Belgian born French composer César Franck (1822-1890) is best known for his sacred and organ works. He was an organist at several Cathedrals around Paris before his appointment as organ instructor at the Paris Conservatorie in 1872. Right around this time, Franck discovered Wagner and borrowed heavily from the Wagner’s harmonic language. This fascination with Wagner led Franck to write his very first opera, Hulda in 1879. Despite finishing the opera in 1885, he never staged the work. Staging the opera fell to Franck’s pupil, Vincent d’Indy.
The premiere of the opera took place in Monte Carlo in 1894. For the deeply religious Franck, the staging in Monte Carlo shocked his peers. Saint-Saëns and Fauré’s biographer, Georges Servières, expressed surprise stating “Those two words, one would swear, would never be coupled: Franck and Monte Carlo! The productions of the most disinterested musician, the musician most opposed to intrigue, that there has been in our century, serving for the acclaim of an impresario maintained by a gaming-house!” After the staging, the opera received little interest, and few companies have revived Franck’s work. The only recording I could find is a 1960 recording by Vittorio Gui and the Orchestra sinfonica e coro di Milano. Researching this opera is quite complicated, as the only full score available is in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.
So how is the saxophone used in the opera? Saxophonist Nicolas Prost took on the difficult task of finding and recreating the saxophone solo in the opera and now we can finally hear how Franck scored for the saxophone in Hulda. Franck uses a quartet of saxophones: alto, 2 tenors, and a baritone to accompany the vocal soloist in the aria “Le chœur des pêcheurs.” The scoring is reminiscent of Gregorian chant, where the saxophone is acting more like a voice than an instrument. The uniqueness of the scoring really stands out from Franck’s contemporaries who were more likely to compose simple melodies in a waltz like style for saxophone in their operas.
The influence of the saxophone in Hulda can be heard in Franck’s student, Vincent d’Indy. D’Indy was also fascinated with Wagner and chant so when he wrote his opera, Fervaal, he used a quartet of saxophones as a voice in a polyphonic chorus. Franck also taught Paul Dukas, who used the saxophone in L’Ondine et le pêcheur.
Thanks to Nicolas Prost who contacted me about this opera. There is no way I would have found this without his research. If you like the quartet arrangement in the video above, here is a link to the score, you can purchase it through your sheet music retailer.
 Trevitt, John, and Joël-Marie Fauquet. “Franck, César(-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert).” Grove Music Online. 2001; Accessed 11 May. 2021. https://www-oxfordmusiconline-com.proxy108.nclive.org/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000010121.
Stove, R. J. (2011, Spring). Franck after franck: The composer’s posthumous fortunes. Musical Times, 152 , pg. 47.