Pioneering Influence: Cesar Franck

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Pioneering Influence: César Franck, performed on Jan 7, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In the history of music, the influence exerted by a composer and his work has had little correlation with whether the composer ever engaged in formal teaching. Not all composers of genius have been interested in or been adept at teaching. Mozart had pupils, but none of them have been of real consequence. But in close historical proximity to Mozart came Beethoven, upon whom Mozart’s music had considerable impact. At a greater chronological distance, Mozart became the model for the aesthetic ambitions of Richard Strauss. Neither Beethoven (who took pupils) nor certainly Brahms (who did not) can be said to have been effective as teachers, though in both cases they had their share of imitators among younger composers. Anton Bruckner was a skilled teacher, but of counterpoint rather than composition, and no school of composition can be said to have emerged from his pedagogical efforts. As he once replied to a student who asked him why he was so conservative as a teacher when his own music seemed so forward-looking, students should never imitate a teacher’s work. Carl Czerny’s study under Beethoven did not make him memorable as a composer (perhaps unfairly), but he was a great teacher and every piano student knows his seminal piano studies. Robert Fuchs is another composer whose works are no longer remembered even though many of the finest composers of the first half of the twentieth century were his pupils.

Ironically, perhaps the most influential composer in the second half of the nineteenth century, Richard Wagner, enjoyed an effect that was pervasive and international, but had no pupils in the strict sense of the word. Like his father-in-law Liszt (who nevertheless loved to teach), Wagner was suspicious of institutions of learning—particularly conservatories. The conservatories in the late nineteenth century more than amply returned the favor; most of them fulminated against the corrosive influence of Wagnerism on a young generation. Early in his career at Harvard, John Knowles Paine, the first full-time professor of composition in that venerable institution, was said to have suggested to his pupils that exposure to Wagner’s music was bad for one’s health.

However, there have been examples of those who were teachers as well as compositional masters and innovators with a lasting influence on future generations. Consider, for example, Arnold Schoenberg, Aaron Copland, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. But perhaps the most impressive record of confluence between enduring artistic greatness and a commitment to teaching through formal instruction may be found in the French musical tradition. The list of great composer-teachers is impressive and includes the Belgian-born César Franck, Gabriel Fauré, Paul Dukas, Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez. Indeed, the history of French music reflects the consequences of a dramatic centralization of institutions of art and learning that began in earnest under Louis XIV, continued through the French Revolution, and was largely completed by Napoleon. Paris was among the first modern national cultural capitals where (in contrast to Washington, DC or Brasilia) secular culture, religion, and political power flourished symbiotically in the same locale. The institutions of French music of the Conservatoire, the Prix de Rome, the great churches with their imposing organs, and the opera and public concert life all created a framework that acted as a magnet for ambitious, international talents. Paris, far more than London, was a cultural center at the start of the post-Napoleonic era and was home to the likes of Chopin, Liszt, Meyerbeer, Wagner, and Offenbach. In the last third of the nineteenth century, as France expanded as an imperial power, Paris also became a central gateway to the non-western world: Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.

But perhaps precisely because of its remarkable history of political and social coherence (especially compared to German-speaking Europe) in terms of the overlap of language, geography, and religion, France’s discrete and solid national identity was especially vulnerable to non-French influences in music. Operatic life in the first part of the nineteenth century was dominated by Italians, ranging from Cherubini and Rossini to Verdi. French romanticism in music by native composers stood (with the sole exception of Berlioz) in the shadow of two foreigners, Chopin and Liszt. After the failed revolution of 1848 and the coup d’état of Napoleon III, French musical culture, despite that country’s political and economic strength, experienced its most radical domination from outside its borders. This took the form of the profound French enthusiasm for the music of Wagner. One of the most influential instruments of cultural influence was none other than the journal Revue Wagnerienne, and the rabid partisanship for Wagner that extended from Charles Baudelaire to the young Claude Debussy.

