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César Franck

By Harriette Brower

Whatever we learn of César Franck endears him to all who would know and appreciate the beautiful character which shines through his art. He was always kind, loving, tender, and these qualities are felt in the music he composed. Some day we shall know his music better. It has been said of this unique composer: "Franck is enamored of gentleness and consolation; his music rolls into the soul in long waves, as on the slack of a moonlit tide. It is tenderness itself."

In Liège, Belgium, it was that César Franck was born, December 10, 1822. Chopin had come a dozen years earlier, so had Schumann, Liszt and other gifted ones; it was a time of musical awakening.

The country about Liège was peculiarly French, not only in outward appearance, but in language and sentiment. Here were low hills covered with pines and beeches, here charming valleys; there wide plains where the flowering broom flourished in profusion. It was the Walloon country, and the Francks claimed descent from a family of early Walloon painters of the same name. The earliest of these painters was Jérome Franck, born away back in 1540. Thus the name Franck had stood for art ideals during a period of more than two and a half centuries.

When César and his brother were small children, the father, a man of stern and autocratic nature—a banker, with many friends in the artistic and musical world—decided to make both his sons professional musicians.

His will had to be obeyed, there was no help for it. In the case of César, however, a musician was what he most desired to become, so that music study was always a delight.

Before he was quite eleven years old, his father took him on a tour of Belgium. It looked then as though he had started on a virtuoso career, as the wonder children—Mozart, Chopin, Thalberg, Liszt and others who had preceded him, had done. The future proved, however, that César's life work was to be composing, teaching and organ playing, with a quiet life, even in busy Paris, instead of touring the world to make known his gifts.

During this youthful tour of Belgium, he met a child artist, a year or two older than himself, a singer, also touring as a virtuoso. The little girl was called Pauline Garcia, who later became famous as Mme. Pauline Viardot Garcia.

When César was twelve he had learned what they could teach him at the Liège Conservatory, and finished his studies there. His father, ambitious for the musical success of his sons, emigrated with his family to Paris, in 1836. César applied for entrance to the Conservatoire, but it was not until the following year, 1837, that he gained admission, joining Leborne's class in composition, and becoming Zimmermann's pupil in piano playing. At the end of the year the boy won a prize for a fugue he had written. In piano he chose Hummel's Concerto in A minor for his test, and played it off in fine style. When it came to sight reading, he suddenly elected to transpose the piece selected a third below the key in which it was written, which he was able to do at sight, without any hesitation or slip.

Such a feat was unheard of and quite against the time-honored rules of competition. And to think it had been performed by an audacious slip of a boy of fifteen! The aged Director, none other than Maestro Cherubini, was shocked out of the even tenor of his way, and declared that a first prize could not be awarded, although he must have realized the lad deserved it. To make amends, however, he proposed a special award to the audacious young pianist, outside the regular competition, to be known as "The Grand Prize of Honor." This was the first time, and so far as is known, the only time such a prize has been awarded.

César Franck won his second prize for fugue composition in 1839. Fugue writing had become so natural and easy for him, that he was able to finish his task in a fraction of the time allotted by the examiners. When he returned home several hours before the other students had finished, his father reproached him roundly for not spending more time on the test upon which so much depended. With his quiet smile the boy answered he thought the result would be all right. And it was! The next year he again secured the first prize for fugue; this was in July 1840. The year following he entered the organ contest, which was a surprise to the examiners.

The tests for organ prizes have always been four. First, the accompaniment of a plain chant, chosen for the occasion; second, the performance of an organ piece with pedals; third, the improvising of a fugue; fourth, improvising a piece in sonata form. Both the improvisations to be on themes set by the examiners. César at once noticed that the two themes could be combined in such a way that one would set off the other. He set to work, and soon became so absorbed in this interweaving of melodies that the improvisation extended to unaccustomed lengths, which bewildered the examiners and they decided to award nothing to such a tiresome boy. Benoist, teacher of this ingenious pupil, explained matters with the result that César was awarded a second prize for organ.

