César Franck Symphony in D Program Notes
Cesar Franck was born in the French-speaking part of Belgium. The young Franck exhibited great talent in early studies at the Liege Conservatory, so his father, a clerk, moved the family to Paris to enable his piano, organ and composition studies at the Paris Conservatoire. Franck père was impatient, though, and when the boy’s credentialing was not absolute (he won first prize for piano but not everything else), they returned to Belgium to try and launch Cesar’s solo career. Father and son were soon not on speaking terms, and Cesar made a hasty return to Paris, picking up part-time teaching jobs. As soon as he reached 25 (so no longer needing parental permission), he married a former student, two years his junior, the daughter of a theatrical family. It was February 1848, during the Paris Revolt, so the wedding party had to climb over the barricades to reach the church, Notre Dame de Lorette, where he had recently become the church organist. It sounds as though the event was marked by comity: Vincent d’Indy reported that “insurgents…massed behind this improvised fortification” provided “willing help.” Franck’s parents had journeyed from Liège, signing the wedding register as well.
For most of his career, Franck had a fairly low profile, with moderate successes from time to time, including his Victor Hugo-inspired symphonic poem Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne (What one hears on the mountain). His career had a large boost in early 1859, when he became organist at the newly inaugurated Basilique Sainte-Clotilde. It was a plumb appointment, with a new organ, purpose-built by France’s greatest builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811-99) – the organ was itself not inaugurated until 1859. One of his major works was composed for this organ, the 28-minute Grande Pièce Symphonique.
The St. Clotilde appointment, and Franck’s involvement in a movement of French composers with a loose anti-German sentiment (much maligned by Saint-Saëns, who felt he was a better representative of anti-German composers), helped lead to Franck succeeding François Benoist as the Conservatoire’s organ professor following the latter’s fifty-year tenure there. Before too long, organ classes in the 1870s became composition seminars, and over these years, students or mentees included Chausson, Duparc, Dukas, d’Indy, Pierné, and Ropartz.
From the mid-1870s and through the 1880s, Franck was increasingly productive, with works including two operas, sacred cantatas, the piano quintet, and violin sonata, and for orchestra, Les Eolides (with Wagnerian tonal inspiration), Le chausser maudit, the Variations Symphonique for piano and orchestra, Psyche, and finally, his last major work, the Symphony in D.
Franck’s music uses cyclic forms, with themes returning from previous movements. It’s an especially important feature of this three-movement symphony, in which the second movement’s mournful English horn melody returns as a significant theme in the Allegro finale. Franck does this by way of metric modulation, which compliments the harmonic modulation that’s such a fundamental element of his compositional style – often he modulates into distant keys, and encouraged his students to do the same!
Born: December 10, 1822, Liège, Belgium
Died: November 8, 1890, Paris, France