The Kennedy Center

Le Chasseur maudit

About the Work

César Franck Composer: César Auguste Franck
© Richard Freed

The German poet Gottfried August Bürger (1748-1794) is remembered now primarily for the association of his works with music composed after his death. Franz Schubert, Peter Cornelius, Hans Pfitzner and Richard Strauss were among the composers of made songs of Bürger's verses. Liszt wrote piano music to accompany a recitation of Bürger's most famous ballad, Lenore;Joachim Raff, for a time Liszt's associate, composed a long programmatic symphony (his Fifth) on the same subject, and Franck's disciple Henri Duparc (to whom the Symphony in D minor was dedicated) produced a symphonic poem under the same inspiration in 1875. Five years later Franck himself responded to another of Bürger's ballads, Der wilde Jäger, with a symphonic poem of his own, given the equivalent French title Le Chasseur maudit ("The Accursed Huntsman"), which was introduced at a concert of the Société National de Musique in Paris on March 31, 1883.

Both Lenore and Der wilde Jäger deal with the supernatural, and each includes a "wild ride." In Leonore, the heroine's slain fiancé comes to fetch her and carry her off to a nuptial bower—which proves to be an open grave awaiting them in the village cemetery. In Der wilde Jäger there is no hero—only an "anti-hero," the Count of the Rhine, who is condemned for his violation of the Sabbath. The tale may be summarized as follows:
On a Sunday morning, as church bells summon the faithful to worship and sacred chants fill the air, the Count sets off on a hunt. Pious elders plead with him to call off his expedition, but he responds contemptuously and rides roughshod through the village farms, trampling crops and applying the whip to the peasants in his way. Eventually he finds himself lost in the woods, where a stern voice from unseen heights pronounces his sentence: "Accursed hunter, be thou eternally pursued by Hell!" The Count tries to flee, but flames surround him and his horse. Imps and demons pursue him, now goading him on, now blocking his path; through daylight and darkness the wild ride continues. Even when horse and rider fall into an abyss there is no respite; they are borne through the air to ride on and on in unremitting punishment for blaspheming the Lord's Day.

The nature of this work is somewhat more overtly Lisztian and a good deal more graphically descriptive than Franck's later and better-known Psyché (an expansive work for chorus and orchestra, usually represented by an orchestral suite). The piece is concise, and laid out in four clearly demarked sections—THE PEACEFUL SUNDAY LANDSCAPE; THE HUNT; THE CURSE; THE DEMONS' CHASE—in which the telling of the tale is so clear-cut that any sort of analysis would be gratuitous. In the orchestration, which is especially vivid and brilliant (some of the brass passages show the direct influence of Berlioz), Franck is said to have been assisted by another of his celebrated disciples, Vincent d'Indy, who, however, made no such claim himself.

D'Indy wrote an early biography of Franck in which he noted that when the master was belatedly named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1885 the decree acknowledged him as "professor of organ" but made no reference to his creative work. That slight so incensed Franck's pupils and admirers that they organized a concert of his works which was presented on January 30, 1887, with conducting duties shared by Franck himself and Jules Pasdeloup. The opening work, conducted by Pasdeloup (who had presided over the premiere four years earlier), was Le Chasseur maudit, at that time—with Pscyhé still a year in the future and the Symphony a year further still—perhaps the most dramatic contradiction of the notion of Franck as a mere "professor of organ."