Quartet for English Horn, Violin, Viola, and Cello
Jean Françaix. The very name has an unmistakable lilt to it. That his music would be consonant with the Parisian flair of his name was not exactly ordained, but that it does indeed exemplify that distinctive insouciance of the city of light is a happy circumstance.
After all, dangerous though it may be to generalize, it is not difficult to say that French composers have not been concerned in their art with the forehead-creasing issues of man and his universe but have been content to paint aural canvases of elegance and refinement, of cool detachment and/or insinuating voluptuousness. In that much of his music conforms to most of the above description, Jean Françaix is a typical French composer. And, along with Francis Poulenc, he is possibly the most Parisian of 20th-century composers, in the sense of being debonair and lighthearted, a boulevardier of wit and unabashed sentimentality.
A fine pianist, Françaix took a first prize for piano in 1932 while in the class of Isidor Philipp at the Paris Conservatory. The same year, still a composition student of Nadia Boulanger, he composed a Piano Concertino that forthrightly presented his Parisian credentials by revealing – at the tender age of 20 – both a highly developed skill and a distinct musical personality. Turning a deaf ear to the atonal and 12-tone music that was filling the air at that period, Françaix followed his own muse, composing unproblematic tonal pieces that flourish in gracefulness, freshness, and spontaneity. (It should be said that seriousness was not foreign to him. In 1939 his oratorio L’apocalypse selon St-Jean revealed a composer of both depth and religious fervor.) His harmonic language can be called carefully updated traditional: enriched chords, piquant dissonances, and unprepared modulations flesh out compositions that defy advanced modernity.
The present Quartet was composed in 1971, a year that saw little else come from the Françaix pen. The unconventional instrumental combination of English horn and strings clearly sparked Françaix’ deft inventiveness, which begins in a first movement that doesn’t lose a moment in taking off on a cheeky ragtime escapade. Of the work’s five movements, the first, third, and fifth are strictly fun and games, clever, insinuating, and slyly sophisticated. These are set off by a sweetly expressive second movement, in which the plangent quality of the English horn is especially eloquent, and a reflective fourth movement that takes a brief, quasi-serious glance at life in the fast Parisian lane.
— Orrin Howard annotated programs for the Los Angeles Philharmonic for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives. He continues to contribute regularly to the program book.