Work: Panis angelicus
About This Work
Franck's music is shot through from beginning to end with a vein of sensual, sometimes cloying, sweetness heard, for instance, in such early piano works as the Églogue (1842) or the ambitious Ballade (1844). It is chromatically distilled with
an old-masterly touch, in many pieces of the vast, posthumously published collections for harmonium, the two volumes of L'Organiste. Conflict, in Franck, is almost always psychological -- an inner torment -- rather than dramatic, and when, in his operas or the great oratorio Les Béatitudes, dramatic situations are to the fore, he falls back on operatic formulas -- not necessarily unconvincing or ineffective (as often said), but not his most telling or original music, either. On the other hand, his habit of rapture lends his devotional works an ecstatic sweetness that is peculiar to himself.
His setting of Panis angelicus -- a hymn for the elevation proclaiming that the bread of angels shall be the bread of men, the humble, and the poor -- is the classic instance in its brevity, its contemplative melodiousness, and its suggestive scoring for organ, harp, and cello. But it is also characteristic that, after a brief central section, the return of the opening phrases should place the voice in canon with the cello. Composed in 1872, Panis angelicus is the last in a mixed bag of liturgical works, crowned by the first version of the oratorio Rédemption, following in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War as the bande à Franck, his inner circle of disciples -- Alexis de Castillon, Augusta Holmès, Henri Duparc, Vincent d'Indy, Ernest Chausson, Albert Cahen, and Arthur Coquard -- began to cluster around him. He was, moreover, on the threshold of his last and greatest creative period. In the same year Panis angelicus was substituted for an O Salutaris in the Messe à trios voix of 1860, as the latter went to press. At the insistence of S. Bornemann, the publisher, the original Messe à trois voix, scored for and often performed with orchestra, was transcribed for organ, harp, cello, and double-bass to render the work more readily saleable. Panis angelicus lacks a double-bass part, which is just as well -- the utter simplicity, suavely ardent sentiment, and sure execution, which have made it one of Franck's most enduringly popular works, could only have been compromised by elaboration.
-- Adrian Corleonis, All Music Guide
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