César Franck, Piano Quintet in f minor, Op. 14

January 9, 2021

César Franck (1822-1890)

Piano Quintet in f minor, Op. 14 (1879)

César Franck César Franck was Belgian but spent the majority of his life in Paris as one of several composers in a Renaissance of French instrumental music towards the end of the 19th century after the Franco-Prussian war. A child prodigy, he entered the Paris Conservatoire at the tender age of twelve when he astonished the faculty with his virtuosity at the piano. After a short career as a touring, performing musician, Franck settled into the organ loft of one or more Parisian cathedrals where he once again dazzled others with his improvisations earning the admiration of no less than Franz Liszt. Frank eventually acquired a faculty position at the Conservatoire where his organ classes became celebrated forums for harmony and composition establishing a cult following among a younger generation of composers including Vincent d’Indy and Claude Debussy. As a gifted and original composer, Franck left two different legacies. First, the religious works including a number of pieces for organ. Second, a small but extraordinary cache of instrumental works dating from the last decade or so of his life ending in 1890 just before the ascendance of Debussy. Franck’s famous compositions include a violin sonata, a symphony, a string quartet and the magnificent piano quintet of 1879.

The piano quintet is a mighty ensemble comprising two self-sufficient entities in a powerful unity: the string quartet and the piano. Capable of nearly orchestral sound and color, the piano quintet has engendered equally epic compositions with the most noteworthy examples from the likes of Schumann, Brahms, Dvořák and Shostakovich among others (and there are many others). Though arguably less well known, Franck’s powerful quintet easily joins the others of first rank and, fitting chronologically between the quintets of Brahms and Dvořák, is stylistically the most Romantic of lot. Indeed, though Franck belongs to the French “school”, his music is much closer to Schubert, Brahms and especially Wagner with formal and harmonic tendencies towards the latter. The premiere of Franck’s quintet at the Société Nationale de Musique fairly stunned the audience with its searing passion and its unbridled sensuality causes even Liszt to exclaim it was unexpected from a composer from the “organ loft.” Its unrestrained expression along with its “modern” (e.g. late Romantic) tendencies lead French compatriot and contemporary Camille Saint-Saëns, the pianist who sight-read the premiere, to walk off stage at the conclusion in protest.

Franck’s quintet comprises three lengthy movements with two stormy outer movements enclosing a central, slower movement of comparatively milder repose. The ponderous introduction to the first movement vividly establishes a dichotomy of mood and corresponding musical motion between a dark, downward force and a light, upward buoyancy, perhaps best though crudely described as despair and love. A dotted rhythm in the downward motion gives a sense of fatally tumbling while the upward motion features an undulating motion like levitating. The first is introduced by the string quartet, the second by the piano. These become the two contrasting themes in the main body of the first movement with analogous tendencies pervading the entire quintet. The second, hovering and rather magically mesmerizing theme recurs in numerous guises throughout the first movement and onward through the second and third movements becoming a cyclic “motto” that binds all three movements together with a striking thematic unity, a technique and artistic principle featured in several of Franck’s compositions. Franck was also fond of combining his contrasting themes so they play simultaneously. He does so with the two themes of the first movement and even more remarkably, towards the end of the finale, he combines themes from all three movements including the “motto” theme in an astonishingly apotheosis that seems to resolve all conflict in a cathartic synthesis. The deep pleasure of Franck’s music involves the extended, unresolved and sustained journey towards that end featuring a breathtaking range of colors, dynamics, textures, harmonies and modulations.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.