Monday, January 7, 2019

Francisco Fullana and Jiayi Shi Meet Cesar Franck

Cesar Franck, organist (1885)
This Wednesday at 8pm at Market Square Church, violinist Francisco Fullana and pianist Jiayi Shi will perform sonatas by Beethoven, Franck, and Debussy, plus Bartók's 2nd Rhapsody. For more information and to hear performances by them as well as listen to videos of the Beethoven Violin Sonata in A Minor, Op.23, on the program, please check the previous post, here.

This post is about the Violin Sonata in A Major by Cesar Franck, composed in 1886.

(You can read about the works by Debussy and Bartók in the final post of the series.)

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Despite the concert order of the works you'll hear on Wednesday night, I've decided to present them on the blog in chronological order. And, as I pointed out before, while Beethoven is at the beginning of his career, having only recently begun publishing his first major works, Cesar Franck is at the end of his career (not that he knew that) and the Debussy Sonata is the last piece he completed before his death in 1918. Only the Bartók Rhapsody hails from the “height” of a career, but then don't presume all composers are like a Bell Curve, declining toward their final works: if anything, Franck's single Violin Sonata is one of his finest works (certainly, his most popular, along with his D Minor Symphony) and Debussy's points the way toward a reconsideration of what it was to be a “French Musician” as he identified himself on its cover, what would have become a “late period” that never was, with three more sonatas on the drawing board left unbegun.

So, let's continue with Franck. Yes, there's a change in the initial program which came in only after a great deal of publicity was already sent out and programs printed (this happens in real life). While I miss the Enescu which I'd never even known existed before seeing it on the brochure, the Franck is an old favorite and, if anything, suffers from being over-performed (just because one can play the notes doesn't mean one should – as many musicians have told their students, “the music is what's between the notes”).

While the Beethoven was initially billed as a “Sonata for Piano with Violin,” the Franck is an out-and-out equal collaboration with, as several friends of mine have put it, “a bitch of a piano part” accompanied by what can only be described as a “don't-you-dare-call-me-an-accompanist” glare.

To listen to the work, here are two recordings you can choose from. I'm always partial to those with the score since even non-musicians often find it fascinating to see what that “code” looks like on the printed page which translates what the composer heard in his head with what the listener hears, depending on how accurately the performers interpret it (and how differently different performers can play it). It's a very gray area deciding what makes a good performance or a great performance and what I like may be different from what somebody else likes. And the Franck Sonata is one of those works that makes it easy to offer two very different performances, each of which will appeal to some and annoy others.

First, here is pianist Krystian Zimerman and violinist Kaja Danczowska (whose name I'm unfamiliar with).
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The Sonata is in four movements, essentially two pairs, opening with a moderate, almost leisurely (and too often, too leisurely) lyricism followed by a dramatic and turbulent second movement and one of the reasons it sounds like the real “first movement” in the usual sense, making the actual first movement an extended introduction, is that they're both different sides of the same coin: the musical material is essentially the same, just treated differently.

In the Beethoven post, I mentioned how composers frequently wrote “sets” of pieces to explore the different varieties to the challenge of writing, say, a violin sonata or a string quartet. In these two movements, it's as if Franck set out to find how many ways he could take this simple material and make it on the one hand lyrical and on the other dramatic.

The third movement is again a slow introductory-like movement, built around the idea of an operatic recitative, that half-sung/half-spoken delivery in the voice with a minimum of accompaniment, often solo phrases separated by accompanimental phrases, rambling in an improvisatory sort of way – it is, for that reason, described as a “recitative-fantasy.” Since a recitative usually introduces the aria in an opera, it feels to have the same purpose here. But the fourth movement, then, is not so much an aria as a traditional rondo (as Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven might have ended a sonata or symphony a century earlier), smiling and exuberant (adjectives I don't normally apply to Franck's music) and also full of “canonic imitation.” That basically means you hear one voice (in this case the piano) play a theme, and the second voice, the “imitating” voice (in this case, the violin), starting the same theme but a measure later, almost as if the violinist came in late.

The episodes in between this canonic theme are, not surprisingly, built on ideas we've heard before. Even the canonic theme spins off the very first thing you hear at the opening of the sonata, that little motive in the piano which doesn't even sound like a motive, just an accompaniment warming up before the soloist appears (insert acorn/oak tree reference, here).

