventually used. In the event, however, this central section became the emotional core of the work, its 'motto' theme (Example 2) used as a symbol of redemption and as a unifying principle at the climax of the Fugue.

When Saint-Saëns made his tart observation about the piece that the 'chorale is not a chorale and the fugue is not a fugue' (in his pamphlet 'Les Idées de M. Vincent d'Indy'), he was completely missing the point. The forms here have become symbolic, the apotheosis of their academic counterparts; and, furthermore, Alfred Cortot described the Fugue in the context of the whole work as 'emanating from a psychological necessity rather than from a principle of musical composition' (La musique française de piano; PUF, 1930). It is as if a 'fugue', as a symbol of intellectual rigour, was the only way Franck could find a voice to express fully the hesitant, truncated sobs of the Prelude and the anguished, syncopated lament of the Chorale. Not that the Fugue solves the problem - this is the function of the 'motto' theme; but the rules of counterpoint have given the speaker a format in which the unspeakable can be spoken.

There are two motivic ideas on which the whole work is based: one, a falling, appoggiatura motif used in all three sections and generally chromatic in tonality (Example 1); the other a criss-crossing motif in fourths (the 'motto' theme, Example 2) which appears first in the Chorale section and then again as a balm at the point where the Fugue reaches its emotional crisis. The first motivic idea is clearly related to the Bach Cantata 'Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen', and also to the 'Crucifixus' from the B minor Mass; the other idea appears as the 'bell motif' in Wagner's Parsifal.

Prelude, Choral & Fugue, M21 example 1

Prelude, Choral & Fugue, M21 example 2

  • PrÉlude, Aria Et Final, M23

The Prélude, Aria et Final was written two years later in 1886/7 and it is interesting to compare the two works. Apart from their titles, which have an obvious kinship, significant similarities include the use of cyclic form; the central sections being inspired by the human voice; a shared vision of final redemption, with the triumph of good over evil; and, most curiously of all, the fact that both pieces use the same motivic material for the same emotional effect (Example 3).

Prelude, Aria & Final, M23 example

Both of the original Bach themes mentioned above refer to the sufferings of Christ, and the 'motto' motif of redemption happens to be shaped like a cross. The final (unintentional?) pun is that this same 'motto' theme, present and transformed in both works, appears in the 'Transformation Scene' from Parsifal when bread and wine are changed into Christ's Body and Blood - the redeeming re-enactment of the Last Supper. This interpretation might not seem too far-fetched if we recall that Franck habitually left his organ bench during the Mass to kneel at this same moment of transformation.

In spite of the internal similarities, the two pieces have significant differences. Where the Prelude, Chorale and Fugue has a distinctly religious flavour, the Prelude, Aria and Finale seems more secular (the Chorale a divine song, the Aria a human one); and where the former work is universal in its message, the latter seems almost domestic, though no less spiritually serious. The Prelude, Chorale and Fugue has a tremendous unity, a feeling of magnetic inevitability which almost pulls it forward to its triumphant close; the Prelude, Aria and Finale is more like a sonata in three separate movements, although the thematic material is profusely and masterfully interconnected throughout the work. The ending, in contrast to that of the Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, is profoundly tranquil and peaceful, the 'motto' theme not so much representing a victory over evil as a healing of pain.

  • TroisiÉme Choral, M40
  • Transcription for piano by Stephen Hough, dedicated to Eric Chadwick

"Before I die, I am going to write some organ chorales, just as Bach did, but on quite a different plan", declared Franck in 1889, and by the end of September the following year the Trois Chorals were completed, only a month or so before his death. Unlike Bach's Chorale Preludes or Brahms's similar swan-songs, these are more like three fantasies, although their construction is as skilful in its subtle use of cyclic form as anything Franck wrote. The third is the most 'pianistic', and there are (at least) three other piano transcriptions of it: by Blanche Selva, Paul Crossley, and Vladimir Viardo. Representing on the piano the textures and sounds of a large organ creates a veritable étude in pedalling (all three of them) and tone control, particularly in the attempt to suggest an imperceptible acoustical ambience, similar to a slight 'cathedral' overhang.

