Robin Holloway on César Franck
Once so sure in the pantheon, esteemed by composers and critical taste, beloved by players and audiences, César Franck appears nowadays to be almost universally reviled. Of the late handful of indubitable masterpieces, only the Violin Sonata still enjoys the affection, admiration and performances previously accorded the Piano Quintet, the Symphony, the Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra, and the two sizable cycles for piano alone. Organists still adhere to the Chorales and other sticky products of this master of the instrument, the sole composer since Bach to give it a genuine œuvre, till joined by his successor Messaien. There was never much of a future for Franck’s two operas; but what about a likelier genre in the two oratorios? And, above all, that towering final incandescent String Quartet, masterly and masterful, adored by Proust and principal model for the symbolic Septet in his novel?
The present consensus is that Franck is merely thick, cloying, glutinous, too sequential, too chromatic, stiff in rhythm and phrasing, mechanised in form and process — especially in the ‘motto’ idea, laboriously applied, whereby all of a work’s themes transfer and transform across all its movements. Principal bugbear remains an uneasy proximity of erotic fervour, so unabashed as to cause the discreet epicurean Saint-Saëns to blench in disgust, with fervid religiosity, all incense and unction. All this is true and obvious — to the sympathetic let alone the hostile gaze. Yet the joy Franck’s music can give is, with every reservation fully acknowledged, absolute and special.
The life-pattern is unusual. Belgian-born (Liège, 1822), he went at 13 to study in Paris, settling permanently in 1844; from 1853 onward he took the console at the church of Sainte-Clotilde, and has been held a French composer ever since.