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Piano Music by Jean Françaix: Charm, Color, Wit…et Vitesse!

Notes from the bench by Nicole Narboni

Jean Françaix (1912-1997) was a tremendously prolific composer.  The story goes that even before he had finished one piece, he was already starting to work on another.  He wrote for virtually every instrument, in every combination you could think of.

But I had never heard his piano music until one of my students in Nebraska recommended that I play a short encore piece of his…a discovery that eventually led me from a library in Lincoln to the great music shops of Paris, tracking down every solo piano work by this French master that I could find.

And I found plenty, the best of which you’ll find on this disc.   How to describe it? Françaix’s piano music is marked by charm, wit, humor, color…and speed! Françaix liked speed, evidenced by the 36 cuts on this CD!  Proving, perhaps, that brevity really is the soul of wit…for the other characteristic of Françaix’s piano music is a man with a tremendous sense of the absurd.

You’ll hear his puckish humor right from the start.  In the Danse de Trois Arlequins [1],  dating from 1958, Françaix successfully paints a musical picture of three buffoons clowning around, tripping over each other and causing general mayhem.  You can sense the tug-of-war (either figuratively or literally) with the two-against-three figure that Françaix incorporates throughout the work.  The Danse des Trois Arlequins is a wonderful, short romp, perhaps written to celebrate the simple joy of being alive.

Perhaps the most comical of all the works contained on this disc are the Cinq Bis, or Five Encores, from 1965.   In the preface, Françaix  quotes the 18th-century French author Nicolas de Chamfort …Quand vous êtes sur une scène, si vous n’êtes pas un peu charlatan, l’assemblée vous jette des pierres… (“When on the stage if you are not a little of a charlatan, the crowd will stone you.”)

These pieces have all the elements of great encores.  Pour Allecher l’auditoire (“To entice the audience”) [2] is a sarcastic warm-up; Pour les dames sentimentales (“For romantic ladies”) [3] is a wonderful combination of silly and serious.  The last three Bis are best saved for a third or fourth curtain call:  En Cas de succès [15] and En cas de triomphe [35] – no translation required!.  The fifth and final of the Bis, En cas de délire (“In case of delirium”) [36] suggests a scene from a Victor Borge concert…

The 1960 Sonate pour piano [4]–[7] is one of Françaix’s few forays into traditional forms.   This four-movement work is typical of a classical sonata with its fast-slow-faster-fastest arrangement.  The Sonate was supposedly written for the annual piano competition at the Paris Conservatoire.  It is dedicated to the Turkish pianist Idil Biret.  I think the connection there is Nadia Boulanger:  Both Biret and Françaix studied with the legendary Paris composition teacher, part of an impressive range of students that ranged from Aaron Copland to Astor Piazzolla!

I would call the Sonate a serious work, lacking the humor found in so many other of his compositions.  But the writing is still quintessential Françaix, with the effervescence of a good champagne.  The stately sustained melody in the second-movement Elégie is a wonderful contrast to the other, motivically derived movements: Prélude, Scherzo, and the concluding Toccata.

In all the piano repertoire of Jean Françaix, there is no more charming a piece than the 1936 Cinq Portraits de Jeunes Filles [8] – [12].  Françaix has captured in this music the varied personalities of young women.  Consider, for example, La Capricieuse: Françaix creates the image of a woman who changes her mind on a whim, with an almost pointillistic melody.  The dreamy La Tendre brings to mind a woman cradling a baby, perhaps singing a lullaby.   By contrast, next is La Prétentieuse, whose “all about me” personality sharply contrasts with her occasional moments of vulnerability.   La Pensive is suitably introspective, and the last in the set is aptly titled La Moderne.  Here is a woman whose antics remind me of Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a wonderful mixture of the qualities of the four other girls.   Françaix suggests that he is in fact writing about the multiple personalities of just one girl by closing La Moderne with a repeat of the first five measures of La Capricieuse.

The 1932 Scherzo [13] is another free-standing work similar to the Danse des Trois Arlequins. This short piece practically skitters across the keyboard.  Françaix dedicated the Scherzo to Isidore Philipp, the French pianist and educator best known for his Exercises for the Independence of the Fingers.   Françaix and Philipp were friends and colleagues for decades, stemming from their days together at the Paris Conservatoire.

Though it is named for the inventor of the printing press, the Huit Variations sur le nom de Johannes Gutenberg [14] is the only piano composition of Françaix’s that was not typeset; it is the only score is in the composer’s own handwriting. Françaix himself premiered the piece in Mainz, Germany as part of a ceremony honoring him with the Gutenberg medal in 1982.  Monsieur Françaix, in his droll manner, includes a note at the end:  Gutenberg se déclare satisfait de ses Variations, et se dirige vers la Maison Schott pour les y imprimer lui-même. (“Gutenberg considers himself satisfied with his Variations and proceeds to the House of Schott to print them himself.”)  Typical of Françaix’s style, the eight energetic variations are harmonically clear and rhythmically sharp.

Dating from 1983, Trois esquisses sur les touches blanches (“Three sketches on the white keys”) [16] – [18] is another characteristic set of Françaix pieces.  The titles Le Chérubin provisoire (“The temporary angel”), Le Rêveur—pendant la leçon de piano (“The dreamer—during the piano lesson”) and Le diablotin libéré—de la leçon de piano (“The liberated devil—in the piano lesson”) suggests a little boy whose behavior rapidly deteriorates during his piano lesson.  As a teacher who’s had my share of diabolitins, I can relate!

The 1975 suite De la Musique avant tout chose (“Music before everything else:  Ten children’s pieces for piano”) [19]–[28] contains 10 graded pieces for the beginning pianist.  Like so much of Françaix’s music, the titles suggest both personality and situation.  The last three pieces are considerably more challenging, with tricky rhythms and articulations.

Jean Françaix loved ambiguity and subtle word play.   Upon the death in 1945 of the poet Paul Valéry, Francaix created a little six-movement suite called Éloge de la Danse [29]-[34] a series of six épigraphes based on Valéry’s texts. Again, all describing a single woman,in a symbolic quality found in the poetry.

…At first she appears, with her spirited steps, to wipe from the earth all weariness, and all inanity…

…She was love…she was amusement and weeping, useless pretenses…the yeses, nos, and steps sadly lost…

She traces roses, interlacing, stars of movement, and of miraculous pregnancy…She cuts a bloom that is at once a smile…

She made her entire body so slender, so closely tied to an agile hand…Only my hand can imitate this ownership and this ease of her entire body…

She lauds all the mysteries of absence…she seemed at times to touch upon ineffable catastrophes…

Here is the winged choir of illustrious dancers!  It’s a grove of beautiful limbs rustled by the breeze of Music!

The music of these six dances captures the symbolic quality found in the poetry.  I find that the dances are less “programmatic” than some of the other sets.

Click here to read a biography of Jean Francaix.

Click here to read about the CD production team.

Read the NET Radio review

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