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Le Chasseur maudit

Franck's lush symphonic poem is based on the ballade "The Accursed Huntsman," in which an arrogant count blasphemes by hunting on the Sabbath and is punished by becoming himself the prey in a demonic chase.

César-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert Franck was born in Liège, Belgium, on December 10, 1822, and died in Paris on November 8, 1890. He composed the tone poem Le Chasseur maudit, Poème symphonique d’après la ballade de Bürger (“The Accursed Huntsman, Symphonic poem after the ballade by Bürger”) in 1882; the premiere took place at a concert of the Societé Nationale in Paris on March 31, 1883.

The score of Le Chasseur maudit calls for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets à pistons, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bells, cymbals, triangle, bass drum, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). Duration is about 15 minutes.

César Franck spent most of his long life as a distinguished teacher of a group of unusually devoted (indeed, almost idolatrous) pupils and as one of the leading organists of France, the years-long incumbent at the organ bench of Ste. Clotilde. He was also constantly involved in composition, though the works by which we remember him come, almost without exception, from the last ten or fifteen years of his life. These include the piano quintet in F minor (1878-79), the symphonic poems Le Chasseur maudit (1882) and Les Djinns (1884), the Variations symphoniques for piano and orchestra (1885), the violin sonata (1886), the Prelude, Aria, and Finale for piano (1886-87), the D minor symphony (1886-88), the string quartet (1889), and the three chorales for organ (1890). Of the rest of his music, little is performed much these days—especially not the grandiose Biblical oratorios in which he put so much stock and which played a large part in earning him the nickname of pater seraphicus: Ruth (1843-46, revised 1871), Rédemption (1874 in its final version), Les Béatitudes (1869-79), and Rébecca (1880-81).

For a composer so given to contrapuntal elaborations and complex chromatic harmonies, Le Chasseur maudit is a work of remarkable directness, rhythmic vitality, and instrumental color. The subject matter of the tone poem was drawn from a ballade by the German Gottfried August Bürger (1747-1794), whose work had at least twice inspired substantial orchestral pieces. Joachim Raff’s Symphony No. 5 (Lenore, 1872) and Henri Duparc’s tone poem Lenore (1875) had been based on Bürger’s most famous ballade, in which a young woman whose lover had failed to return from war blasphemed against heaven in her despair; that night her Wilhelm rode up to her door, knocked, and hustled her onto the back of his great steed for an urgent midnight ride which ended as Wilhelm’s face melted away and he turned into a ghoulish skeleton. He, Lenore, and the steed leapt into an open grave at the ballade’s end.

This kind of spooky horror-story—filled with ghosts, vampires, and agents of the devil—strongly appealed to many of the Romantics. Weber’s Freischütz was the first great success in this line, followed by Marschner’s Der Vampyr and Hans Reiling. Even Wagner’s Flying Dutchman strongly echoes the tradition. In France, Berlioz played with a similar legend in Faust’s ride to the abyss at the end of La Damnation de Faust.

It was probably Duparc’s version of the story of the unhappy Lenore that turned Franck’s attention to Bürger for musical ideas. In any case, it was a ballade of very similar character that Franck hit upon for his most colorful tone poem. Though few people today would be likely to find much artistic inspiration in a story about a man who was damned because he chose to go out hunting instead of going to church on a Sunday morning, Franck made colorful use of it. The score contains the following summary of the text:

It was Sunday morning; in the distance there sounded the joyous ringing of bells and the religious chants of the crowd—Sacrilege! The savage Count of the Rhine has sounded his horn.
“Hallo! Hallo! The hunt takes its course over grain fields, over meadow and moor…. Stop, Count, I beg you. Take care—No!—And the chase goes hurtling on its way like a whirlwind.
All of a sudden the Count finds himself alone; his horse is loath to go further; the Count blows into his horn, but it will not sound again…. A voice dismal, implacable, curses him; “Sacrilegious man,” it cries, “be forever hunted by hell itself!”
Then the flames leap up in all directions—the Count, seized by terror, flees, faster, always faster, pursued by a pack of demons…by daytime across abysses, at midnight through the air.

The listener will have no trouble following the sequence of events in the music. In the opening section the hunting horns sound their call and alternate with the peaceful sound of church bells and the chanting of the worshippers. The hunt begins, not in the bright G major of the Sunday morning section, but in a darker and more ominous G minor. The joys of the chase come to a sudden end as mysterious tremolos suggest the shudder of the Count’s encounter with the implacable voice. The hunt takes up again, but now with a distinctly demonic character, with the final curse being uttered by the trombones and tuba. The chase moves faster still, finally leaving the spectator behind and dying away in the distance, but still darkly implacable.

Franck’s music was slow finding public favor. Few of his works—even those of his richly prolific final period—were often performed in his lifetime, and when they were, the highly conservative and politicized French press attacked them vehemently. Only through the ardent support of a whole cadre of his students—Ernest Chausson and Vincent d’lndy among them—did his music begin to achieve a wider hearing. It is ironic, then, that the one piece his students tended to underrate, precisely because of its energy, color, and directness, was Le Chasseur maudit. This is a side of Franck that we rarely see, and it is a side that both Chausson and d’lndy regretted. For them, respectable composers stuck to the classical forms and did not go “slumming” in the world of the Lisztian tone poem; but that shouldn’t prevent us from enjoying a visit.

Steven Ledbetter

Steven Ledbetter, a freelance writer and lecturer on music, was program annotator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1998.

The first American performance of Le Chasseur maudit took place in Cincinnati on January 29, 1898; barely two months later, on March 26, 1898, Theodore Thomas introduced the work to Boston on a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert at the Music Hall.

The first Boston Symphony Orchestra performances of Le Chasseur maudit were led by Wilhelm Gericke on March 1 and 2, 1901.