The first few seconds were sufficient to capture my attention. Darkness. Grace. Consolation. Enlightenment. Tension. Spirituality. Salvation. What a piece! In 1839 César Franck wrote his Trio Concertant No. 1 for Piano, Violin and Cello, one out of three that form his Op. 1, published in 1843. Franck – one of the most eminent French composers of the 19th century. He had been trained at the conservatory of Liège, a city that was part of the Dutch kingdom until Belgium gained its independence. Franck – the composer who failed to enter the Paris conservatory for the simple reason that he wasn’t a French national. Naturalization took a year and in 1836 he started to take lessons in piano and counterpoint at the prestigious Conservatoire.
Franck’s music has a singular effect on me – that latent vibration of emotion I detected already in his first major piano work “Prélude, Chorale et Fugue”. Op. 1 met a favourable echo in Paris. Famous contemporaries like Giacomo Meyerbeer, Franz Liszt, Gaetano Donizetti and Frédéric Chopin were among the first subscribers. His musical language – and this becomes evident in his chamber works – fuses Franck’s inherent emotionalism with counterpoint and classical forms. “To his pupils, Franck communicated both the Beethovenian idealism inherent in the cultivation of the strict genres of symphony, quartet and sonata and the harmonic innovations of late Romanticism”, John Trevitt and Joël-Marie Fauquet write in a piece for Oxford Music Online.
When Franck wrote the Trio Concertant No. 1 he was 17 years old. His composing talent is amazing. He obviously had clear vision of what emotions he wanted to express, he mastered the means at his disposal to express them. There is nothing clumsy, awkward in this piece, even better, the third movement features some daring tonal ideas, reflecting the influence of German Romanticism, i.e. Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. The structure itself is revolutionary two: a first movement of some 14 minutes in the recording by the Soloists of la Monnaie, a second movement of six anda half minutes, a finale of a little over 12 minutes. The length of Beethoven’s “Fifth”.
When I think back, at the age of 17 I certainly had no clear idea about my emotions, the only thing I was sure about was that they were conflicting! As for a way to express this… I can only stand I awe before such a work, such a talent, such expressiveness. Franck, Debussy, Fauré, Ravel – I am only beginning to really discover French classical music, it would seem. So many delightful pieces to look forward!
© Charles Thibo