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An era ended, to coin the cliché, when Jean Françaix died in 1997: it seems so much further back in time when his kind of music was making the rounds, when his aim as a uniquely French composer (with name appropriate, and it was his real name) stood for “musique pour faire plaisir” (music to please), as he called it.
There seem to be no more musical jokers around, of the French kind, at any rate: master eclectisists combining the lyric elegance of Chabrier with the rhythmic snarl of Stravinsky, the songs and dances of the Paris cafés; no more heirs to the eccentric wit of Erik Satie, and his acolytes Francis Poulenc (who turned religious in his later years), Darius Milhaud (who maintained a balance between the jesting and the intensely serious, the latter dominating, in his vast output) and such bright, lesser lights as Georges Auric and Jacques Ibert.
Jean Françaix was born in 1912 in Le Mans, into a prominent musical family. His father was a composer, pianist, historian and director of the local conservatory, and his mother a teacher of singing. Jean started composing at age six and his early music caught the attention of a publisher who brought the boy to that fount of musical wisdom, the supreme pedagogue and encourager of major talent, Nadia Boulanger. He studied as well with the pianist Isidor Philipp at the Paris Conservatory. At the 1936 Baden-Baden Chamber Music Festival, the critic-musicologist Heinrich Strobel, more commonly identified with the avant-garde during his long career, wrote of the occasion: “It was a triumph unusual in such a meeting of specialists. After so much problematic music... this Concertino [with the young composer as piano soloist] was like fresh water which springs out of the source with gracious spontaneity, and at the same time, as the creation of an intelligent artist who possesses lucidity and consciousness, which are rare nowadays.”
Françaix was proficient in all musical genres, solo piano works, chamber music (for nearly every orchestral instrument), concertos, symphonies, operas, and cantatas, as well as a great deal of film music, scoring ten films by actor-director Sacha Guitry alone. Miffed at always being deemed a lightweight, he responded on one memorable occasion in the 1970s: “I am always told that my works are easy. Whoever says that has probably not played them. My works are rashly lumped together. I don’t have the impression my oratorio L’Apocalypse selon Saint Jean is closely related to [Offenbach’s] Orphée aux Enfers. My works are not considered as contemporary music, but I am not yet dead.” He was still composing when in his eighties.
How difficult it is to believe that while Pierre Boulez was changing (seriously, to say the least) the face and intent of music in the 1970s, Jean Françaix created his À huit – the official name of tonight’s piece – for Willi Boskovsky, who kept the heart and soul of an earlier time beating with his affectionate mastery, as violinist-conductor, of the waltzing Strausses. It was Boskovsky, longtime concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic and, fiddle in hand, leader until the early ’80s of the orchestra’s New Year’s Day Concerts, as well as founder-leader of the Vienna Octet, who commissioned À huit in 1972 for his chamber ensemble. The composer formally dedicated it “to the memory of Franz Schubert.” Françaix, with characteristic wit, noted that Boskovsky “asked for the piece since his ensemble needed a stop-gap for its program.” And indeed Françaix’s charmer-with-punch was first heard, in Vienna, on November 7, 1972, to open a program also containing the Schubert Octet: an event replicated this evening in Los Angeles.
The Françaix octet begins with a slow introduction that leads into a frisky theme passed, basketball-like, among the winds, becoming fast (ultimately achieving an allegrissimo marking), with pizzicato strings, and sounding for all the world like accompaniment music to a WB cartoon. The delicately-scored scherzo opens with a clarinet theme, then one for horn – every part is scored for a virtuoso player – both developed, in sequence, by bassoon and strings, strings alone, clarinet and strings, and so on, with plenty of lively counterpoint before the slower coda, marked “reminiscenza,” arrives. The andante slow movement, in essence a lullaby, is a superb example of the composer’s gift for the memorably simple tune – and which, like many a lullaby, also suggests a slight feeling of menace, or at least uncertainty. The finale begins with a portentous call to attention: utterly serious (utterly mock-serious?), before sliding into a delicious waltz. Easy for us oldtimers to picture Wondrous Willi swinging and swaying to its blithe measures, with his equally mobile clarinet (and Vienna Octet) partner, brother Alfred Boskovsky, swaying right along.
À huit, following a La Valse-like (after Ravel, another Françaix favorite) set of discords and some more cartoon-character scurrying, concludes with a compressed version of the “portentous” opening of this final movement.
Herbert Glass, after serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, was for 25 years a critic / columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He recently completed his 16th season as English-language editor / annotator for the Salzburg Festival.