Franck and the lost middle ground

This Satuday evening I’m conducting a program that includes Berlioz’s Corsaire Overture, the Saint-Saens 3rd Violin Concerto and the Franck Symphony in D minor. It’s almost ten years to the day since I last conducted the Franck (that time around it was paired with the Ravel Pavanne pour une infante defunte and the Chausson Poeme for Violin and Orchestra).

The Franck is hardly obscure or unknown, but it was once a repertoire staple and these days is much more rarely heard. In fact, the vast majority of the orchestra this week are playing the piece for the first time. I think it’s a pity such a marvelous and effective piece isn’t done more often, but what is more worrying is that its disappearance from the repertoire seems to be part of a larger trend.

A few years ago I went to a talk by orchestra management guru Henry Fogel (former boss of the Chicago Symphony). Henry spoke a great deal about repertoire and programming- about the importance of new music, and about the importance of designing imaginative, provocative programs, but also about pieces like the Franck. He made the point that there was a great deal of music that had huge audience appeal, which was once heard regularly on subscription concerts which is now somehow not considered serious enough. At the same time, pops concerts have largely abandoned what we used to call “light classics” in favor of arrangements of commercial music from Hollywood, Nashville and Broadway.

The gap between serious and popular programming has become huge- and there is an absurdly vast treasure trove of appealing and important music that has been deemed too serious and old fashioned for pops concerts but to frivolous for subscription series. The upshot is a world where you can have a pops concert of tenth rate Country gobbledeegook programmed just after a festival pairing Carter and Bruckner, but not much in between.

The Franck is no cupcake of a piece- it’s like lovely French Bruckner (yes, I know he was Belgian born), rather long, quite dense and certainly serious. It’s just not-quite-serious enough to hold its place on the modern concert platform- I’m told that some opinion makers think his melodies are too naive. I think that for the Franck, as for a lot of the works that have similarly fallen out of the repertoire, part of the issue is that in these works, the performer’s creativity, personality and even whimsy is essential for making the piece work.

We’re quite used to composers like Beethoven, Brahms, Shostakovich or Elgar , all of whom are well served by quite literal readings of the score. One’s personality as an interpreter is important and still comes through, but at the end of the day, if you are quite literal in your reading of a piece by Elgar or Mahler, you’ll get quite a good result. In my experience, a piece like the Franck needs an interpreter who is willing to take more risks with tempo and color. Charles Munch was the greatest advocate for the Franck, in my opinion- his performances certainly show a profound knowledge of everything Franck asks for, but Munch is anything but shy about moving it along where he thinks it is necessary or taking time to savor a delicious chord change. Compare that to over-reverent recordings where a conductor has tried to be absolutely strictly faithful to Franck’s score without stepping one inch beyond what is written- suddenly the music feels stodgy, ponderous and dull. Even badly played, Beethoven or Mahler’s works scream “this is great music!” but there is a lot of other music where a great performance can make good music a great experience, but a bad, or even merely ordinary, performance can make good music sound terrible.

In the greatest of the great music, my first job as interpreter is to try to understand why everything in the score is there, and why anything one might have excepted there but not found is missing. In a lot of music that is merely delightful, fun, wonderful or interesting, the performer needs to be a bit more assertive and a bit less reverent. Knowing whether you are dealing with good or great music is where interpretation gets tricky and dangerous.

I’m a collector of Borodin 2’s- it’s not a piece you would listen to for profound insights into the art of composition. It is a showcase for orchestra and conductor, and it can be a great one. However, it doesn’t show up often on concert programs these days.

Liszt tone poems, suites from ballets, Weber overtures, works by Niccolai, Suppé, Chabrier, Lalo, Saint-Saens- the list is long of classical works that aren’t considered quite serious enough for subscription audiences but are too serious for pops concerts. My teacher, Gerhard Samuel, was a great Mahlerian and a serious composer in the serial tradition. When he was appointed Associate Conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony (now the Minnesota Orchestra) under Dorati, his first suggestion was to program a series of operetta nights on Sundays.

Dorati said that this blurred the lines between classical and pops too much, and would damage the reputation of the orchestra. “If Samuel gets his operetta series, I quit!” he thundered

Gerhard got his series, and Dorati stayed. The series ran for several years using young, inexpensive singers, with simple stagings more or less improvised at the rehearsal on the edge of the stage. It was the most successful series the orchestra ran in those years. Most concerts sold out.

I’m sure there is still a vast untapped audience for classical music that doesn’t take itself too seriously, that doesn’t look down on decadence, frivolity or luxury….


Some follow-up thoughts for this post….

1- Finding that line between music you treat with the utmost reverence and that you can, or should, be more interventionist is hard. Misunderestimate a great composer and you become one of those turkeys who re-orchestrated Bruckner or cut half of Rach 2.

2- The best way to avoid being Leopold Auer and having you name forever attached to a barbarous and ham-fisted set of cuts to the Tchaikovsky fiddle concerto is to start working on any new piece with the sort of thoroughness and spirit of enquiry you would bring to an acknowledged MASTERPIECE.

3- Only once you’ve lived with the piece, and, if possible, heard some performances, or best yet, done some performances, if you really feel like it needs the Ken Woods touch or the Maestro X touch, you can let loose.

4- Generally speaking, other than opera, I never cut a piece. Better to just conduct faster…..

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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10 comments on “Franck and the lost middle ground”

  1. Allen Simon

    Pops concerts sell tickets via name recognition. People who aren’t classical music aficionados have heard of Star Wars, and a handful of big name composers like Beethoven, but they haven’t heard of Franck, so his name won’t get them to show up, much as they might enjoy the music once they got there.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Allen

    I think you’ve made my point exactly- there’s a lot of research that says that pops and subscription audiences are different groups. For many generations, there was a rich repertoire of lighter and light classical rep that had the same name recognition as Star Wars, and we’ve lost that. The Franck is closer to being a mainstream symphony than most of the rep I mentioned, but the criticisms I heard of it when I programmed it had nothing to do with the rather portentious 1st mvt but with the far lighter and sweeter 2nd and 3rd mvts. You’re absolutely right- Suppe, Strauss, Chabrier, Borodin et al aren’t going to pack em in because we’ve taken them out of the repertoire. I wonder, however, if there is a niche between pops and core classical where we could find a lot of audience?

  3. Greg Austin

    I’m probably too cynical about the concertgoing public in my neck of the woods, but I think a very (very) small set would have the depth to consider Franck melodies ‘naive.’ If they were to avoid a concert with the Franck symphony on it, it would only be because they hadn’t heard Franck before. I’ve always considered it a mainstream work since that was the way it was treated when we did it at the UW (and since precious time was given to learning it), and we were also taught there about the interesting elements of the composition that made it unique for its time.

    We performed it in Appleton probably thirteen years ago, and it was not a fun experience. The piece felt interminably long, lacked nearly anything interesting (the way we played it) and just about did me in as a player (Rach 2 is the only other piece that has made my back hurt so badly). Green Bay is doing it next year and I’m hoping our guest conductor will change my experience with the piece (one good, one bad), but I’m not betting on it, since we only get two rehearsals plus a pre-concert dress rehearsal (earlier that afternoon) to do a full program. I guess my point is that with a piece like the Franck symphony, as a player (and this in turn has to come across to the audience as well) I need a conductor that is able to communicate those extra special elements and help the piece make sense. I get the sneaking suspicion that Franck is very difficult to pull off in this regard. My wife was in the audience for the Appleton performance, and had not heard the piece before, and every time a new phrase would start in the second movement she sank a little lower into her chair.

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Greg-

    Sounds like we are on the same page. I always thought of the Franck as a standard repertoire piece until people started coming up to me and saying “I haven’t heard this since the 50’s” or the like.

