Pioneering Influence: Cesar Franck

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Pioneering Influence: César Franck, performed on Jan 7, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In the history of music, the influence exerted by a composer and his work has had little correlation with whether the composer ever engaged in formal teaching. Not all composers of genius have been interested in or been adept at teaching. Mozart had pupils, but none of them have been of real consequence. But in close historical proximity to Mozart came Beethoven, upon whom Mozart’s music had considerable impact. At a greater chronological distance, Mozart became the model for the aesthetic ambitions of Richard Strauss. Neither Beethoven (who took pupils) nor certainly Brahms (who did not) can be said to have been effective as teachers, though in both cases they had their share of imitators among younger composers. Anton Bruckner was a skilled teacher, but of counterpoint rather than composition, and no school of composition can be said to have emerged from his pedagogical efforts. As he once replied to a student who asked him why he was so conservative as a teacher when his own music seemed so forward-looking, students should never imitate a teacher’s work. Carl Czerny’s study under Beethoven did not make him memorable as a composer (perhaps unfairly), but he was a great teacher and every piano student knows his seminal piano studies. Robert Fuchs is another composer whose works are no longer remembered even though many of the finest composers of the first half of the twentieth century were his pupils.

Ironically, perhaps the most influential composer in the second half of the nineteenth century, Richard Wagner, enjoyed an effect that was pervasive and international, but had no pupils in the strict sense of the word. Like his father-in-law Liszt (who nevertheless loved to teach), Wagner was suspicious of institutions of learning—particularly conservatories. The conservatories in the late nineteenth century more than amply returned the favor; most of them fulminated against the corrosive influence of Wagnerism on a young generation. Early in his career at Harvard, John Knowles Paine, the first full-time professor of composition in that venerable institution, was said to have suggested to his pupils that exposure to Wagner’s music was bad for one’s health.

However, there have been examples of those who were teachers as well as compositional masters and innovators with a lasting influence on future generations. Consider, for example, Arnold Schoenberg, Aaron Copland, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. But perhaps the most impressive record of confluence between enduring artistic greatness and a commitment to teaching through formal instruction may be found in the French musical tradition. The list of great composer-teachers is impressive and includes the Belgian-born César Franck, Gabriel Fauré, Paul Dukas, Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez. Indeed, the history of French music reflects the consequences of a dramatic centralization of institutions of art and learning that began in earnest under Louis XIV, continued through the French Revolution, and was largely completed by Napoleon. Paris was among the first modern national cultural capitals where (in contrast to Washington, DC or Brasilia) secular culture, religion, and political power flourished symbiotically in the same locale. The institutions of French music of the Conservatoire, the Prix de Rome, the great churches with their imposing organs, and the opera and public concert life all created a framework that acted as a magnet for ambitious, international talents. Paris, far more than London, was a cultural center at the start of the post-Napoleonic era and was home to the likes of Chopin, Liszt, Meyerbeer, Wagner, and Offenbach. In the last third of the nineteenth century, as France expanded as an imperial power, Paris also became a central gateway to the non-western world: Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.

But perhaps precisely because of its remarkable history of political and social coherence (especially compared to German-speaking Europe) in terms of the overlap of language, geography, and religion, France’s discrete and solid national identity was especially vulnerable to non-French influences in music. Operatic life in the first part of the nineteenth century was dominated by Italians, ranging from Cherubini and Rossini to Verdi. French romanticism in music by native composers stood (with the sole exception of Berlioz) in the shadow of two foreigners, Chopin and Liszt. After the failed revolution of 1848 and the coup d’état of Napoleon III, French musical culture, despite that country’s political and economic strength, experienced its most radical domination from outside its borders. This took the form of the profound French enthusiasm for the music of Wagner. One of the most influential instruments of cultural influence was none other than the journal Revue Wagnerienne, and the rabid partisanship for Wagner that extended from Charles Baudelaire to the young Claude Debussy.

But the Germanic influence of Wagner in the second half of the century was selectively transformed just as Beethoven’s influence had been earlier in the century, particularly on Berlioz. Two composers who were popular with audiences around the world but not particularly in France, Brahms and Mahler, suggest the unique and distinct Wagnerian vision among the French. The Wagnerian co-existed alongside a parallel French attraction for the exotic (from a French point of view) that extended to Spanish and Russian music. But it was a normative non-exotic ideal in French music that remained—with the possible exception of Georges Bizet—almost embarrassingly contingent on the Wagnerian (for or against) towards the end of the nineteenth century, as Emmanuel Chabrier’s Gwendoline (1886), a compelling French operatic response to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (premiered 1865), reveals.