Which leads me to another term you run into with Franck's music – it was a common feature of French music in general but usually something other composers picked up from Franck and his students – is “cyclical.”

In some cases, it's no more than themes from previous movements appearing in the last movement, often only in the concluding moments of the finale, to tie the whole work together. Bruckner did it in his symphonies, most obviously in his 5th which was written in the mid-1870s but not performed until 1887 (after Franck's sonata) in a version for two pianos, the orchestral premiere not taking place until 1894 (by which time Franck was dead) but that's another story. However, Beethoven – as usual – had done something like that much earlier: the introductions to the finales of his Hammerklavier Sonata and, subsequently, his 9th Symphony practically go through a roll-call of earlier movements' themes as if deciding “no, not this one; not that one, either; uh uh... oh, let's do something new!” before starting the main part of the last movement, whether that material has any bearing on the old material.

With Franck, what is unusual, given the way composers most often wrote a multi-movement work, is that he presents a few ideas – melodic shapes, harmonic “gestures” – that can be transformed into a multitude of different-sounding themes. In fact, it's possible to listen to Franck's 2nd Movement, here, and be totally unaware you've heard it all before!

This, too, is nothing “new.” Franz Liszt is usually credited with “inventing” the idea of thematic transformation, especially in his symphonic poems like Les Preludes, in which an idea expressed in a slow tempo in the introduction becomes a romantic, aching main theme before turning into a triumphant celebration in the piece's conclusion.

With Franck, this “transformation” is often so subtle, a performer unaware of these connections and just playing one note after another misses the structure of the piece and makes it sound like a rambling if pretty landscape. In reality, Franck has created a taut and well-conceived bit of architecture whether we, the listeners, are aware of it. That's part of the magic, managing all that variety – the piece lasts a half-hour, after all – out of very little “stuff.”

While these “basic building blocks” may appear so generically in music, isn't it more likely all this is mere coincidence? After all, if you listen to the opening measure of Beethoven's A Minor Sonata and compare it to the opening of the last movement of the Franck (at 22:42, above), uhm... hey, aren't they same things? They're only slightly different, right?

Hmm... well, there are only 12 pitches to go around...

While I couldn't find any “live performance video” I was comfortable with, I did find this audio one which I'd never heard before, recorded in 1937 – !! – with violinist Jascha Heifetz and pianist Artur Rubinstein. It is an unedited direct transfer from the original 78rpm records – !!! – even though the recording has been reissued on CD by RCA. Still, the sound, though obviously monaural, is not bad, considering, and the interpretation speaks for itself.
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One other thing worth mentioning: you might occasionally see this as a Cello Sonata. It seems, according to Ysaÿe's son, Franck had begun the work as a Cello Sonata but then turned it into a Violin Sonata after Ysaÿe asked him for a new piece. Franck didn't make the cello version himself but he did approve one that someone else had prepared. This has also given rise to a transcription for flute and piano and if you tool around YouTube you can probably find somebody's version of it for tuba and piano. (It essentially has become the equivalent of "commercial art" where you can order a painting to match the color of your couch...)

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It's always curious how a work you're listening to comes into being: what inspired this music? In Beethoven's case, he wanted to publish some more violin sonatas because the amateur market was interested in music that could be performed “in the home” by amateur performers. By securing a dedication to the wealthy banker/patron Count Moritz von Fries, Beethoven managed to have Fries “purchase” the two sonatas for a “limited time option” in which he could have them performed in his house concerts for, say, six months before they would be published and made available for general, public sale. That way, if you wanted to hear Beethoven's latest works, you had to go to Fries' palace to hear them performed – then, if you wanted to buy them, stop by the publishers later on to get your own copies.

Eugene Ysaÿe in Russia, 1883
On a less commercial note, Cesar Franck's sonata came about as a commission from the young Belgian violinist, Eugene Ysaÿe. The story goes that, given the composer's inability to attend the violinist's wedding, a mutual friend presented the just-finished sonata to the violinist the day of his wedding – hence the view it was a “wedding present” – and Ysaÿe immediately put it on the music stand and, with a handy pianist, then and there, after a hasty rehearsal, played through it at the reception.

Writing the sonata during the summer months of 1886, Cesar Franck was 63.