But the Germanic influence of Wagner in the second half of the century was selectively transformed just as Beethoven’s influence had been earlier in the century, particularly on Berlioz. Two composers who were popular with audiences around the world but not particularly in France, Brahms and Mahler, suggest the unique and distinct Wagnerian vision among the French. The Wagnerian co-existed alongside a parallel French attraction for the exotic (from a French point of view) that extended to Spanish and Russian music. But it was a normative non-exotic ideal in French music that remained—with the possible exception of Georges Bizet—almost embarrassingly contingent on the Wagnerian (for or against) towards the end of the nineteenth century, as Emmanuel Chabrier’s Gwendoline (1886), a compelling French operatic response to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (premiered 1865), reveals.

This highly simplified and reductive account can nevertheless help us understand commonplace German prejudices about French music as decidedly superficial: consider, for example, the way Gounod and Massenet were received when set alongside the German parallels of Brahms and Wagner. In the context of the deadly political rivalry and conflict between France and Germany that came to a head in 1870 with the Franco-Prussian War, and which was revisited in various crises from the Dreyfus Affair to the most brutal of all, the First World War, there was an understandable and intense search among French musicians and intellectuals after 1870 to define a contemporary concert musical culture that was distinctly French and independent of German influence.

And indeed, a self-consciously French school of composition did emerge. The founding figure in that development during the second half of the nineteenth century was César Franck. With broad brush strokes one might paint a narrative canvas that links Franck to Messiaen and Dutilleux. Along the way, we can locate as descendents of Franck not only the composers on today’s program but also Vincent d’Indy, Debussy, Ravel, Saint-Saëns, and the members of Les Six. Interwoven into the continuity of that line is a French engagement with Catholicism and sacred music in a manner that was distinctively characteristic. It includes an impressive output of music for choir and, above all, the organ. In no other nineteenth-century European culture has the most grand, traditional, and pre-modern of instruments held such sway. One thinks immediately of Charles Marie Widor (1845-1937). The influence of the organ can be heard particularly in the music of Franck but in a manner very audibly different from the influence of the organ on, for example, Anton Bruckner’s symphonic music.

Franck’s originality ironically stems in part from a dialogue with Wagner, particularly in the constructs of musical duration and syntax. Franck inspired through his music a French penchant for cyclical structure and an intense interest in color and the spatial atmosphere of sound. The example of César Franck led many French composers to adapt classical procedures of musical transformation and development to recalibrate the listener’s perception of time away from the linear and narrative. Perhaps one could suggest that Wagner’s obsession with the connection between music and the dramatic—with epic and language—led Franck and his followers to connect music to the one arena in which Wagner was clearly weakest: the visual. If German-speaking Europe confidently evinced superiority in music during the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century (an arrogance that extended from Mozart to Schoenberg), it was during precisely that same time period that the French dominated the European scene in the visual arts in architecture, sculpture, and painting, as well as the decorative arts of design and fashion. Their predominance in the visual dimension also made the French pioneers in the area of photography and early film.

It is therefore not surprising that so many observers have commented on the affinities between French music and the visual experience. The use of music in a painterly fashion by the French pioneered a direction in the creation of instrumental sound in which Debussy would come to occupy a preeminent place. It is this attachment to visual culture that might be adduced as one of the inspirations for the unique modern tradition of French musical orchestration and harmonic usage. Wagnerian innovations were reformulated and the visual given its own musical expression in the theatrical and dramatic—even by composers like Saint-Saëns, who sought to follow more in the path of Liszt and Brahms than Wagner. Indeed all the composers on today’s program, with the exception of Franck himself, were masterful composers of operas, as Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-bleue (1907), Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus (1895), and the unfortunately lesser known operas of Magnard suggest. When it came to the large dramatic form, Franck himself excelled in the oratorio.

Furthermore, as the work by Chausson on today’s program demonstrates, one also cannot discount the impact on French music of the distinctive sound of the French language and French poetry. The rhythms and sounds of speech are easily identifiable in music of certain other European national traditions, such as sounds of Czech in Janáček and Hungarian in Bartók. But the same link between language and music may also be heard in the music on today’s program.

