César Franck: His Life And Times
By R.J. Stove
Scarecrow Press Inc, $68.99, pp. 368
ISBN 9780810882072

Described as ‘mediating between the tradition of the German instrumental music and French classicism’, César Franck was a composer, organist and pianist who produced some of the 19th century’s finest musical works. Yet despite the regard in which he was held by his peers (‘he writes very beautiful music very seriously’ was the verdict of one Ferenc Liszt) he remains, in the words of his Australian biographer — and fellow organist — R.J. Stove, ‘the most underestimated and misunderstood of the 19th century’s musical masters’.

Stove’s new life, the first English language biography of Franck to appear since the early 1970s, will hopefully put that right. In his opus we get plenty of clues as to why Belgium’s finest composer hasn’t always received the credit he deserves.

First there was the ‘unevenness’ of his output. Just a few years after finishing the magnificent ‘Six Pièces’ for organ, Frank came up with ‘Les plaintes d’une poupée’ (‘The Laments of a Doll’), in Stove’s words ‘a quite exceptionally bland piano work’. ‘Those who resent any composer whose later creations fail to represent a spectacular stylistic advance on his earlier will always be disconcerted by Franck, in whose oeuvre, right up until his death, trivia rubs shoulders with masterworks,’ Stove adds.

Then there was Franck’s total lack of interest in self-promotion and what nowadays is called ‘networking’. ‘He was incapable of pushing himself forward in adult life,’ Stove tells us. When the young Paderewski stayed in Paris in 1889, he recalled that among the famous Paris-based composers of the time, Franck was the only one he didn’t meet. ‘He was never to be seen in concerts. He was living like a monk, seeing only his pupils, and it is generally believed that he was actually afraid of new acquaintances. He retired absolutely from life,’ writes Stove. Franck was a man who showed ‘a complete indifference to high society’; all he seemed to be interested in was getting the job done, in a characteristically Belgian no-fuss style.

Franck was also a stoic who took the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune completely in his stride. When his students were fuming that once again their hero had missed out on receiving the Legion of Honour, Franck attempted to soothe them by saying: ‘Calm yourselves, calm yourselves, they have given me great hope for next year.’ (Franck eventually became a legionnaire in 1885).

What makes Stove’s biography especially interesting is not just the author’s own musical expertise, which enables him to go way beyond a standard biographer in analysing Franck’s work, but the way in which he weaves in the historical background. Franck certainly lived in interesting times. He was born in Liège in 1822, just eight years before the revolt against the Netherlands which gave Belgium its independence. His marriage, in Paris in February 1848, took place at the exact time of the revolution against the government of King Louis Philippe. This caused some practical problems: on his wedding day, the road to Notre-Dame-de-Lorette was barricaded, and Franck, his bride-to-be and his bridal procession had to clamber over the obstacles, causing great hilarity to the rebels.

Twenty-two years later, Franck was in Paris for the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war. While fellow composers Bizet, Fauré and Saint-Saëns served in the National Guard, Franck carried out the ‘tiring, thankless and frequently dangerous task’ of carting fuel supplies around Paris. Typically, ‘even constant noise, constant visitors an empty stomach and the need to transport coal’ failed to deflect Franck from his creative activity.

Having read a stirring paean to Paris, ‘La reine des cités’, published in Le Figaro, Franck dashed off to put it to music. At the same time as Paris was being bombarded, he carried on working on ‘Les Béatitudes’, described by Stove as ‘among the longest of his compositions and among the finest’.

The book’s comic highlights are the author’s coverage of historical musicology and organology. Stove analyses the reasons for the ‘century-long bad patch’ in the organ’s fortunes, which lasted from Handel’s death in 1759 until Franck’s ‘Six Pièces’. During this time, things got so bad in France that French organists lost the art of how to use the pedals. In the chapter ‘Parisian Hubris’, which details Franck’s teenage brilliance at the piano, Stove reminds us that 150 years ago every great pianist was expected to play at sight and that memorising piano pieces beforehand was regarded as something of a cop-out. Playing at sight ‘an extremely difficult exercise in the key of E flat’, Franck stunned his examiners with a faultless performance; he remains the only student in the history of the Paris Conservatoire to be presented with a Grand Prix d’honneur.

The child prodigy of the 1830s was still going strong and brimming with creative energy at the start of the 1890s. ‘In April 1890, he was only 67 and looked younger still. His health… remained good,’ Stove records. Yet by the end of the year, Franck was dead. In July he sustained injuries after being hit by the cable of a passing bus. He seemed to have recovered by the autumn, but in October a heavy cold turned into pneumonia. With the utmost heroism he laboured on, allowing pupils to visit him to continue their lessons and dragging himself out of bed to play the piano.

‘He is no more! He is no more! Our father, the Master, the sage with the benign face, the spirit with the pure heart who wrote down the songs of the angels in the blue sky, sleeps in the monstrous slumber from which no-one can awake … He cherished us as did our mothers. He was very good, he was very sweet,’ lamented Augusta Mary Ann Holmes, one of Franck’s many devoted students, who may or may not have also been the composer’s lover.

César Franck: His Life and Times reminds us that artistic geniuses don’t have to be tortured souls with problematic personalities. It also is a celebration of the idea of Belgium, the small, endlessly fascinating European nation that borders both France and Germany. As Stove concludes: ‘There is a certain appropriateness, as far as Franck’s legacy goes, in Belgium’s current role as headquarters of a European super-state: a role neither exclusively pro-French nor exclusively pro-German, but taking the best elements from both Teutonic and Gallic cultures. Much, in short, as Franck did in his own music.’

Neil Clark is a UK-based journalist and a regular contributor to the Guardian, the Daily and Sunday Express and other newspapers and magazines.