Friday, December 6, 2013

Franck - Piano Quintet In F Minor

Nicolas-Joseph Franck tried his best to use the talent of his son César as a way towards amassing great wealth for the family. After César  played concerts and studied at the Conservatory at Liège,  Nicolas decided to take his son to Paris to gain wider exposure and to continue his studies at the Paris Conservatoire. His son was denied enrollment because he was a foreigner  (the family was Belgian). Evidently Nicolas was a typical 'stage mother' type that would do anything to promote his sons, so he applied for French citizenship.  Nicolas made good use of the time it took to get the citizenship by having his sons study privately and play in numerous concerts. The boy entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1837 when he was 15.

The young man was under a lot of strain, as besides his studies he was teaching, composing, and thanks to his relentless and overbearing father, playing a heavy schedule of concerts. He abruptly resigned from the Conservatoire in 1842, perhaps at the insistence of his father to free him up for even more concerts. Finally Nicolas' fierce promotion of his son began to wear thin on the music critics in Paris. César was acknowledged as a fine pianist, but soon his concerts were no longer well attended.  After Nicolas had burned so many bridges with his behavior there was no longer any reason to stay in Paris, so the father and son went back to Belgium.

Belgium proved to be worse than Paris as there was not much money to be made concertizing and there was no patronage forthcoming from the Belgian King. So after two years Nicolas and son went back to Paris where César resumed teaching and giving concerts. He was also composing and had written a trio that Franz Liszt showed his approval of. But his oratorio Ruth proved not to be popular with the public and was severely panned by critics. He tried his hand at opera and other works, but finally resigned himself to a life as a teacher.

His father still tried to exert his will on the son, and when César became interested in a woman he had met in his Conservatoire days, the father did not approve. Relations between the two became so strained that César walked out of the house and did not return. After years of living with his controlling and abusive father, the son had enough. He eventually married the woman, and sought a post as an organist. He was a pianist by training and didn't show much aptitude for the organ while in school, but a position as organist was steady income.

He became one of the best organists in France, and his third appointment in 1858 was his last as he stayed at the church of Sainte-Clotilde in Paris the rest of his life. By 1872 his reputation as organist and improviser was so great that he accepted the position of professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire.  He began to compose once again and the Piano Quintet of 1879 was one of his first masterpieces of his later years and the piece helped to reignite his writing for the piano which he had not done since his early years. The mature style of Franck was described by the musicologist Leland Hall :
"...all his work bears the stamp of his personality. Like Brahms, he has pronounced idiosyncrasies, among which his fondness for shifting harmonies is the most constantly obvious. The ceaseless alteration of chords, the almost unbroken gliding by half-steps, the lithe sinuousness of all the inner voices seem to wrap his music in a veil, to render it intangible and mystical. Diatonic passages are rare, all is chromatic. Parallel to this is his use of short phrases, which alone are capable of being treated in this shifting manner. His melodies are almost invariably dissected, they seldom are built up in broad design. They are resolved into their finest motifs and as such are woven and twisted into the close iridescent harmonic fabric with bewildering skill. All is in subtle movement."

The Piano Quintet is for piano, 2 violins, viola and cello. It is in three movements:
I. Molto quasi lento - Allegro - The movement begins with an extended introduction for string quartet alone that is soon answered by the solo piano. The strings again combine for a statement, the solo piano enters again. Strings and piano combine as the music increases in intensity until the first subject is heard. The theme goes through chromatic shifts until it gives way to the secondary theme, which is the theme that appears in all three movements.  Themes appear in different guises throughout the development section, the recapitulation is followed by a section where the main themes are juxtaposed with the secondary theme in the spotlight. The passion intensifies as the music continues its shifting chromaticism until the music grows quiet and the movement ends.

II. Lento - The second subject of the first movement appears in the middle of this movement, and it is flanked by themes that seem vaguely familiar. To my ears Franck creates in this movement a sentimental reminiscence of what has already passed.

III. Allegro non troppo - The music begins in an agitated state and grows in intensity until a theme derived from previous material arrives. All is movement and agitation which leads to the powerful coda and the abrupt end.

The quintet was premiered in 1880 with Camille Saint-Saëns at the keyboard (at the request of the composer). Saint-Saëns evidently grew more and more displeased with the piece the further he went (he was sight-reading the piece, a tribute to Saint-Saëns' musicianship). When the piece was finished Saint-Saëns stormed off the stage and refused to accept the manuscript and the dedication from Franck. Rumors flew about Franck being romantically involved with a female student at the time which contributed to the passion of the work. No one really knows why Saint-Saëns reacted the way he did. Perhaps it was the music itself, or the references to Franck's affair that made the work so emotional, or perhaps Saint-Saëns himself was harboring feelings for the same student. In any case, the work was well received by Franck's devoted students, and after a few years the work earned a place as one of the handful of masterpieces of the piano quintet genre.


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