Franz, Robert


One of the great triumvirate of song composers, the other two being Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert. Franz was born in Halle, Germany, his real name being Robert Franz Knauth, but he dropped his surname, using his middle name instead because it was more euphonious. By a strange coincidence he thus bore the first names of the other two great song-writers, Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert. Franz's father, a burgher of Halle, delighted in music of a sacred nature and used to sing chorales every evening to the boy's great delight. As a youth he was devoted to music, studying the great masters and learning the mysteries of harmony and counterpoint, but his father opposed his taking up a musical career. His mother encouraged him in his resolve, however, and at twenty he went to Dessau, where he studied the organ, piano, theory and counterpoint under Frederick Schneider. While a student in Dessau young Franz familiarized himself with the works of Bach, Handel and Schubert, being especially fond of the compositions of the latter. On his return to his native town in 1837, Franz devoted all his spare time to composition, but none of his work satisfied him and he destroyed much of it, and declined to publish others until he had gone over them again and again, polishing and improving them. For six years he plodded along, writing and destroying and working indefatigably at the compositions of the Italian and German composers. In 1843 he published twelve songs from his manuscript, having first sent them for criticism to Schumann. Through the influence of the latter they were published and received instant recognition, and were praised by Liszt and other musicians. This was his first work.

In the set were The Lotus Flower (Lotusblume); O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast; and a charming slumber song. Schumann, discerning genius, not only encouraged the young musician, but at once wrote to various periodicals, praising Franz. His belief in Franz's talent was shared by Mendelssohn, Liszt and Gade, the Norwegian composer. Franz was shortly afterward made director of the Singing Academy at Halle and appointed organist and musical director of the University, receiving the title of koniglicher musikdirektor. Here he lived in retirement almost all his life. He was of a modest nature, and his life throughout was one of unselfish devotion to his ideals. His reputation was not of rapid growth, and he lived so quietly that strangers coming to Halle had difficulty in finding his residence.

Franz married Marie Hinrichs, a musician who had written several creditable compositions, and their life together was a happy and placid one. Shortly after his marriage, about 1868, while standing in the railway station, the shriek of a locomotive caused him to lose his hearing, and he was thereby deprived of his directorship at the University, and became very poor. He was deaf for twentyfive years and besides suffered the partial paralysis of both hands, being unable to write or play. He was almost completely ignored by 'his countrymen, whose music he had done so much to enrich. He declared once to an American who had sought him out, that his best praise and encouragement had come from America and added: "Germany ignores her composers till they are dead, then erects statues to their memory." He was not, however, to endure the pangs of poverty long, for, when his deafness became permanent, a number of his friends rallied to his aid. Liszt, assisted by Joachim and others, organized the Franz concerts in 1872, and through the proceeds (about $25,000), and similar sums raised by Otto Dresel, Franz's friend and coworker in Boston, the musician was enabled to pass his last days in comparative comfort. In 1867 he had received a small pension for his editing of the works of Bach, and this with the proceeds of the concerts kept him till his death. He died in the city where he was born and where he lived his quiet, serene and beautiful life. A monument to the memory of Robert Franz was erected by the people of Halle in 1903, in a public square, where a monument to Handel also stands.

Franz was an artist in detail and he slighted nothing but worked painstakingly and earnestly, satisfied with nothing but the best. In the words of another musician, " He remained a musical Meissomer to his death." One of the tasks which he set himself was to fill out the skeleton scores of the old masters' works with additional accompaniments. These were incomplete and in places little more than sketches. His work in this field alone would entitle him to the lasting gratitude of the world, for the great oratorios and cantatas of Handel and Bach were left by those composers in an almost skeleton state, as they trusted to the time when they should be produced to fill them out and amplify them. Franz, with a reverent spirit, modest, unassuming and studious, and filled with a love and knowledge of music, gave the true touches of color to Handel and Bach. He, however, received much severe condemnation from some quarters for the way in which he restored these ancient masterpieces, though all were agreed that it was an unselfish and painstaking work that he had undertaken.

