Music and Spirituality: Thoughts on Cesar Franck's Violin Sonata

A forthcoming CD of French music for violin and piano (French Impressions, with Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk, Sony Classical) gives an opportunity to revisit a much-loved and much-recorded work: Cesar Franck's Violin Sonata.

I fell in love with this work over 40 years ago after hearing a performance by Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Askenazy. I immediately bought a recording by Sviatoslav Richter with David Oistrakh. Most recently, I've favored a CD recording by Anne-Sophie Mutter with Lambert Orkis. I don't have the musical expertise to distinguish between all these performances or say which was best. Nor can I offer a comparison with the Bell-Denk combination. They all sound wonderful to me.

What is it about this Franck sonata that is so fascinating? Franck is a bit of an anomaly in the history of music. His style, so very personal that one can identify it immediately, comes out of the romantic tradition -- yet is not romantic in the way that Chopin and Liszt are romantic. He could also be seen as the father of French Impressionism -- yet his music is not really impressionist. He is one of a kind.

There is a kind of breathless religious ecstasy to Franck's music -- soaring themes; simple, pure harmonies; those ceaseless, swirling, gliding accompaniments. This, one feels, is truly the music of the angels.

One of Franck's biographers, Léon Vallas, puts it like this:

"The overpowering climaxes to which he builds are never a frenzy of emotion; they are superbly calm and exalted. The structure of his music is strangely inorganic. His material does not develop. He adds phrase upon phrase, detail upon detail, with astonishing power to knit and weave closely what comes with what went before. It is this strange absence of genuinely dramatic and sensuous elements from Franck's music which gives it its quite peculiar stamp, the quality which appeals to us as a sort of poetry of religion. It is a music which is apart from life, spiritual and exalted. It does not reflect the life of the body, nor that of the sovereign mind, but the life of the spirit."

One hears this in the prelude, chorale and fugue for piano. I used to own an ancient mono record of this by Artur Rubinstein which I played again and again until it wore it out. The fact that the recording came over a bit fuzzy only added to its breathless spirituality. But it is in the Violin Sonata, perhaps, that this strange religiosity comes through the strongest. Joshua Bell comments in his program note that the music is notable for its "nuance, sensuality and transcendent beauty." He also refers to the folk-like canon of the final movement, leading to a "glorious, feverish finale."

The word "feverish" strikes me as very apt. There is something feverish about listening to Franck. Something in this music takes you to another place. The hairs rise on the back of your neck. The response it evokes is physical as well as intellectual. It reminds me, in a strange way, of contemplating one of the great Gothic cathedrals of France. Something about the soaring themes invokes an image in my mind of spires reaching into the sky. The contemplative solo passages in the third movement suggest in my mind the interior of Sainte Chappelle in Paris -- a symphony of stained glass bathing the bystander in gorgeous color. You have a sense of the divine.

The other two works on the Bell-Denk CD are the Saint-Saens sonata number one, a work of elegance, wit and grace, and the Ravel violin sonata full of swirling sonorities, like morning mist shrouding a lake. But I keep coming back to the Franck.

I truly envy anyone who has not yet heard the Franck Violin Sonata. You will get to experience it for the first time. As for me, this Joshua Bell account is one I look forward to listening to again and again.