Franck's original registration is quite specific in colour, particularly his love of reeds with their piercing timbre. It is interesting that at the moments of greatest melodic and harmonic sweetness in all three Chorales Franck asks for the most sour stops to be drawn. In the third Chorale, in the glorious central section, the left hand and pedals are gently painting a wash of harmonic colour with flutes and bourdon, whilst the 'endless melody' on the Swell manual has to be etched with the acid of the combined oboe and trumpet stops. However, this is one of the peculiarities of Franck's style - the non troppo dolce that appears quite often in the piano works - with its poignant, emotional tug between the austere and the sentimental: the ice-cold marble altar, but the burning candles and the sweet incense.

  • Danse Lente, M22

The Danse Lente was written in 1885 for a volume of dances published by the journal Le Gaulois, and it is the only other mature solo piano piece written by Franck apart from the two triptych works above. The piece has a haunting, mysterious grace even if, to paraphrase (reluctantly) Saint-Saëns' bitter comment, it is neither a Danse nor particularly Lente. In fact Franck's marking 'Quasi Lento' tends to emphasize this. One point of interest is the direct quote from bar 21 of the Prelude, Aria and Finale in bar 5 of the Danse Lente.

  • Grand Caprice, M13 (Op 5)

The Grand Caprice (called 'Premier Grand Caprice' in d'Indy's edition, although Franck never wrote a second such piece) takes us back forty years to 1843 and to Franck's youthful period in the salons of Paris. It is clearly the best of his early piano pieces although, in an uncharacteristically critical moment, d'Indy writes that 'it addresses itself chiefly to lovers of virtuosity'. Cortot is more perceptive, seeing it as 'the most individual' of the early piano works, and it has some moments of genuine inspiration, particularly an early use of thematic transformation where the jaunty 6/8 prestissimo G flat major theme becomes the pulsating, pianissimo C sharp minor theme of the central section, with its swirls of impossibly awkward left-hand arpeggios. (If Franck's hand had been an inch smaller, most of the technical problems in his keyboard works would not exist!) There is the clear shadow of Liszt hovering over the piece, not surprisingly; but Alkan's chunky orchestral textures are there too, and even a prophetic hint of the Brahms F sharp minor Sonata, to be written ten years later.

What is most striking perhaps to someone who only knows Franck's music from the Piano Quintet of 1879 onwards is the relentlessly diatonic harmony of the early works. They seem to be tied to the apron-strings of the tonic and dominant, and there is no real sign of the distinctive voice which was to develop later and which would become the foundation for a new generation of French composers. Whilst some composers burst with youthful talent and achievement, Franck developed slowly, nourished by years of patient routine (he kept a rigorous timetable), the consolation of his deepening Christian faith, the intoxicating sonority of the organ, the manure of critical adversity, the yeast of Wagner's Tristan (he heard its Prelude for the first time in 1874), and also by the emotional turmoil caused by an infatuation with his beautiful student Augusta Holmès which, although never pursued let alone consummated, seems to have affected him deeply. The feverishly passionate Piano Quintet is almost certainly a product of this association.

But by the end of Franck's life we find a wonderful integration in the late masterpieces; the cauldron of the Quintet has become distilled and purified, though no less expressive; and the religiosity in some of the sacred works has shed its priggish pietism and taken on the patina of a genuine spirituality. While Cortot, in his edition of the Prelude, Aria and Finale, makes the endearingly outrageous claim that 'the interpreter should not only be a musician: it is even more important that he be a believer', the great Catholic philosopher Etienne Gilson should have the final reply, to interpreters and composers alike:

One does not detect any definite relationship between artistic talent and religious faith. A very pious man can be a very poor artist and his talent does not improve if he decides to build a church, to write a Mass, to compose pious verse or to paint religious subjects. As an artist, he remains just what he is.

(The Arts of the Beautiful; Scribner NY, 1965)

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