Hail, César Franck

By Stove, R. J. | The American Conservative, November 2011 | Go to article overview

Hail, César Franck


Stove, R. J., The American Conservative


Writing the life of the great Belgian composer

The notion of an 18-year human pregnancy is unknown to medical science. An online search suggests that the longest pregnancy ever recorded was a mere 375 days - in 1945 at a Los Angeles hospital, should you care. Nevertheless, if a baby could indeed remain in the womb for 18 years, I would be, after a fashion, the mother of that baby. Because that was the gestation period for my book César Franck: His Life and Times, which has now emerged, weighing approximately six pounds, no doubt with hidden deformities galore, but at any unencumbered by the more obvious forms of placenta.

Nine-tenths of the book's writing was done in two separate bursts of inspiration. The first happened in 1993-1994, when my father was still alive, and when I possessed an unflinching authorial ease that I have long since lost. Today I border on the state of selfconsciousness that apparently tormented Plato, who is said to have rewritten one of his sentences no fewer than 70 times. Back then, I felt less awed by the grandest literary projects than I would now feel by the job of compiling a laundry list. This lunatic assurance is the optimum condition in which to write a first draft. And what I wrote in those days amounted to a first draft, though at the time I predictably assumed that it had the force of Mosaic Law and could not be amended, let alone abridged, save through an act of spiritual violence.

By the time Inspirational Burst #2 occurred in the early 21st-century, there had impinged upon me the news of an amazing new contrivance known as the Internet. Actually the Internet proved the book's salvation because during the 1990s - convinced as I then was that P. J. O'Rourke constituted the greatest scholar of all time - I possessed a supercilious impatience with footnotes. Consequently, although my research had disclosed innumerable priceless quotes, many in French, I lacked the smallest wherewithal for reminding myself whence these lines had come. But for such miraculous websites as Google's books subdivision, I am not sure I could ever have brought my biography to an end.

We talk glibly of "reinventing the wheel." I needed to reinvent about 14 wheels in each chapter. Let that be a dire admonition to any novices who might be reading these sentences. If you value your sanity, note the location for each utterance and each anecdote that you find, banal though it be, and store all your references in a safe place, by which I do not mean a hard drive.

The tale is told of Martin Routh, a freakishly polymathic Oxford scholar, who eventually reached the age of 99. Just before his death, a young Anglican clergyman sought Routh's advice, hoping to pick that capacious nonagenarian brain for stunning metaphysical insights, such as he must have acquired over the previous 98 years. Routh's response was prosaic but justified: "You will find it a very good practice always to verify your references, sir!" Were someone to ask me for equally stunning metaphysical insights, I could do no better than that.

Here I have neither the willingness nor, frankly, the skill to summarize César Franck's life in a few paragraphs. Therefore I shall not make more than the briefest mention of Franck's birth (1822) in Liège, now Belgian but then under Dutch rule; his subsequent transplantation to Paris; his years as a child prodigy, once thought comparable to Mozart and Mendelssohn; his "years in the shadows," to quote one of my own chapter headings, between the 1848 revolution and the Franco-Prussian War; and his eventual recognition, not only as an outstanding composer but also, by the time he died in 1890, as one of the Paris Conservatoire's most inspiring professors. I want now simply to hint at what Georges Clemenceau might have called the "splendors and miseries" of being a Franck biographer.

The splendors are easily dealt with. There aren't any. The miseries - if that is not too melodramatic a term for a task that, on the whole, gave me more pleasure than pain - are numerous. …

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