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Book Review

César Franck

César Franck by Stove

His Life and Times

R. J. Stove
The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
ISBN-10: 0810882078
ISBN-13: 9780810882072
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan Find it at JPC

Summary for the Busy Executive: Lost chord.

I became conscious of classical music during the Fifties. Rock and roll at that time didn't interest me, mostly because I wasn't hearing the real thing. So I actually sought out classical music, which I loved as much as I loved anything other than my family. I heard the Franck Symphony and fell for the second movement in a big way. The other two I passively liked, mostly because I wasn't listening too deeply. Quickly, however, my tastes changed. I dived enthusiastically into Renaissance music, Bach and Handel, and Modern music and not much of the repertoire from the most popular 150 years. Brahms bored me. With the exception of Wagner, I didn't care at all for the superheated chromaticism of Liszt, Raff, Reger, or Franck and his so-called "school." Franck, in particular, I thought clunky.

Then, in college, I heard the organ pieces, since they comprised a good chunk of every student player's recitals. They knocked me sideways, despite the fact that the Nineteenth-Century French organ composers in general left me cold and that, in Vaughan Williams's phrase, I was "allergic" to Franck's idiom. The famous Widor toccata was fun, but nothing I could make a meal of. I still feel the same way about Franck's Symphonic Variations, Les Djinns, Psyche, Éolides, and Le chasseur maudit. However, make no mistake. If Franck had written nothing other than the Piano Quintet, he could still claim to be the greatest French composer between Berlioz and Debussy. For me, the best of Franck currently lies in the organ music, the chamber music minus the piano works, and the Symphony. Outside of his Panis angelicus I don't know his choral music at all, and that's a significant hole in my opinion.

I picked up this book mainly because it's one of the few recent volumes on classical music my public library has purchased. And why not challenge my low regard of Franck? If the author manages to upset it, that's more music for me to love and to get to know. The cover, a wonderful painting of Franck at the organ, sealed the deal.

After a wild flight of popularity between the wars, Franck's reputation plummeted. Beyond the Symphony and probably the Violin Sonata, he seemed out of the public's mind. He became a composer for the hi-fi, rather than for the concert hall.

However, his music still lives among organists, where Widor, Tournemire, Gigout, Vierne, Guilmant, et al. have faded a bit to the status of rarities or party pieces. No surprise, R. J. Stove is an organist. Franck is lucky to have him, because Stove has probably heard all the Franck there is to hear and has played through the rest. He adores Franck's music -- another asset, since an enthusiast will far more likely be able to point out the composer's strengths.

Franck led a fairly hard life. His father, Nicolas-Joseph, apparently saw himself has Leopold Mozart redux, taking young César (piano) and his younger brother Joseph (violin) out on the road as touring prodigies. What emerged from all this was a boy with an inordinate sense of duty and a capacity for a lot of hard work.

The Francks were, of course, Belgian, and after the boys obtained a certain prominence in their home country, Nicolas set out to conquer Paris, the center of the Nineteenth-Century artistic universe. Nicolas-Joseph regarded his boys mainly as his livelihood and exploited them both. However, he also spent money he didn't have, not only on himself, but also on promoting them among the tastemakers. He changed his citizenship from Belgian to French so the boys could attend the Conservatoire, which at the time would not admit foreign students. It also could reject students on the basis of minimum age. The boys, too young at the time, worked privately, César with Anton Reicha, a forward-looking composer and inspiring teacher, definitely one of the most providential outcomes of the boy's studies. Eventually, César entered the Conservatoire where his piano skills astounded the faculty, to the extent that they awarded him a special first (the only one to this day). He also began studies on the organ. His other success was muted, with seconds in counterpoint, for example, and no Prix de Rome.

Both boys eventually broke free of their father, César when he married over Nicolas-Joseph's strong objections. César was amenable and shy up to a point. Even so, Nicolas-Joseph sporadically caused trouble until his death, and even beyond. César settled into a busy life of private teaching and church gigs, as well as composing in the time he could spare. He had an enormous capacity for hard work, which he shouldered without complaint. The strongest picture one gets from Stove of Franck's personality is that of a very good man. He inspired strong attachments, even though he himself suffered from social reserve and an inability to push himself forward. Even after he clearly became one of the best composers in France as well as probably its finest organist, he had trouble landing a Conservatoire position. He had no flair for the politics of the place. He finally received a grudging appointment, for which he was absurdly grateful. At least it allowed him to cut down on his private teaching and gave him some stability.

Stove obviously knows and loves his subject. He is an unashamed partisan. Indeed, he sometimes rages against those who don't like Franck enough. I can relate; Vaughan Williams inspires the same mother-henning in me. Despite some stiff and occasionally purple prose, I admire his ability to generate enthusiasm in his descriptions of Franck's work. He didn't change my mind on the works I don't care for, but because of him, I really want to hear Les béatitudes, which Franck's contemporaries thought his greatest work. Furthermore, Stove has delivered scrupulous scholarship, correcting errors of earlier writers and providing a full scholarly scaffolding of bibliography and endnotes.

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Schwartz.