César Franck: Piano Quintet in F minor
César Franck’s highly emotional Piano Quintet sits strongly beside the French composer’s most popular works. Premiered in 1880 by the Marsick Quartet and Camille Saint-Saëns at the piano, the quintet was dedicated to Saint-Saëns. Although now regarded as one of Franck’s best musical achievements, scandal broke out at the premiere when Saint-Saëns finished performing and walked out straight away, leaving the music open and the piano lid. This was a sign that marked disdain towards the music. Franck kept the work dedicated to Saint-Saëns even after the premiere. Due to the cool reception of the quintet, Franck only heard the work performed a small number of times before his death. It was only then in the next century that audiences realised what a huge milestone the quintet was for the progression and development of French chamber music.
Cast into three movements, Franck’s writing for the quintet is emotionally tumultuous, with Nadia Boulanger commenting that the work has the most dynamic changes in any chamber work composed.
Movement I – Molto moderato quasi lento – Allegro
The expansive opening movement rests on a typical classical sonata form with a slow introduction. Primarily led by the piano in the slow introduction, Franck’s Romantic style creates rich textures between the quartet and piano. Set in F minor, the sombre undertones of the music add to the drama, especially when Franck writes short piano interludes at a quiet dynamic, with the strings entering loudly and dramatically. The underlying rumblings of this movement build up to an intense central section that develops the principal theme.
Throughout this opening movement Franck uses the piano to intersperse quick-changing textures. This effect creates space between the intense and dramatic section. This comes to a head when a nearly cadenza-like piano section takes off near the end of the movement. As the other instruments join in for the main climax of the movement, the dynamic quickly drops, and the movement comes to a quiet, but stated, conclusion.
Movement II – Lento con molto sentimento
The lyrical middle movement is full of luscious melodies, which are once again led by the piano. The exploration of the melody is handled differently in this movement, with Franck utilising each part of the quintet, and passing the material across the ensemble. The emotional undertones of this movement is what gives it its appeal, with critics claiming that this is the most successful of the three movements. Similarly to the opening movement, this section also ends quietly.
Movement III – Allegro non troppo ma con fuoco
The exciting buzz of the finale movement is set off by the violin who plays a buzzing melody. The piano and cello accentuate on different beats as the violin whizzes off. The intensity returns in this movement, with a lot of the content of this section being highly strung and tense. Franck uses the most unison playing in this movement, with the ensemble often linking up to go through important phrases of the music. The final minute of the quintet is intense as the music begins to rush off. Franck moves through many keys until resting into the final key as the ensemble unites to play the final syncopated rhythm before coming to a rousing close.
Laden with emotional melodies, rich textures and a huge number of key changes, César Franck’s Piano Quintet is an expressive work that highlights the change in French chamber music at the time of composition.
Ⓒ Alex Burns