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ClassicsOnline Home » FRANCK, E.: Piano Trio No. 2 / Cello Sonata No. 2 / Violin Sonata No. 2 (Ashkenasi, Hanani, Tocco)
Eduard Franck sits at the very heart of the German Romantic movement. He was a great friend, and student, of Mendelssohn, with whom he played four-hand piano concerts, as well as cultivating the friendship of Robert Schumann. His music reflects these allegiances and kinships whilst also showing his very personal lyrical gift and bold harmonic sense, not least in the forward-looking Violin Sonata, Op 23. His later Cello Sonata, Op 42 calls for an equal pairing in music alternating power and elegance, whilst the Piano Trio, Op 22 embodies profuse lyricism.
Eduard Franck (1817–1893)
Piano Trio, Op 22 • Cello Sonata, Op 42 • Violin Sonata, Op 23
Born in 1817 to a prominent and sophisticated banking family in Breslau, the capital of the Prussian province of Silesia, Eduard Franck forged a multi-faceted career as a pianist, a teacher and as a composer. While much of Franck’s music was forgotten following his death in 1893, its rediscovery gives us the opportunity to appreciate his eloquent and elegantly crafted music anew and to better understand his place amongst the German romantic composers of the nineteenth century.
Franck began his formal studies in Breslau, but soon outgrew his local teacher, Eduard Phillip, who advised Franck to further his musical studies outside the confines of Breslau and Silesia. Taking his teacher’s advice and seeking to live up to his musical promise, Franck travelled to Düsseldorf in June 1834 to study with Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Mendelssohn was at first hesitant to accept the sixteen-year-old prodigy, but was ultimately persuaded to do so by Franck’s older brother, Hermann, a prominent writer and cultural critic.
From all reports, Franck made the most of this opportunity, composing his first piano trio; playing four-hand piano with Mendelssohn and accompanying him for a number of public performances, including a performance of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, with Mendelssohn as the violin soloist. In the summer of 1835, Franck returned to Breslau to complete his education at the Gymnasium (high school), but in the fall of 1836, eagerly rejoined his teacher in Leipzig, where Mendelssohn was now the Municipal Music Director and conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. These were intoxicating times for Franck. He dined daily with Mendelssohn and became a member of his inner circle that now included such notable figures as Robert Schumann, the English composer and pianist William Sterndale Bennett and the virtuoso violinist and composer Ferdinand David. Although Franck spent the majority of his time working on his own compositions and on those of his mentor, he also made time to take drawing lessons, Italian lessons and English lessons with Schumann. In 1837 he returned to Breslau and over the next four years honed his skills as a pianist and as a composer. Significant to Franck’s artistic development, he furthered his friendship with Schumann and remained in close contact with Mendelssohn. Indeed, Franck had established such a deep bond with Mendelssohn that he was a pall-bearer at his funeral in 1847.
From 1841 to 1845 Franck lived in London, Paris and then in Rome, where he became a member of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, one of the world’s oldest music institutions. In 1845 he moved to Berlin and in 1850 he married Tony Thiedemann (1827–1875), an accomplished pianist whom he had met years earlier at the Berlin home of Mendelssohn’s sister, Fanny. From 1851 to 1859 he taught piano and music theory at the Rhenish Music School in Cologne and became one of the bright lights of Cologne’s music scene, conducting the choral society and performing his own works on the Concert Society’s programmes. In 1858 he and his wife welcomed their only son, Richard, who was to become a distinguished pianist, conductor and composer in his own right. In 1859, after Franck’s application to succeed Schumann as the Municipal Music Director in Düsseldorf was rejected (despite the recommendation of Ferdinand Hiller, Cologne’s Music Director), Franck travelled to Bern to run its newly established conservatory. In 1867 he returned to Berlin to teach first at the Stern Conservatory (1867–1878) and then at Emil Breslaur’s Conservatory (1878–1892). In Berlin Franck’s students included Moritz Moszkowski (also enjoying a revival), who in turn taught Frank Damrosch, Josef Hofmann and Thomas Beecham.
Franck’s oeuvre includes orchestral works (several symphonies and piano concertos, a concerto for two pianos and orchestra, two violin concertos, as well as numerous overtures); chamber music (two string sextets, a piano sextet, a piano quintet, two string quintets, three string quartets, six piano trios, four violin sonatas and two cello sonatas); numerous piano works, including nineteen sonatas, with a few songs and duets. While the three pieces featured on this recording are only a small part of this much larger body of work, they do impart important insights into Franck’s approach to composing and they provide the listener with a sense of how Franck “fits in” amongst the German romantic composers of the nineteenth century.
