César Franck
(b. Liège, 10 December 1822; d. Paris, 8 November 1890)

Ruth, églogue biblique in three parts for soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, baritone, two tenors, four-voice chorus and orchestra (1843-6; rev. 1860)
Libretto by Alexandre Guillemin (1789-1872)

Franck was a musician of astonishing natural gifts who, at the age of 15, amazed the professors at the Paris Conservatoire by transposing a four-voice fugue at sight. His indigent father sought to capitalize on his precocity by exploiting the boy as a child prodigy, withdrawing him from the Conservatoire and sending him on concert tours with a fare of operatic potpourris and pieces designed for virtuoso display. When the commercial success failed to meet his expectations, he began to groom the young man for a career as a composer. To this end he acquired a libretto on the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi from a minor French literary figure, Alexandre Guillemin, who obliged with a three-act recasting of the Book of Ruth. By then young Franck had already created a stir in professional circles with his Piano Trio, op. 1, an early demonstration of the power of cyclic thematic recurrence that left a strong impression on Liszt. He started work on the new oratorio in 1843, but was prevented by a serious illness from completing it in good time. The first version was finished on 9 September 1845 and premièred in piano reduction at the Salle Erard, Paris, on 30 October. Shortly thereafter, on 4 January 1846, it was given in the concert hall of the Conservatoire with an orchestra conveniently organized by Liszt. The critical reception was lukewarm, however; the work was compared unfavorably to Félicien David's oratorio Le Désert (1844), which had just created a sensation with its gentle exoticisms, and was faulted for its alleged simplicity and naivety. The failure helped to precipitate a breech with Franck's father, a fortunate event that established the young man's independence at the age of 24 and set him on that long artistic evolution which was eventually to make him the leading French composer of his age.

In 1860 Franck produced a revised second version of Ruth that was to vindicate the promise of the first. Its première at the Cirque des Champs-Elysées on 15 October 1871 was called "a revelation" and the work itself pronounced "certainly a masterpiece." A piano-vocal score prepared by Franck himself was issued in 1869 by Hartmann, Paris; the full score was published posthumously by Heugel, Paris, in 1899.

Bradford Robinson, 2005
Performance material: Heugel, Paris