He now began to prepare for the highest honor, the Prix de Rome. But here parental authority interfered. For some unexplained reason, his father compelled him to leave the Conservatoire before the year was up. It may have been the father desired to see his son become a famous virtuoso pianist and follow the career of Thalberg and Liszt. At any rate he insisted his boy should make the most of his talents as a performer and should also compose certain pieces suitable for public playing. To this period of his life belong many of the compositions for piano solo, the showy caprices, fantaisies and transcriptions. Being obliged to write this kind of music, the young composer sought for new forms in fingering and novel harmonic effects, even in his most insignificant productions. Thus among the early piano works, the Eclogue, Op. 3, and the Ballade, Op. 9, are to be found innovations which should attract the pianist and musician of to-day.

His very first compositions, a set of three Trios, Op. 1, were composed while he was still at the Conservatoire, and his father wished them dedicated "To His Majesty, Leopold I, King of the Belgians." He wished to secure an audience with the King and have his son present the composition to his Majesty in person. It may have been for this reason he withdrew the boy so suddenly from the Conservatoire. However this may have been, the Franck family returned to Belgium for two years. At the end of that time, they all returned to Paris, with almost no other resources than those earned by the two young sons, Josef and César, by private teaching and concert engagements.

And now began for César Franck that life of regular and tireless industry, which lasted nearly half a century. This industry was expressed in lesson-giving and composing.

One of the first works written after his return to Paris, was a musical setting to the Biblical story of "Ruth." The work was given in the concert room of the Conservatoire, on January 4, 1846, when the youthful composer was twenty-three. The majority of the critics found little to praise in the music, which, they said, was but a poor imitation of "Le Desert," by David. One critic, more kindly disposed than the others, said: "M. César Franck is exceedingly naïve, and this simplicity we must confess, has served him well in the composition of his sacred oratorio of 'Ruth.'" A quarter of a century later, a second performance of "Ruth" was given, and the same critic wrote: "It is a revelation! This score, which recalls by its charm and melodic simplicity Mehul's 'Joseph,' but with more tenderness and modern feeling, is certainly a masterpiece."

But alas, hard times came upon the Franck family. The rich pupils, who formed the young men's chief clientèle, all left Paris, alarmed by the forebodings of the revolution of 1848. Just at this most inopportune moment, César decided to marry. He had been in love for some time with a young actress, the daughter of a well-known tragedienne, Madame Desmousseaux, and did not hesitate to marry in the face of bad times and the opposition of his parents, who strongly objected to his bringing a theatrical person into the family.

César Franck was then organist in the church of Notre Dame de Lorette, and the marriage took place there, February 22, 1848, in the very thick of the revolution. Indeed, to reach the church, the wedding party were obliged to climb a barricade, helped over by the insurgents, who were massed behind this particular fortification.

Soon after the wedding, Franck, having now lost his pupils—or most of them—and being continually blamed by his father, whom he could no longer supply with funds, decided to leave the parental roof and set up for himself in a home of his own. Of course he had now to work twice as hard, get new pupils and give many more lessons. But with all this extra labor, he made a resolve, which he always kept sacredly, which was to reserve an hour or two each day for composition, or for the study of such musical and literary works as would improve and elevate his mind. Nothing was ever allowed to interfere with this resolution, and to it we owe all his great works.

Franck made his first attempt at a dramatic work in 1851, with a libretto entitled "The Farmer's Man." As he must keep constantly at his teaching during the day, he devoted the greater part of the night to composition. He worked so hard that the opera, begun in December 1851, was finished in two years, but he paid dearly for all this extra labor. He fell ill—a state of nervous prostration—and was unable for some time to compose at all.

It was indeed a time of shadows for the young musician, but the skies brightened after a while. He had the great good fortune to secure the post of organist and choir master in the fine new basilica of Sainte Clothilde, which had lately been erected, and which had an organ that was indeed a masterpiece. This wonderful instrument kept all its fulness of tone and freshness of timbre after fifty years of use. "If you only knew how I love this instrument," Father Franck used to say to the curé of Sainte Clothilde; "it is so supple beneath my fingers and so obedient to all my thoughts."

