Why did Madame Franck “emphatically dislike” the Piano Quintet by her husband Cesar? She refused to attend performances of the work, the first of which took place on this date in 1880, and heard it only when he played it on the piano at their Boulevard St. Michel apartment. She told friends, “His organ pieces are everything that is admirable, but that Quintet! Ugh!”
Did she object to its densely packed texture, or the unnerving tonal curve early in the first movement – a theme centered on a B natural in the key of F-Minor? Did the aesthetically cautious Madame Franck consider her husband’s radical use of cyclical form a small scandale musique?
No. What so perturbated Felicite Franck about the F-Minor Quintet was its inspiration: Franck’s beautiful young student Augusta Holmès (pictured above.)
Many friends viewed Franck as an organist-mystic, wearing pants too short and box coat too long, who spent hours each day in silent reflection and displayed saintly patience during long rounds of teaching. But soon after responding to Mlle Holmès’s entreaty to study with him, the mutton-chopped Master, in his early-fifties, found himself seized by conflicted desire for the Versailles-raised Irish femme de monde. As friends witnessed, in the presence of Augusta Holmès, Franck was no mystic.
He was not alone. “We are all of us in love with her!” sighed Saint-Saens, whose own proposal of marriage was rebuffed with grace and absoluteness. As poetess and chanteuse in musical and literary salons, Augusta Holmès engaged the hearts of countless minions, including D’Indy, Mallarmé, the novelist George Moore, Rimsky-Korsakov, who described her as “tres decolletee,” and the renowned rake Catulle Mendes, by whom as mistress she bore three daughters. In the post-ingenue summertime blossom of her late twenties, Augusta Holmès was also a gifted linguist and fiery Irish patriot. She showed open affection for Franck, her fellow Wagnerian.
Madame Franck, oft-depicted as meddlesome and shrewish, had been married to Cesar for thirty years. After five years of his association with Augusta Holmès, she was only too aware of her husband’s late-life ardor. She knew, as was widely known, that Franck’s startlingly uncharacteristic erotic tone in his stormy Quintet was stimulated by Mlle Holmès’s volatile joie de vivre.
Scholars debate the depths to which Franck and Holmès consummated their affaire de coeur, but what greater consummation could there be for a rapt musician than to be caught up in such sens intime as the Piano Quintet’s thunderous octave passages, agitated perpetual motion and sublime dolcissimo ma cantabile? Perhaps Madame Franck showed restraint with her mere disgust for the work.