Its first public performance was typical of Franck's life: he hardly ever had a good performance or even good circumstances to inaugurate a new work. In this case, Ysaÿe and his pianist were giving a recital in a Brussels art museum and the Franck was the final work on a long program. Unfortunately, the museum's regulations forbid turning on electric lights (damaging to the paintings) and so, as the room got darker and darker, the management urged the audience to leave but Ysaÿe and his pianist kept playing, eventually playing the last three movements from memory in the dark!

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Cesar Franck is one of those musicians who began a musical career as a child prodigy, then grew up to become a late-bloomer.

How is that possible? As every composer travels a slightly different road from that initial inspiration to become a musician (especially a composer) in the first place through the early student years to (with any luck) initial success and (with considerably more luck) final recognition before being elevated into the Great Composers Hall of Fame, Franck's story might be a life-lesson for all who would think about starting out on this path. First of all, he did make it to the Hall of Fame, so there's that – but the different issues of his personal life and the development of the creative psyche as a result of experiences along the way add up to the typical stereotype of The Suffering Artist.

True, Beethoven was deaf, Mozart and Schubert (and many more) died young (and often assumed to be unrecognized in their lifetimes), and Brahms, if nothing else, suffered from life-long unrequited love. My God, why would anybody want their sons (and now daughters) to grow up to become cow... I mean, composers?

With the image of the Boy Mozart dandled on Imperial Knees while being proclaimed a Genius, many fathers saw themselves as potential Leopold Mozarts, marketing talented sons to become Future Wolfgangs – not that it did Mozart the Man any favors since financial and professional success eluded him all his short life, never receiving that longed-for dream of a stable “composer-in-residence” job with a royal court.

Beethoven's father was not the first to hope to follow in Leopold Mozart's exploitative footsteps even before Wolfgang himself was dead. Another was Nicholas-Joseph Franck, a Belgian bank-clerk, unemployed at the time of his son's birth, who saw two musically talented sons as a potential meal ticket out of middle class society, bandying them about between different cities in the region – including a concert before the king of the newly created independent country of Belgium, Leopold I (if you're watching PBS' presentation of “Victoria,” that would be Uncle Leopold) – before taking them off to study in Paris (unfortunately, as foreigners, they were not permitted to study at the great Conservatoire). Given that Nicholas-Joseph had named his elder son Cesar-Auguste – Caesar Augustus, really? – which came first: the desire for the musical success of his children or the pretensions of his becoming a successful stage-father? (After all, it was Leopold who pocketed all the money earned by parading his children – Wolfgang and Maria Anna, known to history as “Nannerl” – like performing monkeys around Europe: as an adult, Wolfgang never saw a penny of this income.)

It's a long and in the long run a distressing story, one in which the Boy Franck received no benefits beyond his training. I can't find out whatever happened to Cesar's younger brother Joseph, a violinist, in all this, but, like Mozart's sister Nannerl, hopefully he ended up considerably happier whether he pursued music or not. It took considerable fortitude for Cesar the young man, now 23 and long past any interest as a prodigy, to leave his family, disavow his father, and attempt to earn a living.

While his father's hopes for his son's career had been pinned on Cesar's pianistic talents, his earliest compositions seem to have been written when he was 11 or 12. A set of three piano trios written before 1840 (by which time he was 17) were published as his Op.1 and somehow garnered the attention of no less than Franz Liszt, speaking of child prodigies dragged to Paris to make his career.

But composition was not likely to be a profitable enterprise for an independent young man who needed to eat and support a family, having married when he was 25 a woman – again like Mozart – his father had strongly disapproved of (the proverbial straw applied to the camel's back of their relationship). In his early-30s, he became associated with an organ builder and eventually became well known as an organist, receiving various church jobs where he primarily improvised a great deal of what was needed of an organist and not bothering to write them down.

