• Ian Passmore

Music that doesn't suck, No. 26: The Accursed Huntsman

A few months ago, we covered Ernest Chausson’s grossly neglected Symphony in B-flat, a work that is, in my estimation, the greatest French symphony of the 19th century…not that there’s a lot of competition. This week, we’re on to one of Chausson’s most notable teachers, Cesar Franck. Although born in what is now Belgium, Franck is generally considered as a French composer, as that is where he spent the vast majority of his career.

As far as orchestral programming goes, his most popular piece is certainly the Symphony in D minor. It’s a polarizing work that we won’t be covering here. Many consider it to be a masterwork, although personally, I’m not a fan. I’ve even known some critics to call it the Franck “D-minus!” The first two movements are impressive, but I’ve always found the third and final movement to be far less convincing. That probably has something to do with the fact that it centers around one of the silliest themes I’ve ever heard in a symphony. In fact, many seem to think that tune and the My Little Pony theme song bear a hilarious resemblance to one another. Seriously, look them up!

My favorite work by Franck also happens to be an ideal post for October/Halloween—it’s the ghostly tone poem Le Chasseur maudit, or, The Accursed Huntsman. The piece is about a hunter who dares to venture into the woods on a Sunday, violating the Sabbath. As punishment, he is cursed to be pursued by demons for all eternity. Here’s an excellent, more detailed note from The Kennedy Center…

“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.”

While there are a handful of excellent recordings of this piece, my favorite is a live, “rough and ready” performance by the Boston Symphony and Charles Munch. This particular recording dates from 1959, and is not be confused with their slightly more tame 1962 studio recording. Both are wonderful performances, but I just find the 1959 live performance to have the “spark” of spontaneity that is nearly impossible to recreate in the studio. The BSO plays as if they’re truly possessed, and I think it pays huge dividends in this particular case. Enjoy!

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