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César Auguste Franck (1822 - 1890) – Symphonic Poem: Le Chasseur Maudit (The Accursed Huntsman) ; Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra

A teacher whose sniggering pupils call him “Pater Seraphicus” is a buffoon. Franck’s pupils called him that - but they didn’t snigger. Other than wowing them at Sainte-Clotilde’s with his brilliant organ extemporisations, Franck was humble to a fault, even - as the nickname implies - saintly. Not for him the limelight: his students he happily helped, and his creativity he sublimated merely on manuscript - just as well, because “Joe Public” wasn’t interested. 

How, then, did he divert the tide of French music from its prevalent, stifling “opera-mania”, opening the path that Debussy and Messiaen would tread? The answer lay in his pupils. Like fishes, many came and went but some - being both talented and sympathetic - took his bait. Unlike their “Pater”, young disciples such as D’Indy, Chausson and Vierne were fired by desire to spread the gospel. 

For one so devout, The Accursed Huntsman seems a strange inspiration. Yet, for all its lurid devilry, this is a parable. Franck’s symphonic poem (1882), scored with rather more relish than pious propriety permits, pans out thus: 

1. Sunday. Ignoring the call of bells and congregation, the huntsman prepares for sport.

2. Nodding towards the sound-world of Holst’s Planets, RVW’s danse diabolique is a tour de force of orchestral pyrotechnics.

3. His horse becomes rooted to the spot, his horn no longer blows. He is cursed, forever to be the quarry of the Devil and his demons (Franck’s sundry unsavoury sounds must be heard to be believed!).

4. Oblivious to the irony, he’s off like a frightened rabbit, the hounds of Hell snapping at his heels.

Sunday sportsmen, you have been warned. Actually, this sounds like film music. Somebody ought to make a film of it. 

What I believe was the inspiration behind the Symphonic Variations (1885) could hardly be more contrasted. Franck’s bipartite theme, on stern strings answered by pacifying piano, sounds suspiciously similar to the central movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. However, it doesn’t stay like that! Through at least fifteen organically-evolving variations (don’t even try to count), Franck appears to nod to numerous “acquaintances”: Saint-Saëns, Chopin, Liszt, and even - in anticipation! - Rachmaninov. Measure his genius by his ingenious finale: it sounds like two new tunes - a classic Franck romantic roulade, and sparkling champagne. Cheers! 

Note originally commissioned by the Vancouver Symphony for a concert given on 27 November 2004

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© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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