César Franck: Piano Quintet in Fm, FWV 7

performed by Quatuor Danel and Paavali Jumppanen, or below by Bell, Frank, Imai, Isserlis and Hamelin

(cover image by Alessio Soggetti)

César-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert Franck was born (with a very long name) on December 10, 1822 in Liège, which is not in France. It was (and is) indeed a Belgian city, but at the time was part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (because that’s not confusing). He first moved to Paris in 1835, just barely (or perhaps not even) a teenager.

His father was a bank clerk who hoped the young César-Auguste would become a famous child prodigy and make the family rich and famous. Is that so much to ask? To this end, he enrolled his son at the Royal Conservatory of Liège, but was eventually unsatisfied with this, so he brought his two sons to Paris to study privately with Anton Reicha and Pierre Zimmermann. Reicha would die within the year, so the elder Franck tried to get his boys admitted to the Paris Conservatoire.

Alas, as foreigners, they could not be admitted, so of course Father Franck got himself French citizenship in 1837. Until his boys were admitted to the conservatoire, they played concerts in Paris to good reception.

César-Auguste began at the conservatory in 1837, excelling in his piano studies but withdrew in April 1842, for what seem to be dramatic reasons. He was only 20 at the time, but some sources I’ve read, and can’t remember where, state that this could have been at his father’s request. Despite his academic success, César, as discussed above, was pressured by his father into performing concerts and teaching privately. His father’s relentless promotion soured audience responses in Paris, and ultimately a rather heated feud with a music critic led his father to pack up and head back to Belgium. He may have demanded his sons follow. Child stars, so tragic.

He was back in the motherland not even two years, and was acknowledged more as pianist than composer, eventually returning to Paris to perform at low-paying gigs (thanks, Papa Franck). He fell somewhat into obscurity after a chilly response to his oratorio Ruth. He eventually had a falling out with his father over the woman he decided to marry, and left his parents’ home for good. The composer moved in with his in-laws-to-be, and he married the girl in 1848, when he was 25.

Wiki says that “Franck had always regarded himself as French from the time of his father’s naturalization.” That’s a bit contradictory, it seems, but in order to get some teaching posts, he had to have that matter of his nationality sorted out. The reason he’s included in this series, as a (technically at least part) Belgian composer is mostly the result of his impact on music in France, education, and his distinguished career as an organist… it’s all very French, and I don’t suspect we’ll be having a Belgian series anytime soon, so here he is.

Among Franck’s pieces are four piano trios, this quintet, a (very famous) violin sonata, a string quartet, four operas, much sacred music (much of it with organ, some solo), symphonic poems and a symphony.

Today’s work dates from 1879, and is both capital R and lowercase r romantic, classical music to make you blush, or at least storm offstage after the end of the premiere, as did the dedicatee of the work, one Camille Saint-Saëns, who played the piano part. He walked off when the piece was done, leaving the score, handwritten for him by the composer, open on the piano, considered a “mark of disdain.” Why? We’ll get there.

The work was composed almost 40 years after Franck’s previous chamber work, one of the trios, and premiered on January 17, 1880. The composer’s wife, for one, did not like the piece one bit. Roger Nichols, writing for Hyperion, quotes Léon Vallas:

She detested it, had a horror of it; she raged in front of her husband’s pupils, accusing them as a body—a body that included the beautiful Augusta Holmès—of having driven him to compose such a work.

Can classical music be scandalous? Well, in the (more) modern era, we have pieces like Berg’s Lyric Suite or Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, but in 1879, with the Romantic subtext that some seemed to have been aware of, the unbridled passion in the piece raised at least a few eyebrows, if not some blood pressures.

The opening sounds like pure passion, just dripping with emotion, but there’s a response of tenderness from the piano. This is a huge opening movement, at over 15 minutes (at least in the Danel recording). The markings drammatico and dolce are certainly apropos, as the music unfolds from that propulsive, lift-off opening.

What do you hear, though? Without any context or background information, would you think there was anything untoward about it? Certainly not, especially a century and a half removed from it, but at the time, it was intense in a way that Brahms and Schumann perhaps had not been.

The second movement, thankfully, is a different kind of intensity. There’s the same amorous passion here, but it’s tender, soft, like a caress, but only at the beginning. This movement, marked lento con molto sentimento, also builds to a sort of almost lustful roar with an intense repeated note as its climax.

The third movement finale begins nervously, tensely, with an unsettling amount of restraint, like someone clearly has something to say but never does. This movement, marked allegro ma non troppo, ma con fuoco, (… but with fire) is the shortest of the three, but still over nine minutes. While the music is beautiful, lush, wonderfully written, as we have seen of Franck’s writing for this entire piece, there’s a sense of struggle of unfulfilled hope, of something more.

There are some dark corners in this movement, like the red flags that you might get from someone that suggest a bigger problem in a friendship or relationship, but they’re quickly sort of… brushed over. Wait for the final bars of the work, and you’ll see that ultimately this is a romance, but not a love story. There’s no happily ever after here.

I asked at the beginning of the year in this article what your grief might sound like. Let’s ask the same question of your passion, especially if unrequited. Would it sound like this? What specific shades of emotion are being expressed?That’s always something to think about.

We are embarking upon a busy few weeks coming up, with lots more French music as we get closer to the end of our series. We have three more weeks left, so this is a little past the halfway point, I guess. We’re jumping ahead tomorrow, back to where we were before the weekend, in 1890, so do stay tuned for that, and thanks so much for reading.


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