Shavuot musical delight: César Franck, excerpts from oratorio “Ruth”

Happy Shavuot to my fellow Jews. The holiday takes place on the fiftieth (pentekoste in Greek) day after Passover, the way Pentecost (also known as Whitsun in the UK) takes place fifty days after Easter in Christianity.

Where Passover celebrates the liberation from bondage in Egypt, Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah (usually translated as “Law”, but more literally “Teaching”) on Mount Sinai. There is another, related story: that of the Moabite woman Ruth who embraced the faith of the Hebrews, married Boaz, and became the ancestor of King David. Hence, the Book of Ruth is read as the Haftarah on Shavuot.

I did not realize that an early work — his first composition for a large ensemble — by the 19th century Belgian-French composer of German ancestry[*] César Franck [*] was an oratorio based on the book. It was not well received at the time; while he would later see acclaim for some orchestral compositions, his fame as a composer largely rests on chamber music and composition for organ (on which he was a famous improviser). [**]

Below are some excerpts from the oratorio on YouTube.

Enjoy and chag shavuot sameach!

[*] Franck was born and until age 13 raised in Liège (also known as Luik in Dutch and Lüttich in German) in the French-speaking part of what was soon to become Belgium, and would soon be its Pittsburgh or Birmingham, as the nearby coal deposits facilitated steel manufacture. His mother was from Aachen in present-day Germany, while his father was born in a town on the border with the German Confederation. Liège itself had been the seat of the Prince-Bishopric of Liège within the Holy Roman Empire until its dissolution in 1806. After piano child prodigy César had graduated from the Liège conservatory at age 13 (!), the family relocated to Paris so he could get advanced instruction, in tandem with his burgeoning concert career.

[**] While he had written a lot of solo piano music in his younger days, for his own use on the concert stage, he disowned most of it later as his mature compositional style had taken shape. Franck’s mature works are praised for their depth and formal unity


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