With the exception of Franck’s Symphony in D minor, the works on today’s program have never enjoyed wide popularity. Paul Dukas, himself an influential teacher whose most famous pupil was Messiaen, was pathologically self-critical and left only a handful of works to posterity. But even so, his fine Symphony has never approached the popularity of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1897). Among Chausson’s works, only the Poème for violin and orchestra, Op. 25 (1896) can be considered a staple in the repertory. There is sadly not a single work by Magnard that has received regular attention by performers and listeners. But the Franck Symphony became one of the pillars in what emerged as the standard repertory in the twentieth century. It benefited from the advent of recording. Its popularity during the mid-twentieth century was almost extreme and excessive. Few works were so generously represented on the old 78 rpm format and on the long-playing record. By the mid-1950s, the work had become if not a cliché certainly a war-horse, rivaling the Third, Fifth, and Seventh Symphonies of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, the Pathétique. But fashions change, and Franck’s Symphony has experienced in recent decades an audible measure of neglect. It is relegated more often than not to the margin of near-pops concerts. The generation for whom Franck’s Symphony was a welcome and familiar part of the repertoire has passed on, leaving the contemporary audience of today the opportunity to rediscover it and the greatness of Franck with a fresh perspective.

Ernest Chausson, Poeme de l’amour et de la mer, Op.19

By Paul Griffiths

Written for the concert Pioneering Influence: César Franck, performed on Jan 7, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“A beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn.” This was Debussy’s mature assessment of Wagner, and of the French passion for Wagner that he himself had once felt. As he knew, a sunset has its own power, even majesty, and there are radiant reflections of the Wagnerian afterglow in this evening’s Chausson score, as in those by Dukas and Magnard to follow.

The beginnings of the Poème de l’amour et de la mer (Poem of Love and the Sea) go back to 1882, when the composer was still having lessons with Franck, but the work was not completed until 1890, alongside the Symphony in B flat. Chausson found his words in a youthful collection of poems by his friend and contemporary Maurice Bouchor, whose lines he also set in several songs–including “Le Temps des lilas,” a transcription of the present work’s ending. Lilacs feature in both the poems Chausson chose here, together with other heady images: the sea, the sky, dead leaves blowing in the wind, the moon. Emotions are clearly the subject matter, but they are rarely reported directly; instead the central persona’s sensibility has bloomed out into the sights, sounds and scents of the world around him. This is symbolism. In creating a universe heavy with intangible meaning, it is ripe for music–and not least for Chausson’s music, at once sumptuous and exquisite, and pounding with memories.

Wagner and Franck are certainly both there in its mental store, but Chausson’s is also music continuously engaged in remembering itself, applying the Liszt-Franck technique of thematic transformation, with its embedding in constantly shifting chromatic harmony. The caressing theme and associated harmonies introduced at the start of the first part of this work, “La Fleur des eaux” (The Flower of the Waters), accompany the opening stanza; the second, in a more uncertain atmosphere, prepares elements of a variant. Another person is being referred to here, but not identified until the end of the stanza: “ma bien-aimée” (my beloved, of the feminine gender). It is at this point that the orchestra sounds out what will be the principal form of the theme henceforth. As the orchestra continues, there are shades of Parsifal, whose first production Chausson had attended in Bayreuth in the year he began this score. Consideration of the “belle enfant” (beautiful child) in the third stanza brings a delicate withdrawal, but the main material swings back in preparation for the recollection of “toi” (you). This fervent music seems to be an image at once of the beloved and of the poetic persona’s feelings for her, and it remains in the background while the voice, mirroring the persona’s agitation, moves toward recitative.

An interlude enlarges on the main theme, beginning with solos on bassoon and violin. Then, at the beginning of the second poem, the mood is at once more outgoing and the harmony more freely diatonic. The dark tug returns in an orchestral episode leading up to the message of the “dead leaves,” after which the persona is perhaps trying, by exaggeration, to avoid the simple truth of “l’oubli” (forgottenness). At this word the orchestra again brings forward the main theme, which is taken up by a solo cello and, for the first time, by the voice. From this point there is no doubt as to where this extraordinary work–a song expanding over the span of a symphony–is heading.

