1822 - 1890
"The sense of Franck bidding a protracted good-bye is evident throughout ... It is hard, it is well-nigh impossible, to believe that the Chorals' composer retained any illusions about his chances of full physical mending."
Stove on the music of Franck
Symphony in D minor
00:00 Lento - Allegro
27:06 Allegro non troppo
Violin Sonata in A Major
Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra
Psyché, Symphonic Poem
I. Le Sommeil de Psyché
II. Psyche enlevée par les zephirs
III. Le Jardin d'Éros
IV. Amour! Amour! source de toute vie!
V. Psyche et Éros
VI. Le chatiment: Amour, Elle a connu ton nom. Malheur sur elle!
VII. Souffrances et plaintes de Psyché
VIII. Apothéose: Éros a pardonn'. Tressoillez, cieux et terre!
Piano Quintet in F Minor
Chorale no. 3 in A minor
Grande Pièce Symphonique
Prelude, Choral et Fugue
(b. Liege, December 10, 1822; d. Paris, November 8, 1890)
French composer of Belgian birth. He was one of the 19th century’s most formidable musicians—a brilliant organist capable of extraordinary feats of improvisation, an inspiring teacher with a reverence for Bach and Beethoven yet open to new ideas, and a hardworking perfectionist who, in his compositions, sought to blend rigorous formal organization with soaring lyricism. Idolized by his students and reviled by his more conservative colleagues, he was neither prolific nor an early bloomer: his greatest works are late ones, and to such important forms as the symphony and string quartet he contributed but a single effort.
Franck’s father, recognizing his son’s precocious talent, sought to capitalize on it by grooming him for a career as a piano prodigy. The boy was enrolled at the Liege Conservatoire at seven and sent on his first concert tour at 12. The family moved to Paris in May 1835 to facilitate young Cesar’s anticipated conquest of the French capital; preparation for the Paris Conservatoire’s entrance exams included private piano lessons with Pierre-Joseph-Guillaume Zimmerman and study of harmony and counterpoint with Antoine Reicha. At first Franck was refused admission to the Conservatoire because he was a foreigner; in 1837, he was admitted and he subsequently received first prizes in piano and counterpoint. He began studying organ in 1841, but was pulled out of his classes by his father so he could be sent on a concert tour of Belgium in 1843.
Franck’s performing career fizzled. In 1846 he moved out of his parents’ home and started to support himself by teaching. He married in 1848 and got a job as a church organist in 1851. His big break came in 1858, when he became organist at the newly finished basilica of St. Clothilde, where he would serve until the end of his life. The basilica housed an outstanding instrument by the king of French organ builders, Aristide Cavaille-Coll, and Franck’s post-service improvisations became legendary. In 1871, Franck was named professor of organ at the Conservatoire; his class quickly turned into an advanced seminar in composition, and a whole generation of French composers took it in order to study with him, among them Henri Duparc, Vincent d’lndy, Ernest Chausson, Paul Dukas, Gabriel Pierne, and Alberic Magnard.
César Franck at the console, painting by Jeanne Rongier, 1885
Franck’s oratorio Redemption was a failure at its first performance, in 1873, but the following year Franck’s artistic redemption began when he heard the Prelude to Act I of Tristan und Isolde; Wagner’s chromaticism was to have a major impact on his own harmonic language, notably in the symphonic poem Les Eolides (1875-76) and the Symphony in D minor (1886-88). The final 15 years of Franck’s life saw the production of a string of masterpieces. Among these were three great chamber works: the Piano Quintet in F minor (1879), the Sonata in A for violin and piano (1886, composed as a wedding present for Franck’s countryman, the violinist Eugene Ysaye, and the String Quartet in D (1889). There were also three great orchestral works: the Variations symphoniques for piano and orchestra (1885), the symphonic poem Psyche (1887-88), and the Symphony in D minor—arguably the greatest symphony composed in France between Berlioz and the 20th century, though far less likely to be heard nowadays than Saint-Saens’s contemporaneous Organ Symphony. In the breadth of their conception and the density of their harmonic syntax, these late works reveal a willingness to go to the edge of tonality to convey restlessness, yearning, and a feeling of transcendence. Yet as powerful as their emotional undercurrents are, these scores embody the art of a composer who remained more architect than sensualist, and whose main concerns were with contrapuntal and formal matters. For all his heated chromaticism, Franck never strayed far from the asethetic and metaphysical footsteps of Beethoven.
Franck's grave at Montparnasse Cemetery,
with a bust by Auguste Rodin