Le Chasseur maudit

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            Franck, along with Saint-Saëns, must be considered the most important French musician in the second half of the nineteenth century.  In this country concert halls have long been dominated by the hegemony of German-speaking composers, for a number of reasons.   Berlioz, of course, is well known, but after that, a few compositions by Franck, Saint-Saëns, and others, such as d’Indy, constitute the common French symphonic repertoire in this country before the advent of the towering Debussy and Ravel.  Franck was born in what is today’s Belgium, but later became a French citizen and spent most of his life in Paris, where he was a revered organist and teacher.  He was perhaps the most important organist and composer for that instrument after J. S. Bach, and spent many years as the resident organist at the famed basilica church, Sainte-Clotilde, in Paris.  Serving as professor at the Paris conservatory, he enjoyed the adulation of an important circle of pupils, most of whom went on to become an important part of the music scene in late nineteenth-century France.   Although he composed many songs, sacred choral works, and other compositions for the stage, on the whole they don’t measure up to the importance and quality of his keyboard compositions, chamber music, and symphonic works.  There are, of course, exceptions, such as his evergreen Panis angelicus, but they just that, exceptions.  His major works for orchestra are his popular Symphony in D Minor, Symphonic Variations, and a few symphonic poems—most written in the last decade of his life.  Success as a composer came rather late for him.

            Le Chasseur maudit (The Accursed Horseman) is one of his four symphonic tone poems, and clearly the most popular one.  Composed in 1882, it is based upon a ballad, The Wild Hunter, by the eighteenth-century German poet, Gottfried Bürger.  The story is of an arrogant German nobleman who decides to go hunting on the Sabbath.  He rides roughshod over a group of peasants going to church, but meets his comeuppance in the forest, where a baleful voice condemns him to an eternity of pursuit by demons.  They relentless chase him and his steed—in the daytime in abysses, and through the air at night.  He flees, but can never escape the Devil’s minions.

            Bold horn calls open the composition, clearly mimicking the hunter’s horn, interspersed with church bells and sacred music that ominously warn him of his fate.  He ignores them, of course, ruthlessly pursuing his hunt, until the malediction from Hell is pronounced.  Franck skillfully tells the story through the orchestra in the best tradition of the German masters of the genre, Liszt and Richard Strauss, and this quintessential Romantic tone poem careens to its terrifying conclusion:  violate blue laws at your own risk.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan