About this Recording
8.573955 - FRANCK, C.: Psyché (version for choir and orchestra) / Le Chasseur maudit / Les Éolides (RCS Voices, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Tingaud)
English  French 

César FRANCK (1822–1890)
Psyché • Le Chasseur maudit • Les Éolides

 

While audiences’ fascination with musical child prodigies has made celebrities of the likes of Mendelssohn, Korngold and most prominently Mozart, the Belgian composer César Franck (1822–1890) rarely—if ever—appears alongside such aweinspiring figures, despite showing extraordinary musical talent from a young age. Having entered the Liège Conservatoire at the age of eight, his progress as a pianist was so astonishing that in 1834 his father took him on tour and a year later dispatched him to Paris, where he worked with the Bohemian composer Anton Reicha. In 1837 the 15-year-old Franck entered the Paris Conservatoire; within a year he had won the Grand Prix d’Honneur, and this was followed by a First Prize for fugue and Second Prize for organ. To please his father and earn much-needed money, Franck gave concerts, largely devoted to his own virtuosic fantasias and operatic potpourris that were popular at that time. After 1840, his compositions became noticeably more serious, and for the remainder of his life he earned his livelihood as an organist and teacher, leading a simple, almost ascetic life.

Having been appointed organ professor at the Paris Conservatoire in 1872, Franck taught what amounted to a composition class for students who resisted the officially sanctioned path of learning to write operas in the current popular style. He sought to give French music an emotional engagement, technical solidity, and seriousness comparable to that of German composers. Drawn to Franck’s own progressive compositions and his artistic integrity, his many followers (most notably Vincent D’Indy, Ernest Chausson and Pierre de Bréville) responded with loyalty and devotion, glorifying the man they called ‘Father Franck’ as an artist devoted to writing pure and sublime works instead of mere entertainment. Despite his personal gentleness, Franck attracted intense opposition from colleagues at the Conservatoire and other conservative quarters, most notably Camille Saint-Saëns, and his music knew little success in his lifetime. Indeed, as a composer he fulfilled his potential only in the last decade of his life, writing several key works that would immortalise his name in the annals of music history, including his Symphony in D minor, Piano Quintet and Violin Sonata.

Although most of his works received scant attention at the time of their composition, Franck was able to taste success with his orchestral masterpiece, Le Chasseur maudit (‘The Accursed Huntsman’). Composed in October 1882 and introduced at a concert of the Société nationale de musique in March the following year, today this symphonic morality tale ranks among his most popular and frequently performed works. It was inspired by the ballad Der wilde Jäger (‘The Wild Hunter’) by the German poet Gottfried August Bürger. One Sunday morning, as church bells summon the faithful to worship, the Count dismisses the religious observance of no hunting on the Sabbath, and defiantly sets out on his horse, trampling crops and applying his whip to any peasants who obstruct his way. After a while, his horse suddenly stalls and a stern voice proclaims: ‘Accursed hunter, be eternally pursued by Hell!’ The Count tries to flee, but flames surround him and his horse. Demons appear, at one moment goading him on, at the next, gleefully blocking his path. The wild ride continues, and even when horse and rider fall into an abyss there is no respite; they are borne through the air, doomed to ride on and on in unremitting punishment for blaspheming the Lord’s Day.

Franck’s symphonic poem is in four, clearly defined sections, opening with the peaceful Sunday landscape, depicted by a dialogue between a quartet of horns (establishing the work’s hunting character) and the cellos, who present a reflective motive, punctuated by (church) bells. Next comes the hunt, indicated by the horns again, introducing a more rhythmically incisive and more developed version of their initial motive (and sounding rather like the Nibelungs’ mining motive from Wagner’s Ring cycle in the process). The third part portrays the announcement of the curse and the halting of the horse, and this leads in the final section, the demons’ chase, with its echoes of the finale (Witches’ Sabbath) from Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, not least with its frenzied string writing and the return of the church bells, tolling the Count’s fate.

The Wagnerian influence spread throughout many of Franck’s orchestral scores, including Les Éolides, completed in September 1875 and premiered two years later. As with Le Chasseur maudit the stimulus for this symphonic poem was literary, this time a poem by Charles Marie René Leconte de Lisle about the Aeolids (‘The Breezes’), daughters of Aeolus (the God of the Winds). Franck’s musical response vividly depicts these mythological women, who reawaken nature with their song. He kept his sense of direction in the score by writing lines from Leconte de Lisle’s poem over certain sections of the music, and it is perhaps for this reason—as well as for the nature of the music itself—that some have described it as an ‘Impressionist’ work, even though it inhabits a very different soundworld to Debussy. The orchestration, for example, is much more economic than that of many of Debussy’s scores, and if anything it is more Mendelssohnian in style (think A Midsummer Night’s Dream) with its light-footed, fairylike strings and playful woodwind writing. The shadow of Wagner also looms large from the outset (especially Tristan und Isolde), with a four-note rising chromatic motif that dominates throughout, and a general reluctance for phrases to resolve, portraying the gusts of the breezes, swirling and dissipating into the air.

The orchestral colours of Les Éolides (and even some of its musical material) found their way into Franck’s final symphonic poem. Composed more than a decade later, Psyché (completed in the summer of 1887) adopts a much larger scale not only in its duration but also the forces required, employing a large orchestra and chorus. It is dedicated to Franck’s most fervent follower, D’Indy, who claimed—somewhat extraordinarily—that the work was devoid of carnal passion. D’Indy argued, possibly out of embarrassment at the nature of the music, that the opening section represents an ethereal dialogue between the soul and a seraph descended from heaven to instruct it in the eternal truths, as conceived in Thomas à Kempis’ handbook for spiritual living, The Imitation of Christ. This chaste interpretation would be a perfectly plausible response if the music itself were not imbued with such lush writing, which seems to exist somewhere between a Tchaikovsky ballet and Wagner’s Tristan. Franck himself—a devout Catholic—later felt uneasy about the work, claiming he preferred his earlier piece Les Béatitudes because it contained ‘not one sensual note’.

The legend of Psyché and Eros has clear resonances with the Orpheus myth in that Psyché is forbidden to look upon the face of Eros but (inevitably) violates this command. Psyché arrives in Hades, where she falls into a deep sleep, and it is during this slumber that Franck’s symphonic poem begins, the first movement evoking a dark, heady atmosphere. She dreams of her beloved Eros and the bliss she yearns for, and this (literally) erotic reverie is portrayed by a melody in the solo clarinet, supported by gently rocking strings, establishing one of the main motives of the work. This dreamy section is followed by a brief scherzo marking the awakening of Psyché by the Zéphyrs (Franck conjuring up The Breezes once again) depicted by playful flutes, dancing around the distinctive, rising chromatic motive heard at the opening of Les Éolides. Part II marks the journey to Eros’s garden, where the Chorus whispers in Psyché’s ear about the power of love, and Franck recalls the motives from the first part to show the connection with Eros from her dream, which has now become a reality. Performing its traditional dual role within a Greek tragedy, as both commentator and sage adviser, the Chorus warns Psyché not to look at Eros, while the passionate orchestral music that follows represents their union. The third part finds the Chorus lamenting that she did not take heed of their warning. A mournful oboe leads to the apotheosis, in which the original myth is altered to permit a happy ending: Psyché is pardoned, and accompanied by the sounds of the Chorus and celestial harps, the lovers drift up to heaven in each other’s arms.

Dominic Wells


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