As Vincent d'Indy, one of Franck's most gifted and famous pupils, writes:

"Here, in the dusk of this organ-loft, which I can never think of without emotion, he spent the best part of his life. Here he came every Sunday and feast day—and toward the end of his life, every Friday morning too, fanning the fire of his genius by pouring out his spirit in wonderful improvisations, which were often far more lofty in thought than many skilfully elaborated compositions. And here, too, he must have conceived the sublime melodies which afterward formed the groundwork of his 'Beatitudes.'"

"Ah, we knew it well, we who were his pupils, the way up to that thrice-blessed organ loft, a way as steep and difficult as that which the Gospels tell us leads to Paradise. But when we at last reached the little organ chamber, all was forgotten in the contemplation of that rapt profile, the intellectual brow, from which seemed to flow without effort a stream of inspired melody and subtle, exquisite harmonies."

César Franck was truly the genius of improvisation. It is said no other modern organist, not excepting the most renowned players, could hold any comparison to him in this respect. Whether he played for the service, for his pupils or for some chosen musical guest, Franck's improvisations were always thoughtful and full of feeling. It was a matter of conscience to do his best always. "And his best was a sane, noble, sublime art."

For the next ten years Franck worked and lived the quiet life of a teacher and organist; his compositions during this time were organ pieces and church music. But a richer inner life was the outgrowth of this period of calm, which was to blossom into new, deeper and more profoundly beautiful compositions.

One of these new works was "The Beatitudes." For years he had had the longing to compose a religious work on the Sermon on the Mount. In 1869, he set to work on the poem, and when that was well under way, began to create, with great ardor, the musical setting.

In the very midst of this absorbing work came the Franco-Prussian war, and many of his pupils must enter the conflict, in one way or another. Then early in 1872, he was appointed Professor of Organ at the Conservatoire, which was an honor he appreciated.

The same year, while occupied with the composition of the "Beatitudes," he wrote and completed his "Oratorio of the Redemption." After this he devoted six years to the finishing of the "Beatitudes," which occupied ten years of his activity, as it was completed in 1879. A tardy recognition of his genius by the Government granted him the purple ribbon as officer of the Academy, while not until five or six years later did he receive the ribbon of a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.

In consequence of this event his pupils and friends raised a fund to cover expenses of a concert devoted entirely to the master's compositions. These works were given—conducted by Pasdeloup: Symphonic Poem—"Le Chasseur Maudit," Symphonic Variations, piano and orchestra, Second Part of "Ruth." Part II was conducted by the composer and consisted of March and Air de Ballet, with chorus, from "Hulda" and the Third and Eighth Beatitudes.

The Franck Festival occurred January 30, 1887, and was not a very inspiring performance. The artist pupils of the master voiced to him their disappointment that his works should not have been more worthily performed. But he only smiled on them and comforted them with the words: "No, no, you are too exacting, dear boys; for my part I am quite satisfied."

No wonder his pupils called him "Father Franck," for he was ever kind, sympathetic and tender with them all.

During the later years of César Franck's earthly existence, he produced several masterpieces. Among them the Violin Sonata, composed for Eugene and Théophile Ysaye, the D minor Symphony, the String Quartet, the two remarkable piano pieces, Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, Prelude, Aria and Finale, and finally the Three Chorales for organ, his swan song. His health gradually declined, due to overwork and an accident, and he passed quietly away, November 8, 1890.

Chabrier, who only survived Franck a few years, ended his touching remarks at the grave with these words:

"Farewell, master, and take our thanks, for you have done well. In you we salute one of the greatest artists of the century, the incomparable teacher, whose wonderful work has produced a whole generation of forceful musicians and thinkers, armed at all points for hard-fought and prolonged conflicts. We salute, also, the upright and just man, so humane, so distinguished, whose counsel was sure, as his words were kind. Farewell!"