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Franck on the box

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I never hesitate to name Cesar Franck as my favourite composer. It's not just because of his massive contribution to the organ repertoire (and I'm speaking as much about quality as quantity). He made his mark on most other branches of music too. The three mature chamber works are all quite outstanding, and then there's Psyche, his late symphonic poem for orchestra and chorus. It's like having a wonderful musical dream which you never want to wake from. But I mustn't go on! Not everyone agrees with me, I'm well aware of that. But I do feel slightly irritated when people who should know better, like Radio 3 presenters, imply that there's something slightly second-rate about him. They should remember what Claude Debussy said. Although following a very different musical path himself, he described Franck as "one of the greatest of the great musicians." 

What does please me greatly is when this slightly obscure composer gets some unexpected exposure in the mass media. One example which springs to mind was on BBC Children in Need a few years back when Russell Watson sang Panis Angelicus, assisted by a choir of schoolgirls - and very delightful it was too. More unexpectedly, I happened upon an episode of Neighbours which featured the sublime 3rd movement of the String Quartet. Two youg women were listening to it while they revised for an exam. There was a chance to hear much more of the quartet in Alan Bennet's play about Proust 102 Boulevard Haussmann. Although not admirable in all respects, Proust was a fervent Franck devotee and commissioned a private performance of the quartet to be given in his own bedroom. As for me, being a big fan of both Franck and Bennett, the pleasure of this production was almost too much to cope with!

I'm not sure whether Franck has ever made it onto the big screen. In John Berendt's novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil there's a reference to Jim Williams playing Piece Heroique loudly on the pipe organ in his mansion late at night - revenge for his neighbours' howling dogs. I haven't yet managed to see Clint Eastwood's film of the book, so I don't know if this material was included, but considering Clint has a musical side, and tickles the ivories himself, how could he possibly resist?

I'll return to the small screen for one final example. In the highly accident-prone Yorshire village of Emmerdale, there was one occasion when poacher-turned-gamekeeper Seth Armstrong (acted by the late Stan Richards) was heard at the organ of the village church playing the Prelude from Prelude, Fugue and Variation before a wedding service - something I've done myself on numerous occasions. Sad to relate, the wedding went the way of most soap weddings - a slanging match in the church, followed by a punch-up in the graveyard! But none of this could be blamed on the organist who discharged his duties very expertly indeed. One couldn't help wondering why old Seth didn't give up the poaching/gamekeeping life altogether and go on tour as an international recitalist.


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