Psyché et Eros

César Franck

César Franck (1822-1890) was one of the most influential organists and teachers in late nineteenth century France. Numbered among his students (even though he was not a professor of composition) were Vincent D’Indy, Henri Duparc, Ernest Chausson, Louis Vierne, and Paul Dukas. In his later years, he produced extraordinarily beautiful compositions, of which Psyché et Eros is one of six symphonic poems.  This is his longest and last in the genre.

Franck’s early symphonic poems were inspired by contemporary French poetry, but this subject matter was a shocking choice even though the story had been quite popular in nineteenth century literature, drama, poetry, stained glass, frescoes, ballet and art.  This story of human (and carnal) love was strange for a man who was devoted to his religion, was sometimes identified as a “Christian mystic and ascetic,” and called a seraphic angel by his students. Was the story, as set by Franck, a matter of salvation?  Redemption by divine intervention? What about all the eroticism? The dedicatee, Vincent D’Indy, insisted that “there was nothing of the pagan spirit about it… but is imbued with Christian grace and feeling.” The entire orchestral score was never published, and orchestral excerpts have served to present what was left of the symphonic poem.

The work is based on the pagan legend of Psyché, taken from The Golden Ass (aka Metamorphoses) by Lucius Apuleius Madaurensis (c.124-c.170 BC). This is the only ancient Roman Latin novel which has survived in its entirety.  The powerful tale of Psyché et Eros begins in the fourth book and continues in books five and six.  The novel disappeared for many years but was re-discovered during the Renaissance. From that point forward, its themes of love, sexual pleasures and marriage were ignited and recast for many centuries, even into the 21st century. (See Carol Gilligan’s references to the story in The Birth of Pleasure, 2002.)

The story line is as follows:  the goddess Aphrodite (Venus) is wildly jealous of the beauty of the mortal Psyché, and coaxes her son Eros (Cupid) to cast a spell so no one will fall in love with her. He shoots his arrow but wounds himself and falls in love with Psyché. Psyché’s family seeks for a mortal husband but fails.  Sending her off to a mountaintop, she is met by Eros, who becomes her lover and betrothed, even though she must never look upon his face. She however does peek at him during the night and recognizes Eros. After many struggles and punishments for her behavior, Eros and Psyché are united in eternal marriage by Zeus (Jupiter) with a grand wedding celebration attended by all the Gods. Once elevated to heaven, they have a love child named Voluptua (Pleasure).

Franck divides Psyché et Eros into three parts:

  1. Introduction: Psyché is asleep (Lento), He is awakened and taken by zephyrs to the mountains (Allegro vivo).
  2. The Union of the Lovers: Eros’ gardens (Poco animato), lento section, Psyché and Eros are together (Allegretto modere).
  3. A slow section prefaces Psyché’s punishment and redemption. The final close is extremely soft, orchestrated only by two clarinets, horns, violins and violas.

He also included a chorus for sopranos, altos and tenors. Their mission was to make commentary on the story and add atmospheric touches, rather than to propel the narrative. Franck called them “the chorus of mysterious voices.”

The work premiered in 1888 and was later performed in Concerts du Colonne series during February and March 1890.  Henry Villars commented. “The audience was swept away, and Franck was glowing with happiness in his box.”   On the other hand, Le Menestrel critic wrote, “ We are surrounded by movement, continuous melody reigns in all its exaggerated presence.  Through an uninterrupted series of outrageous harmonies, indecisive phrases wind, which have no good reason for beginning and have none for ending.  The orchestra moans and murmurs, the chorus offstage imitates the vague noise of Aeolian harps hung on the branches of pine trees.” (From Ph. D dissertation: Symphonic Culture in Paris by Mark Seto)

Even if the literary themes within Psyché et Eros are unusual for the “beatific” composer, they are fulsomely expressed in Franck’s late romantic coloration, emotion and imagination. Some have said he “de-eroticized” the topic, but the music speaks for itself: lush, evocative, richly chromatic and deeply effecting.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016

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Program Notes