With its impeccable construction, its clearly balanced themes, its symmetrical phrase structure, and its overall refinement and elegance, Franck’s Piano Trio in E flat major, Op 22, owes a great debt to Mendelssohn. In the Scherzo, especially, one sees Mendelssohn’s hand in the way Franck builds upon and layers diverse themes to create an emotional intensity characteristic of the new romantic music aesthetic. Mendelssohn’s narrative also underlies the hymn-like piano prelude ultimately heard in the violin and the polyphonic writing in the Andante con moto. While there is a clear artistic kinship between Franck and Mendelssohn, it would be shortsighted to view his work solely within the prism of a Mendelssohnian model. For example, in the Allegro molto vivace Franck employs inspired piano passages and rapid rhythmic motives to create an unbridled lyricism that is more reminiscent of his friend, Robert Schumann.
Franck’s Cello Sonata in F major, Op 42, is an ambitious four-movement work in which the piano and cello speak as equal partners. Franck cleverly resolves the inequities in balance between the more powerful piano and the cello by alternating the cello’s material between its upper and lower registers. As a result, the cello freely sings but can also act as a bass foundation for the piano. Although its arching melodic phrases and brilliant virtuosic passages point to Mendelssohn’s two cello sonatas, the Sonata in B flat major, Op 45 and the Sonata in D major, Op 58 and to Beethoven, the creator of the cello sonata, Franck’s stamp can be seen in the syncopated and irregular rhythms in the Allegro (infusing a more modern feel), the canonic writing within the Scherzo: Allegro vivace, and the plaintive theme in the Adagio molto espressivo, sounded by the piano and cello in equal measure—a departure from Beethoven, who, for the most part, avoided melody-led slow movements for the cello.
In the Violin Sonata in A major, Op 23, Franck highlights the tonal brilliance of the violin while employing virtuosic piano interludes within a well-constructed four-movement format. Repeated rhythms dominate in the Allegro and folk idioms are heard in the Scherzo, characteristic of mainstream works within the romantic era. Notably, one also hears bold chromatic harmonies, unexpected harmonic turns and dramatically altered notes, especially within the Andante con moto, that imbue the work with a more modern feel and that point to the later romantics, including Johannes Brahms.
While Franck was highly regarded as both a teacher and performer, he did not achieve the same level of recognition for his work as a composer and as mentioned above, his work was largely forgotten following his death. One explanation may lie in the fact that some of his compositions were lost and in fact, none was published between 1860 and 1882. In their informative book Die Komponisten Eduard Franck und Richard Franck (The Composers Eduard Franck and Richard Franck) (Leipzig 2010), Paul and Andreas Feuchte, Franck’s great-grandson and great-great-grandson, postulate that Franck’s perfectionistic tendencies may have contributed to the delay in releasing his works.
Franck may have also suffered some fall-out from the conflict in German musical circles beginning in the mid-nineteenth century between the more traditional followers of Brahms, seeking to maintain classical structures within their works, and those supporting Wagner and Liszt and their aim of stretching the limits of traditional form and diatonic harmony as a means of expressing the beauty of nature and deep emotional states. In a nutshell, since none of his works was published for a period of over twenty years, by the time they were finally released to the public, they may have seemed outmoded, and too referential to the “classical” music of the past.
Another explanation may lie in the fact that Franck, like Mendelssohn, descended from a family that had converted from Judaism to Christianity (Franck’s uncle was a cantor in a Breslau synagogue). With the changing political climate and waning of the Enlightenment, Franck may have been swept aside by undercurrents of anti-Semitism running through nineteenth-century Germany. Indeed, at this time, what we think of as Germany was only a patchwork of principalities, rather than a modern nation-state where Jewish emancipation was often a matter of chance rather than a uniformly held policy.
Irrespective of the reasons for the neglect of Eduard Franck’s work, this is music that deserves to be heard not only because of its historical context and its masterful form, but because of its timeless beauty, elegance and emotional impact. It is gratifying to rediscover and reassess a composer who exemplified high art and high ideals when German Romanticism was at its zenith. As Shakespeare so aptly noted, “The earth has music for those who listen”.
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FRANCK, E.: Piano Trio No. 2 / Cello Sonata No. 2 ...