This highly simplified and reductive account can nevertheless help us understand commonplace German prejudices about French music as decidedly superficial: consider, for example, the way Gounod and Massenet were received when set alongside the German parallels of Brahms and Wagner. In the context of the deadly political rivalry and conflict between France and Germany that came to a head in 1870 with the Franco-Prussian War, and which was revisited in various crises from the Dreyfus Affair to the most brutal of all, the First World War, there was an understandable and intense search among French musicians and intellectuals after 1870 to define a contemporary concert musical culture that was distinctly French and independent of German influence.

And indeed, a self-consciously French school of composition did emerge. The founding figure in that development during the second half of the nineteenth century was César Franck. With broad brush strokes one might paint a narrative canvas that links Franck to Messiaen and Dutilleux. Along the way, we can locate as descendents of Franck not only the composers on today’s program but also Vincent d’Indy, Debussy, Ravel, Saint-Saëns, and the members of Les Six. Interwoven into the continuity of that line is a French engagement with Catholicism and sacred music in a manner that was distinctively characteristic. It includes an impressive output of music for choir and, above all, the organ. In no other nineteenth-century European culture has the most grand, traditional, and pre-modern of instruments held such sway. One thinks immediately of Charles Marie Widor (1845-1937). The influence of the organ can be heard particularly in the music of Franck but in a manner very audibly different from the influence of the organ on, for example, Anton Bruckner’s symphonic music.

Franck’s originality ironically stems in part from a dialogue with Wagner, particularly in the constructs of musical duration and syntax. Franck inspired through his music a French penchant for cyclical structure and an intense interest in color and the spatial atmosphere of sound. The example of César Franck led many French composers to adapt classical procedures of musical transformation and development to recalibrate the listener’s perception of time away from the linear and narrative. Perhaps one could suggest that Wagner’s obsession with the connection between music and the dramatic—with epic and language—led Franck and his followers to connect music to the one arena in which Wagner was clearly weakest: the visual. If German-speaking Europe confidently evinced superiority in music during the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century (an arrogance that extended from Mozart to Schoenberg), it was during precisely that same time period that the French dominated the European scene in the visual arts in architecture, sculpture, and painting, as well as the decorative arts of design and fashion. Their predominance in the visual dimension also made the French pioneers in the area of photography and early film.

It is therefore not surprising that so many observers have commented on the affinities between French music and the visual experience. The use of music in a painterly fashion by the French pioneered a direction in the creation of instrumental sound in which Debussy would come to occupy a preeminent place. It is this attachment to visual culture that might be adduced as one of the inspirations for the unique modern tradition of French musical orchestration and harmonic usage. Wagnerian innovations were reformulated and the visual given its own musical expression in the theatrical and dramatic—even by composers like Saint-Saëns, who sought to follow more in the path of Liszt and Brahms than Wagner. Indeed all the composers on today’s program, with the exception of Franck himself, were masterful composers of operas, as Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-bleue (1907), Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus (1895), and the unfortunately lesser known operas of Magnard suggest. When it came to the large dramatic form, Franck himself excelled in the oratorio.

Furthermore, as the work by Chausson on today’s program demonstrates, one also cannot discount the impact on French music of the distinctive sound of the French language and French poetry. The rhythms and sounds of speech are easily identifiable in music of certain other European national traditions, such as sounds of Czech in Janáček and Hungarian in Bartók. But the same link between language and music may also be heard in the music on today’s program.

With the exception of Franck’s Symphony in D minor, the works on today’s program have never enjoyed wide popularity. Paul Dukas, himself an influential teacher whose most famous pupil was Messiaen, was pathologically self-critical and left only a handful of works to posterity. But even so, his fine Symphony has never approached the popularity of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1897). Among Chausson’s works, only the Poème for violin and orchestra, Op. 25 (1896) can be considered a staple in the repertory. There is sadly not a single work by Magnard that has received regular attention by performers and listeners. But the Franck Symphony became one of the pillars in what emerged as the standard repertory in the twentieth century. It benefited from the advent of recording. Its popularity during the mid-twentieth century was almost extreme and excessive. Few works were so generously represented on the old 78 rpm format and on the long-playing record. By the mid-1950s, the work had become if not a cliché certainly a war-horse, rivaling the Third, Fifth, and Seventh Symphonies of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, the Pathétique. But fashions change, and Franck’s Symphony has experienced in recent decades an audible measure of neglect. It is relegated more often than not to the margin of near-pops concerts. The generation for whom Franck’s Symphony was a welcome and familiar part of the repertoire has passed on, leaving the contemporary audience of today the opportunity to rediscover it and the greatness of Franck with a fresh perspective.