A Raid on the Music Library

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The circumstances under which composers compose is a matter I have always found fascinating. Part of it is as a writer, I am always curious to hear where creators of other art forms find inspiration. The biggest fascination, though, is that music seems to be such a tangible form of magic, and the fact that it could originate from someone’s pen is even more mysterious.

Last  summer while at grad school, I wandered the library on main campus toward the beginning of the summer and discovered the music library. There I found biographies of just about every composer imaginable. I picked up a few favorites whose biographies were lesser known to me and picked them up whenever I had a few minutes of non-school reading. I realize that this is a stretch for light, summer reading. Even my grandmother made fun of me when I told her. However, I loved this little extra-curricular study and wished I had more time to devote to their stories.

One biography made a lasting impression, and that was the life of organist and composer César Franck. I learned in the course of the book that Franck wrote an oratorio that caught my attention for a number of reasons. As I understand it, the composition was not initially as well-received as Franck had hoped, but a sort of revamped version released later in his life was met with great acclamation and popularity. One quote in particular stayed with me, and I wrote it on an index card that summer.

“If M. Cesar Franck had obtained, twenty-five years ago the success which it had obtained today, how many works might he not have produced which perhaps have been stifled by discouragement, self-doubt and the sad necessity to provide for the needs of each day? And let us not believe that the acclamations which have been bestowed on him, the emotion of the populace and all those hands which were extended for the honor of grasping his after the concert can compensate him one evening for long years of solitude, of silence, of oblivion ”
Reyer, via Vallas, César Franck

The idea that an artist would be “stifled by discouragement” even to the point that self-doubt would prevent the creation of further works, especially by someone as talented as Franck, is a haunting one.

I spent the last 8 months writing a translation of that same oratorio, which had fallen back into relative obscurity over the years. It was not a project I ever expected to tackle, but it has been one of the most exciting and rewarding endeavors of the last year. Countless hours have been spent buried in that score, playing a sort of four-way tug of war between accuracy, singability, poetry and structure. My belief in the piece has only grown the more time I have spent, and I know that this journey is far from over.

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More than that, the life and works of Franck has continued to inspire me, the more time I spend in this project. Whatever comes of all this, I never could have imagined what a significant role that little biography would end up playing in my life one year ago.

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