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Vol. XV


No. 177


I , WANT to offer our heart-felt condolences to the Gramophone Company over ·the Oxford Street disaster when over 80,000 records and ·many instruments were burnt. The watchman too lost his life, and the whole business was a most melancholy conclusion to the year 1937.

The Cesar Franck Sonata

The Cesar Franck Sonata in A major for violin and piano offers a striking example of what I ,,,,as writing last month about the conservatism of the record-buying public. This is the seventh recording of Franck's Sonata in post-electric days and I seem to remember at least a couple in acoustic days. The present version is played by Heifetz and Rubinstein, and technically i t ranks as the finest recording yet. I t is also remarkable for getti~g on three ·red H.M.V. discs what has hitherto always occupied four. I agree with A.R.'s opinion expressed in his review last month that as an interpretation of the Sonata a performance of Heifetz and Rubinstein cannot be held to displace the earlier performance by Thibaud and Cortot if one desires the full effect of that peculiar quality which distinguishes Franck's work from that of every other composer, a quality which is usually conveyed by that poor maid-of-all-work of a word mysticism. Mysticism has been so debased as verbal coinage that I prefer to use spirituality. For instance, the article on Franck in Gmve'sDictionary observes that" even the mysticism of ' Parsifal' has little in common with that of ' Les Beatitudes'." I should think not, indeed. " Parsifal" might be called Wardour Street religion as we used to speak of Wardour Street English and Wardour Street furniture to describe conventionally theatrical period stuff. I am not sure whether since Wardour Street became the headquarters of the film industry the derogatory epithet may not be just as apt. Elsewhere in that Grove article the critic observes that "the central character of Franck's music may be described by the single word ' mysticism'." This was a region unexplored in music before his time, and all his works bear strong traces of the quality. Before him, music was scholasti c; naive, graceful, dramatic, emotional, passionate, de,scriptive, or picturesque, but this new quality had been unrevealed."

That there was a new quality in Franck's best work is true enough, but the newness of i t consisted of his being able to express in music, the form of which would hardly have been possible before Beethoven, the human's recognition of a soul, divine revelation with a certain faith not heard in music since the sublime polyphony of the sixteenth century. If you can imagine so fantastic a musical state of affairs as an obbligato accompaniment as a background to Gregorian chants it is just possible to imagine Gregorian chants against a background of Franck's . String Quartet. The Sonata's melodies would be too insistent, even though they be imbued with the same simple faith and holiness which illuminate the profounder work. Of these melodies I can repeat the gist of what I said last month about Schubert's Unfinished Symphony. Any man with the smallest amount of music in him can recall at any rate one melody, and the mere fact of recalling it produces in him a strong desire to hear an of them properly played. Hence the ability of the recording companies to produce version after version of the Cesar Franck Sonata, and always be sure of finding enough purchasers to make the repetition worth while.

Perhaps an explanation of the deliberate indulgence of the listener's love of melody in this sonata compared with the more austere demands of the Quartet and the more recondite emotion of the Quintet may be found in the fact that Franck was inspired to write the Sonata out of his admiration for the great violinist Ysaye and the great pianist Madame Bordes-Pene. Of the first performance Vincent D'!ndy writes in Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music:

" The Violin and Piano Sonata was performed for the first time in the winter of 1886 by Eugene Ysaye and Madame Bordes-Pene, at one of the concerts of the Societe des Vingt, which at that time were given in one of the rooms of the Musee Moderne de Peinture at Brussels. The seance, which began at three o'clock, had been very long, and i t was rapidly growing dark. After the first allegretto of the Sonata, the performers could scarcely read their music. Now the official regulations forbade any light whatever in rooms which contained paintings; even the striking of a match would have been matter for offence. The