Paul Dukas, Symphony in C

By Paul Griffiths

Written for the concert Pioneering Influence: César Franck, performed on Jan 7, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Like many in Franck’s circle, Dukas was drawn to the senior composer more as a model and master than as a formal teacher. His training he received at the Conservatoire, chiefly at the hands of Ernest Guiraud, who used to be remembered as the man who added recitatives to Carmen. Debussy was a classmate and remained a friend (as also to Chausson). Always self-critical, Dukas did not make his debut as a composer until 1891, two years after his graduation, when his overture Polyeucte was performed. There was then a gap before he wrote this symphony, in 1895-6, which patently reveals his admiration for Franck while showing that Beethoven, too, was in the scope of his idealism.

As in Chausson’s work just heard, many of the ideas are variants of one another, with the difference that now they are deployed, very effectively, to create an abstract symphonic form. The first group of melodies and motifs, based on the notes of the triad and their chromatic neighbours, powerfully emphasize the two beats of the rhythm. A second subject is properly more relaxed and melodious, and there is a closing idea, rushing up and down, suggestive of an outdoor festivity or, in its most compact form, of a fanfare. Next comes the expected development section, growing out of the first material, and a straightforward recapitulation. But just as the movement seems about to finish in brazen C major, it swerves into a coda, which finds its way back so that the “outdoor-fanfare” music can indeed give the movement a decisive conclusion.

The slow movement, in E minor, follows a line of intimate melody, extended in two broad phases, of which the first comes to a climax as if in peals of bells, while the second reaches toward quietness.

One of the motifs from the first movement’s principal material returns, adjusted to triple time, to lead off the finale–and to carry it for a while, through episodes of galloping and trumpet-blowing that chime with the medievalism in much French literature and painting at the time. This music gives way eventually to what sounds like a popular dance tune, equally characteristic of the period. Then the more urgently progressive motif returns, but, right at the point where the dance theme should come back, the music vanishes into the treble and a melody from the first movement returns. The return also of the “outdoor-fanfare” motif–now indeed as a trumpet fanfare–brings on the conclusion, in which ideas from throughout the movement are grandly piled on top of one another.

Dukas’s orchestration throughout is masterful, his eagerness infectious. Otherwise there is little hint of his next work, composed the year after the symphony was completed: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Albéric Magnard, Hymn to Venus, Op. 17

By Fred Kirshnit

Written for the concert Pioneering Influence: César Franck, performed on Jan 7, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Most of us are remembered, if at all, for the way that we lived, but there are those who are memorialized because of how they died. Alban Berg was killed by blood poisoning that developed after he was bitten by a wasp. Jean-Baptiste Lully stuck a conducting pole through his foot. Charles Valentin Alkan was struck in the temple by a book—some say that it was his Talmud—that fell from the top of his library shelf. Enrique Granados, in an effort to save his wife, gave up his seat in a lifeboat and drowned after his passenger ship was sunk during The Great War.

Unfortunately, Granados was not the only composer killed in that conflagration. One month to the day after Germany declared war on France, Albéric Magnard was shot either in his garden or his home in Baron in the South of France on September 3, 1914. His house was razed and many of his manuscripts, including two acts of his opera Guercouer, were destroyed. Magnard was himself a frequent burner of his own compositions, his self criticism keeping his output small.

Magnard was, if you will, a grandchild of Franck, since he learned his craft from the Belgian master’s devotee Vincent d’Indy. Certainly there are passages in his four symphonies—particularly in the Second—that sound like organ transplants. I suppose that when you name your child Albéric, you have to expect that he will become a Wagnerian, but there is no doubt that Francois Magnard, one of the heads of the influential publication Le Figaro, expected great things from his son—and also his daughter, who grew to be the painter Ondine Magnard.

Magnard was a man of high integrity and lofty principles. His two symphonic poems, the Hymn to Justice and the Hymn to Venus, carry forward his legacy of moral rectitude and certitude. Not surprisingly from one of the very first Dreyfusards, the piece exalting justice was written first, completed in 1902. Soon thereafter, he began composition of the work we hear today.

The composer had the deepest respect for women. He was madly in love with his wife Julia and apotheosized his mother, who had committed suicide when Magnard was only four. In his strict sense of social order, he elevated fidelity in marriage to the most exalted of heights. He was ultimately less an Alberich and more a Fricka.

Musically, the piece begins pastorally, with angelic harp and flute filigree. The sumptuous main theme is developed expansively in an unhurried manner. After a tempestuous section, Berliozian in character, sensual threads of flute, horn, oboe and cello lead to an expression of unbridled passion. Beyond this physical pleasure, love grows and flowers in a spiritual manner, reinforced by chorale passages. Finally, triumphant appreciation of that most magical of human bonds ends with a glorious processional conclusion (it is a hymn after all). How sad that a couple so deeply devoted to one another was robbed of their opportunity to grow old together.

César Franck, Symphony in D minor

By Vincent Giroud

Written for the concert Pioneering Influence: César Franck, performed on Jan 7, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Born in 1822, César Franck was 65 when he set to work on his Symphony in D minor. An isolated figure for many years despite an early career as a piano virtuoso, he had become more famous as an organist than as a composer. It was as the former, not the latter, that he was appointed at the Conservatoire in 1872. Only then, in his late fifties, did he find himself revered by a small group of younger musicians that included Ernest Chausson, Henri Duparc, Vincent d’Indy, and Albéric Magnard. Conveniently forgetting Franck’s Belgian birth and half-Germanic background, they proclaimed him France’s answer to Beethoven and Wagner. In his youth Franck had written a Symphony, in G major, performed in Orléans in the early 1840s (the manuscript is lost). In the late 1870s and early 1880s, he wrote three symphonic poems, that quintessential nineteenth-century genre, which are among his masterpieces: Les Éolides, Le chasseur maudit, and Les Djinns (this last work with a piano soloist). His choral symphony Psyché (1887), with its free form and pagan theme, may have alarmed his disciples.

Franck was urged to produce his contribution to the grand genre, especially since, in that same year 1887, three important French symphonies had appeared: Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony in C minor, with organ, in January, Lalo’s Symphony in G minor in February, and d’Indy’s openly “Franckist” Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français in March. The main impulse may have come from the Saint-Saëns, a work Franck admired immensely. It was cyclical, meaning that certain musical materials were not restricted to individual movements but could be heard through the entire work—in the case of the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony a motif based on the plainchant Dies irae. This cyclical approach was a technique Franck himself had pioneered in his early Piano Trio No. 1 in F-sharp minor. The traditional view that Wagner’s influence had led either to Franck’s formal designs, or to the chromaticism of his harmony, has been effectively challenged by Joël-Marie Fauquet in his recent, magisterial study.

Begun in the summer of 1887, the Symphony in D minor was completed in the spring and orchestrated in the summer of 1888; the score has since perished in the 1935 fire of the Duparc family château in the Pyrenees. Rejected by the prominent conductor Charles Lamoureux, it was premiered on February 17, 1889 at the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire led by Jules Garcin. Franck’s partisans acclaimed it, but the work gained wide public acceptance only when Lamoureux finally took it on in 1893. It was then recognized as a modern classic, a status it retained through most of the twentieth century. Franck actually applied the term “classical” to his Symphony and provided further descriptive tags: an “energetic and warm” first movement; a “sweet and melancholy” Allegretto, which was inspired by the distant vision of a cortège; and a “radiant, quasi luminous” finale.

The opening motif, on which the first movement is based, was from the outset likened to the “Muss es sein” question in Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 135. The return of music from the first two movements in the finale also evokes Beethoven (in the Ninth Symphony) but may also be a reminiscence of Schubert’s Trio in E-flat. Franck was particularly happy with the haunting middle movement, which is at once a slow movement and a scherzo. As for the ebullient, almost brash conclusion, it contrasts with Franck’s traditional “seraphic” image, a reminder that he enjoyed the unbuttoned quality of Chabrier’s music and saw nothing wrong with boisterous operettas like La fille de Madame Angot.