A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Franz, Robert

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FRANZ, Robert, born June 28, 1815, at Halle, Handel's birthplace, is the most important living representative of the German Lied. His reputation has been of tardy growth, and has apparently not yet reached its height. It can however be asserted, without fear of dissent from any competent judge, that his best songs will stand their ground by the side of those of Schubert and Schumann, to which they are closely related. Over and above their uniform and elaborate perfection of workmanship, in which it is difficult to equal and impossible to surpass them, they have a peculiar physiognomy and subtle charm of their own that is sure to endear them to singers and players able to deal with them at all. It is true that they have hitherto been 'caviare to the general,' and are likely to remain so for some time, and that 'the general,' as Franz has found to his cost, includes the majority of professed vocalists and pianists.

Nearer akin to the warm but contemplative enthusiasm of Schumann than to the passionate spontaneity of Schubert, Franz's songs are anything but cold, nor do they in any case smell of the lamp; they are reticent rather than outspoken, timid rather than bold, pathetic without conscious pathos, eloquent without studied rhetoric; always true, giving more than they seem to give, saying more than they seem to say; frequently naïf yet far from trivial, here and there profound, rarely ecstatic or voluptuous, not once perverse or dry or commonplace. All forms and phases of lyrical speech, as iar as the German language, peculiarly rich in songs, has been able to furnish the groundwork—from Luther's sturdy hymns to the love-ditties of Heine, from the primitive weal and woe of huntsman and soldier, the simple sounds of forest and field, to the classic finish and spring-like grace of Goethe and the nocturnal melancholy of Lenau—Robert Franz has set and sung. Without touching the highest heavens or deepest depths, he has illustrated with his music the entire world of German lyrical poetry.

If Schubert at his best grasps a poem with the intense grip of a dramatist, and sings as though he struck up from the centre of some dramatic situation; if Schumann declaims his verse like a perfect reader, or illuminates it as an imaginative draughtsman might grace the margin of some precious book, or dreams over it as a tender and profound musician is prone to dream over some inexpressible sentiment,—Franz pursues a path of his own; he translates the poem into music, that is to say, he depicts in musical outlines the exact emotional state from which it appears to have sprung; and contrives to reproduce closely, with photographic truth, the very essence of the poem, following strictly in the wake of the poet's form and diction. Franz never repeats a word or a line, never garbles the sense of a sentence, never muddles a phrase or mars any rhythmical emphasis. Without Schubert's dramatic passion, or Schumann's concentrated heat or ecstatic sentiment, with far less specifically musical invention—melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic—than Schubert, or even than Schumann, Franz impresses one nevertheless as a rare master—a marked individuality, complete and perfect in its way.

The son of a respectable citizen of Halle, Robert Franz had fair opportunities of getting a good schooling, and might have gone through the regular university curriculum if it had not been for his strong musical predilections. He had to gratify his taste for music on the sly, and it was only after years of delay and much against the grain that his parents could be brought to see that he was destined to be a musician. As a lad he had contrived to play the pianoforte and organ enough to be able to act as accompanyist in the choral works of Handel, Haydn and Mozart. In 1835 he obtained the consent of his parents to make a trial of his musical gifts as pupil of Schneider at Dessau. There he continued for two years, playing, studying harmony and counterpoint, and making ambitious attempts at composition, all of which he afterwards destroyed.

On his return to Halle as the black sheep of the family, with whom his mother alone had any sympathy, Franz vegetated in a dreary manner for some six years, unable to get any sort of musical employment, yet obstinately unfit for anything else. But he made good use of his time, studying Bach, Beethoven and Schubert. In 1843 he published his first set of twelve songs, which at once attracted the attention of Schumann (Neue Zeitschrift, July 31), whose frankly expressed admiration was soon shared by Mendelssohn, Gade, Liszt, and other eminent masters. At length the authorities at Halle thought fit to appoint Franz organist at the Ulrichskirche, and conductor of the 'Sing-academie'; and in due course of time he obtained the titles of 'Königlicher Musikdirector' and doctor of music, which latter title was offered by the University of Halle, on his lecturing to its students on musical subjects. Unfortunately as early as 1841 his sense of hearing began to decline, his troubles were aggravated by serious nervous disorders in 1853, and became so grave that in 1868 he had to relinquish his employments, and give up writing altogether. The distressing pecuniary difficulties which arose in consequence were, however, effectually overcome by the generous exertions of Liszt, Joachim, Frau Helene Magnus, and others, who in 1872 got up concerts for Franz's benefit, and realised a sum of £5000.

In his latter years Franz has devoted much time to editing and arranging the works of Bach and Handel, by furnishing proper polyphonic accompaniments in cases where the composer's intentions are only indicated by a figured bass, rewriting the part sketched for the organ for a group of wind instruments, so as to facilitate performance in concert rooms, supplying proper substitutes for parts written for obsolete instruments, etc. Detailed critical essays upon and about Robert Franz's songs and arrangements, have been published by Saran, Schäffer, Ambros, Hueffer and Liszt, of which the first and last are the most important.

Franz's own contributions to the literature of music are:—'Mittheilungen über J. S. Bach's Magnificat' (Halle 1863); and 'Offener Brief an Eduard Hanslick über Bearbeitungen älterer Tonwerke, namentlich Bach'scher and Händel'scher Vocalmusik' (Leipzig 1871). His compositions and arrangements consist of 257 songs for a single voice with pianoforte accompaniment, in 45 sets; a Kyrie, à capella, for four-part chorus and solo voices; the 117th Psalm, à capella, for double choir in 8 parts, and a liturgy for the evangelical service; 6 chorales; four-part songs for mixed voices, and 6 ditto for male chorus. His arrangements are as follows:—Of Sebastian Bach—the Passion according to St. Matthew; Magnificat in D; Trauerode; 10 cantatas; 6 duets and numerous arias. Of Handel—the Jubilate; L'Allegro il Penseroso ed il Moderato; 24 operatic arias and 12 duets; Astorga's Stabat Mater; and Durante's Magnificat. Of Mendelssohn—a Hebrew melody for piano and violin; 6 two and four-part songs arranged for one voice with piano; Mozart's quintets in C minor and major, and Schubert's quartet in D minor, transcribed for piano à 4 mains. (1878.)

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