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Franck’s father saw the burgeoning talent of his son as pianist and composer and, being not unaware of the lucrative possibilities for a young virtuoso at the time, decided to take him on a small concert tour of Belgium. This was the beginning of a period of irresponsible exploitation by a ruthlessly ambitious father which was to last well into the 1840s. Franck was forced to compose party pieces for superficial salon gatherings—everything was brillant or grand—and most of the works which have survived from this time show an uneasy and awkward attempt by an above-average virtuoso to emulate the acrobatics of a Thalberg or Liszt—a singularly ‘low-wire’ act. The rhinestone roulades show up as fake in the innocent light of Franck’s shyness and humility, and the most effective moments by far are those of repose and lyricism.
In 1835 the family moved to Paris and a year later Franck entered the Conservatoire there as a counterpoint student of Leborne and piano student of Zimmermann. For the end of year examination he played Hummel’s A minor Concerto (one of the jurors was Alkan), and performed the outstanding and audacious feat of transposing his sight-reading test down a third. Although this was done flawlessly, it needed the intervention of the Director of the Conservatoire, Cherubini, to overlook the ‘law’ and reward the ‘spirit’ with a special Grand Prix d’Honneur.
This same year Franck began teaching classes at the family home and also visiting numerous private pupils. His gruelling journeys all over Paris, in addition to his studies and salon performances, were to prove an intolerable strain on the young man over the following years. His father would calculate the travel time between pupils with a cruel exactitude to maximize his son’s earning capacity and to make sure that he returned home as quickly as possible to continue his piano practice: ‘If you are disobedient, you know it is your mother who suffers for it.’
It was during his student years at the Conservatoire that Franck composed three trios for piano, violin and cello, his first serious works which showed some glimpse of things to come, notably in their early use of cyclic form. Before being able to try for the Prix de Rome, Franck’s father, either fearing that his son was becoming over-enthusiastic about composition and therefore neglecting the money-making concert tours, or seeing an opportunity to court the favour of the King of Belgium, moved the family back to Brussels in 1842. After only a few months, and (beyond a regal acceptance of the dedication of the Trios) a failed attempt to interest the King in the young prodigy, the family moved back to Paris. The trip to Belgium had not been fruitless, however, for there the young Franck had met Liszt, who had been deeply impressed by his trios and who became a loyal and generous supporter over the years that followed. These Trios concertants were published by subscription in 1843 and there were some extremely impressive names on the subscribers’ list: Meyerbeer, Liszt, Chopin, Pleyel, Donizetti, Halévy, and over a hundred others.
Back in Paris the endless round of teaching continued along with the giving of concerts, but when Franck’s health began to break in 1844 and his oratorio Ruth was given a lukewarm reception a year or so later, the father reluctantly realized that his son was neither wunder nor kind, and he settled on a teaching life for him. It was around this time that Franck began to teach Félicité Desmousseaux. She was to become his wife and, in her colourful, theatrical parents, he found new friends and a warm, family atmosphere where he could escape from the wearying tyranny at home. He attended some of the lighter shows at the Comédie-Française with them (apparently without too much enthusiasm) and, we are told, even learned to dance! The Desmousseaux family gave him the support and courage he needed to leave his paternal home in 1846, and he married Félicité two years later.
For the next forty years Franck wrote nothing more for solo piano (except for one children’s piece Les Plaintes d’une poupée (‘The Doll’s Lament’), which is hardly surprising considering the life of drudgery and pain which the piano had represented for the younger man. He certainly had no further use for opera paraphrases or Grandes Fantaisies in his new life of marriage and the obscurity of the organ loft. To be a pianist in nineteenth-century France meant being a virtuoso, and the piano was the archetypal vehicle for the most superficial kind of musical expression. It was with relief that Franck set aside the perfume and pearls of the salon for the incense and icons of the Church and it was not until 1884, with the confidence and experience of passing years, that he turned again to the solo piano and wrote what was to be the most deeply felt and serious work for the instrument to come out of France in the nineteenth century—the Prélude, Choral et Fugue.
What is most striking perhaps to someone who only knows Franck’s music from the Piano Quintet of 1879 onwards is the relentlessly diatonic harmony of the early works. They seem to be tied to the apron-strings of the tonic and dominant, and there is no real sign of the distinctive voice which was to develop later and which would become the foundation for a new generation of French composers. Whilst some composers burst with youthful talent and achievement, Franck developed slowly, nourished by years of patient routine (he kept a rigorous timetable), the consolation of his deepening Christian faith, the intoxicating sonority of the organ, the manure of critical adversity, the yeast of Wagner’s Tristan (he heard its Prelude for the first time in 1874), and also by the emotional turmoil caused by an infatuation with his beautiful student Augusta Holmès which, although never pursued let alone consummated, seems to have affected him deeply. The feverishly passionate Piano Quintet is almost certainly a product of this association.
But by the end of Franck’s life we find a wonderful integration in the late masterpieces; the cauldron of the Quintet has become distilled and purified, though no less expressive; and the religiosity in some of the sacred works has shed its priggish pietism and taken on the patina of a genuine spirituality. While Cortot, in his edition of the Prelude, Aria and Finale, makes the endearingly outrageous claim that ‘the interpreter should not only be a musician: it is even more important that he be a believer’, the great Catholic philosopher Étienne Gilson should have the final reply, to interpreters and composers alike:
"One does not detect any definite relationship between artistic talent and religious faith. A very pious man can be a very poor artist and his talent does not improve if he decides to build a church, to write a Mass, to compose pious verse or to paint religious subjects. As an artist, he remains just what he is" (The Arts of the Beautiful; Scribner NY, 1965).
from notes by Stephen Hough © 1997