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CD Review

Jean Françaix

  • Symphony in E Major
  • Sérénade B-E-A
  • Overture anacréontique
  • Pavane pour un Génie vivant
  • Scuola di Ballo
The Ulster Orchestra/Thierry Fischer
Hyperion CDA67323 71m DDD
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Musique avec choucroute, sans Sauerkraut.

Ned Rorem once wrote that the world contained only two types of composers: French ones and German ones. He thought of himself as French. I would say there are considerably more types, but, then again, I have no way of putting that into so neat an aphorism. Of all the French composers, Jean Françaix may quintessentially represent a certain type of Gallicism: a musical elegance, balance, wit, mesure, and clarity; negatively, avoiding bombast, pretension, and over-inflation. If the German Composer (in capital letters) seeks to render great thoughts, yearns for spirituality transcending the world for heaven, and begs to be regarded "philosophically," this kind of French composer seeks to capture the pleasures of the beauties he can see and touch an attitude echoed in Frost's lines, "Earth's the right place for love: / I don't know where it's likely to go better." There are, of course, "mystical" and religious French composers, but even here their music differs from that of their Romantic and post-Romantic German counterparts. Satie's "Rosicrucian" music is stark, almost matter-of-fact. Fauré's, Messiaen's, Poulenc's, and Duruflé's religious music unlike, say, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis or the first movement of the Mahler Eighth fits comfortably in a church. The German composer aspires to a heaven that utterly transforms earth. To the French composer, heaven is like earth, only more so.

Françaix (1912-1997) found his groove early and stuck to it. It's extremely difficult to sort out the order of his works, early to late, just by listening. The great mythic time and place for Françaix's art seems most likely the classical Eighteenth Century, the object of such homages as Poulenc's Les Animaux modèles (based on La Fontaine's fables) and Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin. Françaix's music aims at the lightness of a Mozart divertimento or contredanse. Yet a listener would make a serious mistake to underestimate Françaix. Within bone-simple structures, some very sophisticated maneuvers take place.

Françaix has produced things in his catalogue he calls concerti and symphonies and string quartets. With our expectations for these forms largely conditioned by Beethoven and his successors, Françaix may confuse us. The 1953 Symphony in G Major, his third and final, is less complex than even Bizet's Symphony in C. In fact, in its "feel," it hearkens back to the sinfonias of C. P. E. Bach and the Mannheim school. You will search in vain for "standard" symphonic structures, or at least those that work in standard ways. Most of it sounds like extremely refined song or dance strains repeated over and over. The first movement, for example, more alludes to than follows sonata-allegro. The second subject, for example, appears only once all by itself, and then briefly and furthermore an unusual half-step higher than the main key. As far as harmonic theory goes, it's a very tricky modulation indeed, but the composer pulls it off as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Françaix, naturally, returns to the main key just as easily. Nevertheless, we don't have that sense of symphonic argument we get in Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, and even Haydn and Mozart, or Prokofieff's Classical Symphony, for that matter. Françaix does something much closer to Schoenberg's continuous variation or a Charlie Parker riff piece. Of course, he sounds like neither. Much the same goes on in the other three movements: a beautiful slow movement, essentially a song which proceeds at the pace of a slow, perfect summer day; a quirky minuet and trio; a rondo-like finale in which Françaix displays his manic side.

The Sérénade of 1934 is one of the composer's popular successes. Learning that it has had the most recordings of any other work in his catalogue wouldn't surprise me. It moves with the insouciance of René Clair's Italian Straw Hat or Le Million. The finale, with its playground-taunt refrain and trombone slides, comes as close to musical farce as any piece I know. Like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way.

The Ouverture anacréontique and the Pavane pour un génie vivant come from late in the composer's career the Seventies and Eighties. If we consider the contemporary music of the time, even the tonal contemporary music, they stand so far apart as to sound timeless. The overture ("anacreontic" means amatory or convivial) shows Françaix's idiosyncratic turn of mind. Instead of something to get your blood racing, over half of it runs to the languorously slow, until the convivial kicks in. Even then, it ends as it began. The pavane, written for the fifty-year commemoration of Ravel's death, has the still mystery of that master's "Pavane de la Belle au Bois Dormant" ("pavane of the Sleeping Beauty" from the two-piano suite Ma mère l' oye). It's a gorgeous, intense three or four minutes.

Scuola di Ballo, written for the Ballets russes, belongs to that genre of modern composers reorchestrating and even rewriting older music as a kind of homage. If not the first, Tchaikovsky's fourth orchestral suite, subtitled "Mozartiana," is surely one of the earliest examples, while Stravinsky's Pulcinella ballet represents perhaps the peak of the genre. Typically, Françaix aims at something modest reorchestrations of pieces by Boccherini, I must admit, not one of my favorite composers. Françaix, however, through a magically delicate orchestration manages to increase the interest of Boccherini's quintet originals at least five-fold. My only quibble is that it doesn't sound particularly like Françaix. Nevertheless, you can see the Frenchman's fondness for an insistent, almost banal tune and his ability to transform them into something delightful.

The Ulstermen play idiomatically under Thierry Fischer. After all, according to the actor-playwright Sacha Guitry, "ce qui n'est pas clair n'est pas français, mais… ce qui n'est pas clair n'est pas 'de' Françaix" (what's not clear is not French, but… what's not clear is not by Françaix). They are clear; their touch is light. What more could you ask for?

Copyright © 2006, Steve Schwartz