In his biography of Mozart, Maynard Solomon writes that:
Beauty heals, comforts, transforms, preserves, remembers promises, buries the dead and raises them up again, reminds us not only of what we have lost but of what may be ours again, if only as a symbol.
He is talking, of course, of beauty in music – especially Mozart’s – but it is an eloquent expression of what many composers strive, or should one say aspire, to achieve in their work: the creation of an emotionally or spiritually charged moment (however long or short) out of the normal flow of time which allows space for memory and imagination.
It’s admittedly a Romantic idea, but romance has a long history in Western music, dating back at least as far as the works of troubadours and trouvères creating images of the unattainable beloved in their songs. And it was certainly not foreign to the avowedly Romantic composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Elgar made his name with a work, the Enigma Variations, that offered a series of portraits of the people he loved most in the world (including himself, but then he was hardly the only composer-as-hero of the period). And when he came to write his Violin Concerto around 1910, Elgar prefaced the score with a quotation from Le Sage’s Gil Blas: ‘Aquí está encerrada el alma de .....’ (Here is enshrined the soul of…).
Elgar scholar Diana McVeagh has suggested a number of people (and things, like the violin itself) whose soul might be enshrined in the work, though she suggests that Elgar had likely become romantically involved with his friend Alice Stuart Wortley. There is, of course, no suggestion of any romantic feelings between Elgar and the dedicatee of his Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra, Edwin F James (in fact James, as has been noted, hardly figures in accounts of Elgar’s life and then only professionally) but it is likely that the work, composed at the same time as the Violin Concerto is a memorial, issuing from Elgar’s personal feelings on the loss of two close associates.
Such subjectivity is a hallmark of 19th century Romanticism, of course, which, broadly speaking, grew out of a reaction to hidebound political, religious and artistic conventions. With Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, the great powers of Europe attempted to restore the forms of the ancien régime, but artistically the genie was out of the bottle. Mozart had largely banished classical gods and heroes from his operas in the 1780s in favour of comedies of manners built on the idea of the disruptive force of eroticism. In 1821 Carl Maria von Weber enacted another revolution in Der Freischütz, removing the action from an aristocratic milieu in favour of the forest, and introducing the element of the supernatural. Der Freischütz is the foundation stone of Romantic opera in German, and was a smash hit; he quickly followed it up with Euryanthe, based on a medieval French romance and full of ghosts, parted lovers, a castle, a mountain gorge and a snake. All standard Romantic stuff.
Despite dying within two years of both Beethoven and Schubert, Weber, working mainly in German cities, maintained a delicate balance between the Viennese ‘classical’ tradition and the Romanticism that would ultimately produce the operas of Wagner. Accordingly, Weber wrote concert music on accepted classical models, including solo sonatas, concertos and chamber music such as the Clarinet Quintet. In keeping with Romanticism’s interest in the blurring of boundaries between artforms, he experimented with program music in such works as his ‘Concert-Stück’ with its ‘story’: ‘Allegro, parting. Adagio, lament. Finale, profoundest misery, consolation, reunion, jubilation’, but even a ‘classical’ piece like the Quintet grows out of a personal relationship, in this case Weber’s friendship with clarinettist Heinrich Baermann.
In a 1906 monograph dedicated to his beloved teacher, Vincent D’Indy praised César Franck’s ‘art of clear truth and luminous serenity’, and compared the composer to ‘the modest and admirable craftsmen’ who built France’s medieval cathedrals, with their ‘the wonderful typical beauty and eurhythmy ’, in a spirit of ‘modesty, simplicity and self abnegation’. Like a Gothic cathedral, the body of Franck’s work grew slowly over a long period; his mastery of various forms came about through patient study and practice. Born at Liège in what is now Belgium, Franck spent much of his life in Paris. He at first seemed destined to become a virtuoso pianist, but found himself temperamentally more suited to the position of church organist. In 1858 he took a job as organist at the basilica of Sainte-Clotilde (a queen of the Franks, as it happens), a recently-completed neo-Gothic church (the first to be built in Paris). Franck duly provided liturgical music, and like any good organist of his day was expected to improvise, especially at the end of Mass when the clergy and then the congregation leaves the church.
He was also an inspiring teacher, in which capacity he was lionised by generations of students. It was not until the 1870s, however, that he was appointed to a full-time professorship of organ at the Paris Conservatoire.
It is perhaps too easy, though, to see Franck as a composer of ‘pure’ spiritual music, and Gabriel Fauré rightly asked whether even among Franck’s many religious compositions ‘there might not be a few which, […] because of their very smoothness, are not absolutely free of sensuality?’ Franck himself, when he overheard himself described as a ‘mystic’, replied, ‘a mystic, eh? Ask Augusta.’ Augusta Holmès was a student at the Conservatoire with whom the fifty-something Franck became smitten in the late 1870s; his celebrated Piano Quintet of 1879 is understood to be the result of this passion, and it inaugurated the amazing Indian summer of composition from which his last and best works, including the Violin Sonata, date. The Piano Quintet is the first work in which Franck comprehensively applies his principle of ‘cyclical form’, which we also hear in the Violin Sonata, where all material in all movements is derived ultimately from the opening theme and moves inexorably towards its fulfilment. Such rigorous organisation might make for music of ‘self-abnegation’ but in fact Franck’s is music of highly charged emotion and sensual power: the Violin Sonata celebrates conjugal love, but without a trace of cloying sentiment, and one hearer’s response to the Piano Quintet was ‘Le père Franck me ravage!’
Poet John Donne once wrote that:
‘Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime.
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.’
Music, perhaps, offers us a space, free from the rags of time, to contemplate love and other human affections, to be healed and comforted, transformed or preserved.
© Gordon Kerry 2018