Franck after Franck: The Composer's Posthumous Fortunes

By Stove, R. J. | Musical Times, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Franck after Franck: The Composer's Posthumous Fortunes


Stove, R. J., Musical Times


César Franck died in Paris on 8 November 1890, and proceeded almost at once to disprove one of musicology's hoariest clichés, that an eminent composer's reputation fades just after his death. Not so with Franck, however, any more than with Britten or Alfred Schnittke. We might almost say that the memorial card's phrase 'born into eternal life' can be applied to Franck's own posthumous destiny.

Paris being still a singularly village-like capital in 1890, news of Franck's death spread fast. It devastated one of his youngest organ students, the 20-year-old Louis Vierne, who admitted subsequently to having felt

as thought I had been struck by a thunderbolt - crushed, annihilated. I adored that man who had shown me such tender kindness, who had sustained and encouraged me, inspired in me a profound love of music, and aroused my greatest hopes. And now, suddenly, he was only a shadow, only a memory! I had the horrible feeling of having lost my father a second urne. '

Others adopted a rather more callous attitude to the tidings. Within 24 hours of the breath leaving Franck's body, Eugène Gigout of the SaintAugustin church jotted a note to his old teacher Saint-Saëns: 'Mon cher Maître et ami, Do you think that I might be of service as head of the organ class at the [Paris] Conservatoire?'2 Charles-Marie Wldor proved equally enterprising, and launched - via a letter to the Conservatoire's director Ambroise Thomas - his own campaign for Franck's professorship on the same day as Gigout 's episde.5

The funeral occurred at Sainte-Clotilde, where Franck had been chief organist since 1858, on 12 November. Thomas, 79 years of age and perhaps fearful of catching a cold,4 remained at home. He thus gave a certain amount of offence: especially to Franck's most vigorous disciple Vincent d'Indy, who accused Thomas of having delivered 'all his life [...] commonplace dithyrambs [dithyrambiques lieux-communs] upon less dignified tombs', and who went on to charge 'other important professors' with opportunistically pleading illness rather than attending the interment.5 One suspects a certain attempt on d'Indy's part at retrospective exorcism of his own guilt here, because he himself stayed away from the service (he had a prior conducting commitment at Valence, in the south-east of the country) and asked his old friend Emmanuel Chabrier to deputise for him.6 Of the four pallbearers, one - Dr Félix Féreol - came from the family of Franck's wife; the others were Saint-Saëns, Samuel Rousseau (who had been the church's maître de chapelle, on and off, since 1877), 31^d the student Henri Dallier. Also present: Vierne, Widor, Fauré, Lalo, Delibes, Alfred Bruneau, Alexandre Guilmant, André Messager, and Augusta Holmes, this last the former Franck pupil who allegedly aroused in him most unspiritual desires at the time he worked on his Piano Quintet. The veteran Canon Gardey eulogised Franck in his sermon. Vierne found the whole experience shattering. 'Going to SainteClotilde,' he wrote,

I was as limp as a rag. My poor mother entrusted me to my comrades, Bouval pules Bouval, organist and minor composer] and Henri Biisser [another Franck organ pupil], in case I should faint during the service. As if in a dream, I heard the 'Marche Funèbre' from Holmès's Irlande, the 'Kyrie' from Franck 's Mass, the Adagierto' from Bizet's L'Arlesienne, Samuel Rousseau's 'Libera', and the Allegretto from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony in A. Unbearable distress seized us when, at the Offertory, we heard coming from the grand orgue tribune the maître' % Cantabile, played too fast and without expression. We had thought that on that day the organ, draped in black, would have remained silent. During the pauses, heavy sighs could be heard from the entire congregation and several women were sobbing. I never heard such weeping as at that funeral. The church was filled to capacity.7

Widor gave the identity of the Cantabile culprit: Gigout, whose status as Widor's competitor for Franck's job had probably come to Widor's ears. …

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