    You are absolutely right that it needs handling more than it needs rehearsal time (Rach 2 is more strongly structured, but it also needs a lot of direction and pace). I bought a recording by Giullini, one of my heroes, when I did the piece 10 years ago. He conducts it with the same reverence he does Bruckner (always the obvious comparison- both organists and it shows on all kinds of levels). SO BORING!!!!!! I hope your GBSO guest can have a bit of fun with it

  5. Kenneth Woods

    Concerto creep has been a prime force in this trend toward abandoning large chunks of repertoire. Think of all the concertos that were standard 30 years ago like Bruch Vn and Scottish Fantasy, the Saint-Saens Vn and Cello concerti, all the virtuoso repertoire, short works like Beethoven Romances, Grieg Piano Concerto…. Hardly forgotten, but largely now replaced by longer, heavier more intense pieces- Brahms concerti, Elgar Vn, Berg, Prokofiev Cello Symphony and Piano Concerti. The second list might be better music, but paired with long and intense symphonies is sometimes too much. For most audiences Bruch-Mahler is going to be more fun than Berg-Mahler….

  6. Peter

    This split between the serious and the popular has been an increasing phenomenon during the 20C. I think it is a consequence of commericialisation and consumer culture. Really good music can straddle the divide and often shows its roots in folk music and popular sentiment. But if serious music now often implies alienation and even aggression towards its audience, this only drives a wedge between the less discerning and the more radically-minded public. Tastes get polarised, so that people become risk averse or turn into risk-junkies.

    Franck is a good composer but it is just a little too pretty and dated to be up there with the currently established names, yet it is also too serious-minded and introspective to be counted as simply popular fayre. A healthy musical culture finds a natural place for such good second-rate music as it should form the meat and potatoes of the repertoire. It could be the same reason why a figure like Hans Gal gets overlooked. Instead, we either get vacuousness or pretentiousness – which are two sides of the same coin in my view. In either case, you are being subtly cheated – either by someone who wants your cash or someone who wants you to feel elitist and intellectually superior. I am all for elitism, but based on quality not on phoney obscurity.

    I am sure when we listen to Gal or Franck we should just be reminded what a miracle good music is and when it is done honestly and with humility, it moves and gives pleasure without overwhelming, manipulating or bullying its listeners. Aimiability is a much underrated aspect of some very good music. Some composers you would enjoy meeting – Beethoven and Wagner you probably woudn’t, although you might still be impressed by them. We live in times when extremism still carries a lot of prestige – a hangover of Romanticism.


  7. Craig Kowald

    I love the Franck (his worst symphony) as well as a host of lesser-known or problematic works. The von Hausegger Natursymphonie, an Atterberg or Bax symphony or horn or Kurt Weill’s 1st Symphony would probably delight many in the audience, but the move would be seen as too risky. It is quite telling that a huge heap of these lesser known works have been recorded by the German radio, and UK orchestras, with a small contingent of lesser known American bands. Still’s Afro-American Symphony recorded by the Ft Smith Arkansas orchestra is my alltime favorite over achiever albums. Alas, the Oklahoma/Arknasas audience probably never heard this live.

  8. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Craig

    Welcome and thanks for the comment. I’m sorry not to replay to you sooner!

    I’m so glad to hear someone advocating for William Grant Still. When I did the Afro-American a few years back it was a huge hit, and it got me in touch with his family. He was very prolific and much of the music is very good. There’s a great CD of his music on Centaur that we recorded at CCM while I was a student there (i’m not on it, though). Dismal Swamp is a little masterpiece.

    Thanks again


  9. Richard Bratby

    Just discovered your terrific blog and am catching up with it. Fascinated by this post because I tackled a very similar subject on the CBSO blog a couple of times last year – the gradual loss from the repertoire of music that is merely entertaining, charming, etc.

    I planned to follow up the “Six overtures” post with a “Three symphonies” – which was to include two of my very gavourite works, the Franck and Borodin 2. You’ve done it for me!

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