The most important of his arrangements of the older composers' works were Handel's Messiah; Jubilate; 1'Allegro; II Penseroso; II Moderate; twenty-four operatic arias; ten cantatas; twelve duets; Bach's Passion according to St. Matthew; the Christmas oratorio; Tragic Ode; cantatas and arias; Astorgas; Stabat Mater; Mendelssohn's Hebrew Melody for piano and violin; six two-and fourpart songs; quintets in C minor and major, and Schubert's quartet in D minor; Durante's Magnificat, and old German chorales and songs. Of his work in amplifying The Messiah, one musician remarks: "To Franz belongs the honor of having made Handel accessible to larger audiences in renditions so faithful that we discern no trace of the restorer's personality in his work. We never find a change in the thought or even the coloring of the original."

Franz's artistic career has been compared to that of Chopin, as he achieved all of his fame in one field of composition. He was, as Louis C. Elson expresses it, " the legitimate successor of Schubert and Schumann in the field of German song." Like Schubert he is said to have been inspired by love to write his songs, and next to Schubert in the opinion of most critics and musicians he is the most original of the German songwriters. He was a specialist in the field of art-song. He wrote nothing that was not of permanent value. Every love song was as dignified, as stately and as beautiful as the Protestant chorals of the time of Luther or of Bach. W. F. Apthorp said of him in his Musicians and Music Lovers: "Franz stood entirely and utterly alone and companionless, and to find a parallel to the spirit that breathes through his songs, one must go back to the old Elizabethan love-poetry nothing else in our own day has their peculiar aroma." He wrote two hundred and fifty-seven songs for single voice, with piano accompaniment, each a gem in its way.  Of these songs fifty rank as masterpieces. Musicians have deplored his never having entered the field of oratorio, believing his knowledge, taste and deep religious feeling would have combined to make him the proper one to uphold a school of composition that, until the advent in recent years of Sir Edward Elgar, had almost passed away. Franz, himself, once explained his sending forth only songs and small works by saying, that there was no room for the large forms after Beethoven. Many of his compositions are set to the poems of Robert Burns. Heine, the German poet, also furnished him the theme for some of his best lyrics. Some of his songs were copied two, three and even four times before they satisfied him. Many are in sets of six and twelve, some with piano accompaniments and some without. All of the former are noted for their intricate and difficult accompaniment.

In his book on German Song and German Song Writers, Mr. Elson has selected for special description several songs, among them My Love is Here; Abends; an Ave Maria, which he describes as a " tone-picture of religious exaltation," the folk-songs, The Thorn-Bush; My Mother Loves Me Not; Rosemary; In Autumn; The Lotusblume and the May Song. Of these he wrote: " Franz has sung of love, of spring, of bright green woods, of dreamy or tempestuous seas, of night, of grief, of death and to these subjects his work has given a subtle charm . . . In almost all of his songs he has held to the simplicity of the older school. . . . And it is to be regretted that no symphony has ever sprung from his pen. . . . All his songs have something of the divine spark and the larger number of them are master works."

Franz's works include besides his songs, much piano-music; the 117th Psalm; a kyrie for choir (liturgy); six chorales; four part-songs for mixed voices; ten cantatas; besides his additional accompaniments to the works of the old masters. The complete and revised version of Handel's Messiah with its added accompaniments by Franz was given for the first time by the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston and was also used at the Birmingham Festival of 1885.

Franz was a man of strong feelings and liked or disliked musicians vehemently. For instance, he had a strong antipathy to   Wagner's music, but he was most just, and always open to reasoning. Inspired by enthusiasm, after witnessing one of Wagner's music-dramas, he dedicated a book of songs to the composer of Tristan. Wagner himself once said that he would never forget that Franz was, after Liszt, the first musician who had done him justice.

Franz is of particular interest to Americans, for it was here that his genius was first recognized and his songs most frequently heard, due primarily to the missionary spirit of Otto Dresel, of Boston, who was his most devoted friend, his best critic and his staunchest and most ardent admirer and advocate. Franz was always deeply grateful to America and Americans for the help extended to him from his admirers in this country during his time of need, and he never tired of expressing his appreciation and gratitude, and his indebtedness. His works are perhaps too scholarly and stately for general appreciation. He gravitated too much toward the times of Bach, the mediaeval choral and the folk-song to win the appreciation of the general public, but nevertheless his songs are most melodious.