As his fame grew – and this is glossing over some very painful years – he would give whole recitals of improvisations and people used to go to his church just to hear him improvise during the services, one of them being Franz Liszt (who supposedly told him “how could I ever forget the man who wrote those trios!”). Though not taken seriously as a composer by the establishment – he produced very few works after this early period of mostly fluff for a would-be virtuoso (there are, now, some recordings on the Naxos label of several of his early works and I defy anyone with a knowledge of the mature Franck to identify the composer in whatever the modern-day equivalent is of a “drop-the-needle” test!) – he was hired to teach organ and improvisation but not composition at the great Paris Conservatoire in 1872 (though it could not be official until he had – finally – become a French citizen the following year) when Franck was 49. Something in these improvisations of his spoke to the students of musical worlds not otherwise available at the stodgy Conservatoire, so many composition students began to sit in on his organ classes which, in turn, became de facto composition classes.

And meanwhile, Franck himself began composing more and more seriously. Through the 1860s and '70s, he worked on a number of large-scale works – mostly oratorios like Les beatitudes – but as far as present-day music lovers are concerned, his first lasting work would be the Piano Quintet in F Minor of 1879 (when he was 56).

As his reputation as a composer – not always a good reputation – grew, he became involved in the musical politics of Paris whether he liked it or not. On the one side were those who followed Camille Saint-Saëns, the leading conservative of the day; on the other, those who were influenced by the chromatic style of Richard Wagner (who, by 1879, had only recently premiered The Ring and not yet written Parsifal) and a style of music that found its leading exponent in a humble and decidedly un-Wagner-like middle-aged organist at the Conservatoire named Cesar Franck.

But Franck was too gentle a person to survive the cut-throat politics surging through the French art world following the French defeat in the brief but humiliating Franco-Prussian War of 1870. And the fact Franck was, after all, Belgian and espoused a Germanic style – Wagner, the supreme monster of German Music so antithetical to French ears – didn't make it any easier for a man who, when he could not praise a student's work, chose to say nothing at all rather than risk hurting the young man.

And this was still going on through the 1880s. Saint-Saëns may have premiered Franck's Piano Quintet but he made no secret of his loathing of the music though he gave, as Franck's students attested, a very convincing performance of it (Franck was delighted simply to have a performance at all, much less one from such a leading figure and was quite possibly oblivious to Saint-Saëns' attitude). But the sniping became more public as the years progressed: in 1885, Franck was awarded the Legion of Honor which was one thing but then the following year – 1886 – his election as president of the National Music Society brought the scandal out in the open.

In the summer of that same year, the Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaÿe commissioned Franck to compose a violin sonata for him. Franck presented it to him, as I said above, as a wedding present in late-September. So essential this basically sunny, optimistic work – what would become his most frequently performed piece – was written in the midst of all this political cacophony!

1887 opened with an all-Franck concert in which the conductor and members of the orchestra were so unsympathtic to Franck's style, they could make no sense of the music, and ultimately the concert turned into a disaster that the only one who wasn't disturbed by it was Cesar Franck. By then, he was already working on his Symphony in D Minor – his only symphony – premiered the next year to more bickering and dissension in the press.

In fact, his first real public success was the premiere of his String Quartet in D – his only string quartet – which took place in April, 1890. As Franck's luck would have it, seeming to finally turn, he suffered a brain injury of some sort in July when a carriage (often called “a cab”) he was riding in was struck by a horse-drawn trolley (often referred to as “a bus”) and even though he didn't take the injury seriously – he had, at the time, passed out – eventually he began having trouble walking, found himself in considerable pain, canceled his remaining classes and took his summer holiday where he composed his Three Chorales for organ then resumed teaching in October when he came down with a cold that developed, in his weakened condition, into pneumonia (or pleurisy) and he died on November 9th, 1890.

Even 16 years after Franck's death, Maurice Ravel, a student of several of Franck's students, wrote in a letter after his own political troubles at the Conservatoire, how there were two schools of thought – those who centered around Debussy (those in favor of New Music) and those who followed Franck (once the avant-garde but now regarded as the Old Fuddy-Duddies). Referring to the Frankists as the ‘scholistes’, he described them as the “morose followers of a form of neo-Christianity,” Franck himself treating that ‘scholisme’ as “a form of dry intellectualism that robbed music of any proper feeling.” He complained all the elements of Franck's music were “elaborated separately and united by nothing other than technical exercise, rather than being the product of a simultaneous and instinctive idea.”

And yet today, we just sit back and enjoy all this music they wrote and think nothing of programming Saint-Saëns, Franck, Fauré, Debussy and Ravel on a program and saying “What a wonderful time that must have been!”

- Dick Strawser

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