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ClassicsOnline Home » FRANCK, C.: String Quartet in D Major / Piano Quintet in F Minor (Ortiz, Fine Arts Quartet)
Following the release of their highly praised Naxos recording of Fauré’s Piano Quintets (8.570938)—‘warmly expressive, their phrasing generous and intense’ (The Guardian)—Cristina Ortiz and the Fine Arts Quartet again join forces for this recording of Franck’s Piano Quintet, the extraordinary emotional range of which is unified by the tight thematic relationships typical of the composer’s ‘cyclic’ structuring. His String Quartet, composed ten years later, is a summit of Franck’s achievement, also cyclically conceived and revealing his admiration of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms.
By Philip Clark
By Robert R. Reilly
By James Invernes
César Franck (1822–1890)
String Quartet in D major • Piano Quintet in F minor
Belgian by birth, French by choice and of more remote possible German ancestry, César Franck was born in 1822 in the Walloon city of Liège. His musical gifts, obvious at
an early age, were encouraged by his father, who saw the possibility of a career for his son as a virtuoso performer. Study at the Conservatoire in Liège and early concert performance, with compositions to match his father’s ambitions, was followed by a period of respite from concert activity in Paris, with lessons from Antonín Reicha in the techniques of composition and rigorous piano discipline from Pierre-Joseph-Guillaume Zimmermann. In 1837 he was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire, where he began to win some distinction, continuing his piano lessons with Zimmermann and studying the organ rather less effectively under François Benoist. The natural course for Franck would have been to enter for the important Prix de Rome, victory in which would have brought three years study in Rome. It was, however, in 1842, when such a triumph seemed to lie before him, that his father withdrew
him from the Conservatoire, now seeking for his son once more a career as a performer, initially in Belgium again, where it was hoped to interest influential patrons. Two years later the Francks were back in Paris again.
Franck’s failure to impress, either as a pianist or as a composer, brought in the following years the need to earn a living as a teacher. His marriage in 1848 to one of his
pupils, Blanche Saillot Desmousseaux, the daughter of parents of importance in the Comédie Française, heirs to a long family theatrical tradition, brought a breach with his
father. From now on he continued to earn a living by teaching and as an organist, at first at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, where he had been married. In 1851 he moved to Saint-Jean-Saint-François-au-Marais, with its fine new Cavaillé-Coll organ and in 1858 he was appointed organist at Sainte-Clotilde, where Cavaillé-Coll installed a new instrument, generally regarded as the finest example of its kind. It was at Sainte-Clotilde over the following years that Franck built a reputation as an organist. In 1872, after a period in which he had won the loyalty and affection of a group of pupils, led by Duparc, and during which his music had been performed under the auspices of the Société Nationale de Musique, a body devoted to the promotion of Ars Gallica, he was appointed to the position of professor of organ at the Conservatoire.
From the 1870s onwards Franck devoted himself to composition, influenced in particular by hearing, in 1874, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which made a profound impression on him. At the Conservatoire he aroused some jealousy in his colleagues by attracting to his classes a group of young composers, among them Vincent d’Indy, one of the most devoted of the group known as the bande à Franck, to whom their teacher was known as Pater Seraphicus.
It was largely through d’Indy that Franck, in 1886, succeeded Saint-Saëns as president of the Société Nationale, after resignations from the committee over the
admittance of foreign music. As a composer Franck enjoyed limited contemporary success and a concert of his works, given in 1887, was an under-rehearsed disaster during which even the Symphonic Variations barely held together. The decade before Franck’s death in 1890, however, brought a series of works that have long been part of continuing concert repertoire, above all the Violin Sonata, the single Symphony and the Symphonic Variations.
Franck’s String Quartet in D major comes at the summit of his achievement, written between 29 October 1889 and 10 January 1890 and first performed at the Société Nationale on 19 April in the latter year. He had planned a further violin sonata, but this was never completed. The quartet is a work of some complexity, later to be analysed by Franck’s disciple Vincent d’Indy in a well-known discussion of the work and its structure. The first movement, which suggests elements that will duly return as the work unfolds, starts with an extended slow introduction, its opening theme marked molto largamente e sostenuto, and played fortissimo. The Allegro that follows, now in the key of D minor, with a second subject in F major is in sonata form, but leads to a development in the form of a fugue, introduced by the viola, followed by the second violin, cello and first violin in its exposition. The first subject returns in recapitulation in the key of G minor and there are other characteristic modulations before the Poco lento of the introduction is heard, duly ending the movement in D major. Strings are muted in the F sharp minor Scherzo, its thematic material presented in broken fragments. A trio section brings a contrast of
mood, before the Scherzo resumes, and echoes of the trio are heard in conclusion. The following Larghetto, in B major, starts with a fine extended melody for the first
violin and there are contrasts of mood and key as the movement proceeds. The Finale opens with a fragment marked Allegro molto, before a reminiscence of the slow movement. The Allegro molto resumes, leading to a muted recollection of the Scherzo. A further intervention leads to the cello’s return to the material of the introduction to the
first movement, from which the following Allegro molto is derived. This remarkable final movement succeeds in uniting the whole work in a contrapuntal treatment of thematic material that establishes Franck’s debt to German musical tradition, to Beethoven, to Brahms, and, in the Scherzo, to Mendelssohn.
Franck wrote his Piano Quintet in F minor in 1878 and 1879. It was first performed at the Société Nationale in January 1880 and was dedicated to Camille Saint-Saëns, who played the piano part on that occasion. It is said that Saint-Saëns seemed out of temper during the performance and that when it was finished he left the platform abruptly, leaving behind the score that had been dedicated to him. Thereafter he apparently did his best to discourage further performances. There was gossip suggesting that Franck had been inspired by an affair with the composer Augusta Holmès, his pupil, and that the Quintet is a reflection of this.
Cyclic structure is again exemplified in the Quintet. Marked Molto moderato quasi lento, the first movement opens with an introduction, with the indication drammatico, moving forward to an Allegro, its first subject derived from the introduction and its second the A flat cyclic chromatic theme, marked dolce, tenero ma con passione, which is to play an important rôle in the work. There is a final return to the opening Molto moderato quasi lento, with mounting excitement and passion, and strong dynamic contrasts. The slow movement, Lento, con molto sentimento, in A minor, offers respite and consolation, its melodic contour recalling the cyclic theme of the Violin Sonata. The cyclic chromatic theme of the first movement returns in a different guise in a central D flat major development, before the return of the material of the start of the movement, now further transformed. The second violin opens the final Allegro non troppo ma con fuoco, suggesting two motifs of importance in a movement full of passionate intensity. The cyclic theme gradually returns, to be heard fully after a modulation to D flat, giving unity to the whole work.
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