CESAR FRANCK: Danse Lente. Prelude, Choral, et Fugue
ERNEST BLOCH: In the Night. Sonata for Piano
VITTORIO GIANNINI Variations on a Cantus Firmus. Prelude and Fughetta
Myron Silberstein, piano
This recital of music by Cesar Franck (1822-1890), Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), and Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) highlights fascinating biographical linkages and aesthetic affinities among composers that may otherwise appear to belong to different segments of the musical spectrum. One feature that the three share in common is a commitment to aesthetic ideals that transcended the fashions current within the milieus they inhabited. The creation of music was for each both an aesthetic and a spiritual expression of deep personal significance, placing them at times at odds with their respective publics, who were seeking more meretricious charms, and each paid the price of disparagement and neglect for adherence to their ideals. Another trait shared by all three is a multinational orientation rooted in their training, as well as in their own national origins. As a result, the music of each composer bridges several stylistic lineages associated with particular national traditions. And finally, there is some evidence of the actual influence of one composer upon another. Many of these points are illustrated by the music presented on this recital, in which each composer is represented by one major extended work and one of more modest scope.
Cesar Franck was born in Belgium of largely German descent, and lived most of his life in Paris, during a time when popular taste leaned toward salon trifles or grandiose operatic spectacles. Although his mature work displayed a typically French sensuality and ear for harmonic color, Franck attempted to embrace within this romantic sensibility abstract formal ideals from the classic Germanic tradition: a fondness for contrapuntal density derived from Bach, the disciplined thematic development of Beethoven, and even the chromatic
complexities of Wagnerian harmony. In addition, he refined a compositional principle, traceable chiefly to Beethoven, known as “cyclical form,” in which a signal motif recurs throughout a multi-movement work in a variety of different guises, as a means of providing both formal and psychological unity.
Franck’s brief Danse Lente of 1885 shows the composer’s hand at a simple salon piece. But the Prelude, Choral, et Fugue composed the preceding year is a masterpiece, embodying all the elements described above. The improvisational quality of the opening Prelude recalls the style of Bach’s organ fantasias even as it evokes the strongly subjective sense of atmosphere associated with romantic music. The Prelude introduces the
downward-step motif that is the underlying root of the entire work. The Choral also suggests the organ, with its full chordal textures that seem to require the addition of a pedal keyboard. This section introduces one of Franck’s most haunting melodies, accompanied by a solemnly descending minor scale. The Choral leads directly into the Fugue, clearly based on the downward-step motif. As it unfolds, elements from the preceding sections are recalled, culminating in a dense contrapuntal apotheosis that achieves a sense of sensuo-spiritual ecstasy that is one of Franck’s particular claims to greatness.
The connection between Franck and Ernest Bloch is quite clear. Although Bloch was born in Geneva, he studied in Brussels under the guidance of Eugene Ysaye, who had been a close personal associate of Franck. Bloch’s stylistic development is directly traceable to this lineage, especially the merging of classic formal abstractions with an emphasis on sensuality and mood, in the service of the most serious emotional content. However, Bloch’s own volatile temperament led him to create music of a vehemence and intensity that would have
been inconceivable to his predecessors. In addition, Bloch sought to imbue some of his works (though neither of those presented here) with his own subjective interpretation of the Jewish soul.
In the Night (subtitled “A Love-Poem”) dates from 1922, during an immensely productive period when Bloch also served as director of the Cleveland Institute of Music. It a highly evocative example of one of his favorite small genres: the nocturne, which in Bloch’s hands became a work of perfumed exoticism and mystery, featuring his own idiosyncratic adaptation of impressionist harmony.
Bloch composed his Sonata for Piano in 1935 during a sojourn in the French Alps. It is certainly his most important work for piano solo, and, along with the Concerto Symphonique and the String Quartet No. 2, is one of the most fully realized abstract works of his compositional maturity. Its three movements are tightly unified through several intervallic motifs, according to Franck’s “cyclical” principle. These are transformed in an
amazingly vivid progression of moods and emotional states that suggest a rather grim commentary on the human condition. The first movement, Maestoso ed energico, is actively turbulent and agitated, while the second, Pastorale, conjures an exotic nocturnal vision of luscious sensual languor not unlike In the Night, building to a tremendous climax. The third movement, Moderato alla marcia, suggests a savage rite among some primitive tribe of Bloch’s imagination, which eventually recedes into the distance.
Vittorio Giannini was born in Philadelphia, studying in Milan as a child, then later in New York. The connection between him and the other composers discussed here is a little less obvious, because, unlike them, the Italian operatic tradition played a strong role in both his development and his output. Indeed, his early operas enjoyed considerable success in Europe during the pre-World War II years, even winning the praise of Richard Strauss. In 1939 Giannini settled in New York, joining the faculties of the Juilliard School, the Manhattan School of Music, and, later, the Curtis Institute as well. Shortly before his death, he was named president of the North Carolina School of the Arts.
Although Giannini wrote some fourteen operas and much other vocal music, his many symphonic and instrumental works (including an orchestral work entitledPrelude, Chorale, and Fugue) show the same integration of intense emotionality with classic abstract formal principles exhibited by Franck and Bloch. And, like both of them, Giannini was especially fond of imbuing Baroque forms with romantic warmth. This aspect of Giannini’s art comes
to the fore in the Variations on a Cantus Firmus, composed in 1947. In many ways this is the most deeply traditional work presented here: twenty-four variations on a solemn, chromatically descending ground bass in C minor, presented in two nearly-identical phrases. As the variations begin, one is immediately reminded of the gravity of the great contrapuntal masterpieces of the 17th and 18th centuries. However, as they further unfold, grouped into four distinct movements, they progress stylistically — again according to traditional variation
principle — from a highly conservative treatment, through more romantic and virtuosic elaborations. Giannini’s personality was always strongest in his slow, lyrical music, and in the second and fourth movement groups this element predominates, offering moments of the most touching and tender beauty.
Prelude and Fughetta was composed during the late 1950s. During this period, Giannini sometimes cooled his torridly romantic style by devising themes based on the interval of the fourth. Nowhere is that practice more evident than in this brief piece, in which a single theme, derived almost entirely from that interval, forms the basis of both the prelude and the short fugue that follows.