Melchior Franck was
one of many German composers whose
life and career were severely affected
by the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).
He was born in Zittau as son of a
painter, where he may have studied
under Christoph Demantius. Little
is known for sure about the early
stages of his career, but around 1600
he was a member of the choir of St
Anna Church in Augsburg. Here he may
have been a pupil of Adam Gumpelzhaimer,
Christian Erbach and Hans-Leo Hassler.
The connection with Hassler seems
without much doubt: both went to Nuremberg
in 1601, and Franck's oeuvre shows
the influence of Hassler. On the one
hand there is the style of the Franco-Flemish
school which Hassler had inherited
from his teacher Leonhard Lechner;
on the other hand Franck made use
of the antiphonal style of the Gabrielis
which Hassler had studied in Venice.
In 1602 or 1603 Franck
became Kapellmeister of Duke Johann
Casimir of Saxe-Coburg who was a great
music-lover. It was here that the
Thirty Years War impinged on Franck's
life. In the 1630s the city and its
surroundings were destroyed and the
economy ruined. Moreover the Duke
died in 1633 and Franck himself lost
his wife and two children. The new
Duke, Johann Ernst, was less passionate
about music and was also forced to
take drastic measures to restore the
economy. The court chapel was much
reduced, and so was Franck's salary.
He died poverty-stricken in 1639.
Franck was a very
productive composer. Between 1601
and 1636 forty collections of motets
were printed. His oeuvre also shows
a wide variety of genres: sacred music
on Latin and German texts, occasional
compositions, secular vocal music
and instrumental music. In his vocal
music Franck pays much attention to
the text, and in this respect he points
in the direction of Heinrich Schütz.
But Franck's works are mostly rooted
in the 'prima prattica': only in the
latest stage of his career did he
write music with a basso continuo
In 1615 Franck published
his 'Threnodiae Davidicae', or "Penitential
Psalms of the Royal Prophet David".
It consists of the seven Penitential
Psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143)
for six voices. Every setting is divided
into a number of motets: two in Psalms
6, 130 and 143, three in Psalms 32,
38 and 51, and five in Psalm 102.
Many composers of the renaissance
composed a complete cycle of Penitential
Psalms, the best-known of them being
The Penitential Psalms
- and penitence in general - were
an important part of the theological
thinking of Martin Luther. His German
translation of the Penitential Psalms
was his first independently published
work and dates from 1517. Probably
to underline this importance Franck
makes use of this text for his settings
of the Penitential Psalms, making
sure everyone would be able to understand
their meaning. It could well be that
the consistent use of the full six
voices - only twice Franck reduces
the number of voices, which was quite
common at the time - is also a way
to emphasize the importance of these
As the playing time
of every single Psalm shows, these
settings are rather concise. This
is achieved by using a homo-rhythmic
and declamatory style, whereas in
the shorter Psalms Franck makes use
of longer melismatic phrases. There
are several examples of fine text
illustration. In Psalm 38 the tempo
is speeded up on "denn deine Pfeile
stecken in mir" (for your arrows pierc
me) whereas long-held notes are used
for "schwere Last" (heavy burden).
"Ich gehe krumm und sehr gebückt"
(I walk crooked and bowed down low)
is set to a descending figure. A shift
in metre is used for "daß die
Gebeine fröhlich werden" (that
the bones ... may be glad).
The performance pays
tribute to what was common practice
at the time as both voices and instruments
are used. The instruments either play
'colla parte' or replace the voices.
The instruments used here are cornetto
muto, four viole da gamba, dulcian
and harp. The singers are well suited
to their task: they sing with great
clarity and the delivery of the text
is readily understandable. The lines
are beautifully shaped and there is
a fine dynamic shading which is fully
appropriate to the music of this time.
The voices blend well and the balance
with the instruments is also satisfying.
I found the beginning
of Psalm 102 somewhat hesitant; but
perhaps that was deliberate, considering
the text: "Lord, hear my prayer".
Marnix De Cat has a very fine voice,
but here he seems at times to feel
a bit uncomfortable, probably because
his part in the score is a little
lower than what suits him best. One
could also argue Jan Van Elsacker's
voice is sometimes a little too edgy.
These are however very minor details
in what is a splendid recording of
a collection of pieces which has never
before been recorded. The quality
of these Psalms is first-rate and
they suggest Melchior Franck's music
is unjustly neglected. More recordings
of his oeuvre in performances like
this would definitely be welcome.
The booklet contains
concise programme notes by Manfred
Cordes, the English translation of
which is sometimes less than precise.
In the translation also some lines
from the German text have been omitted.
The lyrics are printed with an English
Johan van Veen