Let me preface this post with another something cool you might have missed: this blog. I actually displayed some competency on the GRE, although I was cruelly reminded that my cursive skills have eroded to the point of virtual non-existence since the 3rd grade. I hope to be able to get back to contributing something here and there in this space now that things have somewhat settled back into a routine. We shall see. BTW, I don’t actually think this blog is cool, but I do think that the overwhelming majority of the world’s population has missed it if you incorporate all the dictionary definitions of that word.
Now then, to the music.
I remember first encountering Cesar Franck’s Le Chasseur Maudit as the filler on a disc with the Symphony in D minor, a piece I had only recently heard for the first time, on it. I was a horn player, so the introductory section certainly appealed to me on some basic macho-horn level, but it quickly became one of my favorite pieces. I listened to it a lot. And then I just stopped listening to it. I never thought about it. And then I heard it again last week and was reminded why I loved it so damn much in the first place.
Cesar Franck was God’s answer to Wagner: someone who was as humble and caring as Wagner was a complete asshole. He was a legendary teacher in Paris, the father figure for an entire generation of French symphonists. He was quite possibly the greatest organist who ever sat on a bench. Best of all, if you hate the French, he was actually from Liege, which is in modern-day Belgium, so they can’t totally lay claim to him and be all snooty about it while they eat their delicious pastries and sip their delicious coffee and marvel at their delicious art and architecture.
But like almost literally everyone else, Franck owed a lot to Wagner musically. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Le Chasseur Maudit.
Le Chasseur Maudit translates to something like “The Accursed Huntsman,” and it is based off of a ballad by the German poet Gottfried Burger called Der wilde Jager, which sounds like something you would order at a schlocky Oktoberfest event that wouldn’t actually be authentic German food, but it would have sausage and a yellowish-brown gravy so you wouldn’t really know it right away. The story is essentially one of those classic cautionary tales about disobeying the will of God: a Count of the Rhine goes hunting on a Sunday in violation of the Sabbath. Once in the woods, the Count is cursed and condemned to be chased by demons for all eternity. In a related story, I have a Crucifix painted red and gold with 49ers logos all over it hanging in my closet because I violate the Sabbath at least 4 months a year. And I wonder why I’m such a failure…this would be a lot easier if I was just pursued by demons for eternity. At least then I’d feel like I had direction, even if the direction was only “away.” I’m sorry, Jesus.
Le Chasseur Maudit is one of those pieces that you would think would be on Halloween-themed concerts all the time, but for some reason isn’t. It’s every bit the aural spectacle of Night on Bald Mountain or The Sorcerer’s Apprentice or Night Ride and Sunrise. It has demons in it. What more do you want?
The music is incredibly evocative. The piece begins with the horn being used in its classic role as “loud noise letting everybody know we got guns and shit!” interspersed with a beautifully rolling theme in the cellos accompanied by the sounds of church bells: you can almost TASTE the hell-worthy trespass against the infallible word of God. To Franck’s credit, he really makes the churchgoing part sound like something transformative might happen were you to faithfully go, but our Count is just like “fuck that” and gets more insistent with his hunting calls. And like that…………he’s off.
The hunt section has tremendous pace and forward momentum, giving off a little bit of a first movement of Tschaikovsky 5 vibe (though it was written before Tschaikovsky 5, meaning that Franck must have been secretly involved in the Dark Arts!). It all sounds very exciting, and I’m sure our Count was enjoying himself as he brutally and mindlessly slaughtered some of God’s amazing creations, but keep in mind that the reason he is going to be pursued by demons forever is because he skipped church. In a cruel twist of fate, the horn, in its sinister alter-ego “stopped” costume, serves as the end of joy of the hunt and the beginning of the hell-to-pay stuff.
The delivery of the curse is serious stuff, and the music is Franck at his most Wagnerian. Honestly, it sounds like it was lifted straight from the pages of Wagner (Dark Arts!). It is music that would fit in swimmingly in the Ring Cycle or Parsifal, building to a crushing climax in C# at a triple-forte dynamic. And like that………..he’s off again. Except this time he’s being pursued by demons until the end of time and sounding his pompous hunting calls quite a bit less. The final section is a whirling dervish of action along the lines of pretty much every other music involving Satan, who never seems to be doing anything other than chasing people…surely he sleeps or relaxes or has a glass of wine or something every now and then. The piece ends with a massive “F you” from God him-or-her-self in the form of a massive G minor thwack.
Here’s a recording with Lawrence Foster conducting the Residentie Orchestra of the Hague. God will be pleased to know this performance took place on a Friday night. I just hope the band didn’t eat any meat before the show. See you all in church or Hell!