The cover of Robert Stove’s César Franck: his Life and Times is adorned with the only image of Franck that anyone is likely to be familiar with, Jeanne Rongier’s 1885 painting of the Maître in his organ-loft, which catches the archetypal character of the composer perfectly: dressed in black, his face a study of puritanical severity, caught in the act of playing something pious on the organ—in all, an individual of stiff, dull, masculine, uprightness. Indeed, dullness is the attribute most universally ascribed to Franck’s music, and Stove’s agenda in writing this book, beyond bringing English-language Franck scholarship into the twenty-first century, is to rehabilitate an oeuvre that he regards as possessing “unostentatious originality”, and that has an “individuality and fundamental sanity which we overlook at our peril”.
The very first crack in this widely accepted superficial notion of Franck is in the person of the painter herself, for Jeanne Rongier was a woman. Far from excluding her as unworthy, Franck is said to have remarked “this person is doing my portrait. I don’t know her. What a funny idea!”. So much for the male separatist assumption. Indeed, the story of Franck’s life is peppered with strong women characters, from the perhaps justifiably jealous Mme. Félicité Franck herself, the strongly hinted-at affair between Franck and the larger-than-life composer Augusta Holmès (born Holmes), and singers and pianists such as Pauline Viardot-Garcia and Léontine Bordes-Pène, he was even acquainted with Cosima von Bülow. Another misconception about Franck is that his output is exclusively bound up with church music, perpetuated by the ubiquity of Panis Angelicus, and the fame of his Béatitudes. While he was certainly a committed catholic and provided many works of a liturgical and biblical character, Franck wrote a substantial amount of concert and chamber music, and not just the famous Symphony. Among them is arguably the very first completed symphonic poem: Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne (based on exactly the same text as Liszt’s contemporaneous work), many secular songs, the famous violin sonata, trios, a quartet, and a piano quintet; at his death he was proposing a cello sonata. Much more interesting, though, is Stove’s discussion of a number of operas that Franck wrote, and in some cases had staged, on such wide-ranging subjects as the life of the composer Stradella, rustic adultery (le Valet de Ferme [the Farmhand]), eleventh century Norway (Hulda—it is hard to believe but this was rejected by the Paris-Opéra because of its “excessive violence”), and Merovingian France (Ghiselle). The word Stove finds for these works is “improbable”; nonetheless, this is not the dry, academic, eremite we had imagined Franck to be.
The most unlikely of all Franck’s works is the vast ‘symphonic poem with chorus’, Psyché, which so shocked Mme. Franck that she engineered never to hear it, music that as Stove observes, “in almost every measure is of the most breathtakingly lush type”. Other works of Franck’s have a surprising turbulence, in particular the Piano Quintet, which his contemporaries assumed was a comment on his relationship with la Holmès, but in Psyché the sensuality is quite palpable—Stove: “Franck himself came to feel a certain unease about Psyché, telling intimates that he actually preferred les Béatitudes, because in the earlier work “one won’t find a sensual note””.
The story of Franck’s life is basically one of endurance. His early history, somewhat parallel to Mozart’s, is of a domineering and ambitious father—Nicolas-Joseph—driving Franck and his younger brother Joseph into careers as concert performers, César on piano, and Joseph on violin, in their early teens. While the regimen imposed on the brothers by this unpleasant-seeming man was, to judge by Stove’s account, penal, it did have the benefit of introducing Franck to many of the luminaries of the day—on one occasion he even shared a concert with both Alkan and Johann Peter Pixis, two of the most outstanding pianists of the early nineteenth century. A further upside to this public attention was that Franck began to write music, including an apprentice Symphony. As Stove wryly describes it, “Regrettably, César had forgotten that writing for full orchestra need not—indeed must not—entail requiring every instrument of the orchestra to play in almost every bar”. Franck also started to be on the receiving end of vituperative criticism by one Henri-Louis Blanchard, who primarily seemed to object to the youth’s first names, César-Auguste. Although Franck managed to escape his father’s control eventually, this needling went on until Blanchard’s death in 1858.
Once free from Nicolas-Joseph, and newly married—Stove’s account of the circumstances of the wedding, while doubtless factual, is hilarious—Franck settled down to many years of private teaching, and compositional underachievement. Critic and journalist Ernest Meyer remarked after a performance of Franck’s Ruth that “If M. César Franck had obtained, twenty-five years ago, the success which it [sic] has obtained today, how many works might he not have produced which perhaps have been stifled by discouragement, self-doubt, and the sad necessity to provide for the needs of each day?” Stove describes his workday as beginning at 6am and finishing at 10pm, with only a couple of hours for his own writing in the middle. Finally and unexpectedly, in 1872 he became the Professor of Organ at the Paris Conservatoire. As his disciple Vincent D’Indy remarked, “how was it that a minister … decided to consider for this post the organist of Ste.-Clotilde, so unofficial in temper and in spirit?”. With this upswing of personal fortunes came a significant enhancement of the quality of his compositions, with most of Franck’s major works being written between this date and his death in 1890.
Stove has chosen to eschew scholarly detachment in treating his subject’s life, and the reward in engagement and sheer wit is considerable, while the extensive annotations reveal just how carefully and thoroughly the author has done his research. The characters surrounding Franck—Chausson, D’Indy, Duparc, Magnard, Ropartz, Vierne, and so on, the so-called bande à Franck—are all drawn convincingly, their various characters and foibles faithfully reflected in Stove’s huge range of quotes and references. All the accounts of Franck’s dealings with the broad canvas of luminaries that traipsed through Paris and his hometown of Liège, composers, performers, writers, aristocrats, organists and organ-builders, are entertaining and thought-provoking. Of all the dramatis personae, the most vivid is Vincent D’Indy, a composer whose music I had always regarded as bland and rather fatuous—I shall definitely need to give him a second chance.
Slightly disappointing is that Franck himself, the centre of the whole exercise, remains at the end of the book as inscrutable as he seemed before I started. This is unquestionably because of the shortage of first-person comment or description, autobiographical detail or letters, that he left at his death. One cannot blame his biographer; when the story has to be largely constructed from the words of others, it is inevitable that the main character retain some mystery. Or possibly there was no deep inner man needing to be plumbed; perhaps Franck was the simple soul his friends describe. I have my doubts; much of Franck’s behaviour, his lengthy work day, his working holidays, his unconscious use of sensual harmonies and consciously amatory creations like Psyché, speak of a man whose marriage was not fulfilling. I wonder if eventually a ‘secret life’ of César Franck will come to light.
Review courtesy of Organ Australia.