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Cesar Franck and Symphonic Variations

César-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert Franck (December 10, 1822–November 8, 1890) was a Belgian composer, pianist, organist, and music teacher who worked in Paris during his adult life. He was born at Liège, in what is now Belgium, though at the time of his birth it was part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, to Nicolas-Joseph Franck, a bank clerk whose family came from the German-Belgian border, and Marie-Catherine-Barbe Franck (née Frings), who was from Germany.. Although young César-Auguste, as he was known in his early years, showed both drawing and musical skills, Nicolas-Joseph envisioned him as a young prodigy pianist-composer, after the manner of Franz Liszt, who would bring fame and fortune to his family. His father entered Franck at the Royal Conservatory of Liège, studying solfège, piano, organ, and harmony with Joseph Daussoigne-Méhul and other faculty members. César-Auguste gave his first concerts at Liege in 1834, one before Leopold I of the newly formed Kingdom of Belgium.

In 1835, Franck’s father resolved that the time had come for wider audiences, and brought César-Auguste and his younger brother Joseph to Paris, to study privately: counterpoint with Anton Reicha and piano with Pierre Zimmermann. Both men were also professors at the Paris Conservatoire. When Reicha died some ten months later, Nicolas-Joseph sought to enter both boys into the Conservatoire. However, the Conservatoire would not accept foreigners; Nicolas-Joseph was obliged to seek French citizenship, which was granted in 1837 In the interval, Nicolas-Joseph promoted concerts and recitals in Paris featuring one or both boys playing popular music of the period, to mostly good reviews. Young Franck and his brother entered the Conservatoire in October, 1837, César-Auguste continuing his piano studies under Zimmerman and beginning composition with Aimé Leborn. He took the first prize in piano at the end of his first year (1838) and consistently maintained that level of performance. His work in counterpoint was less spectacular, taking successively third, second, and first prizes between 1838 and 1840. He added organ studies with François Benoist, which included both performance and improvisation, taking second prize in 1841, with the aim of competing for the Prix de Rome in composition in the following year. However, for reasons that are not explicit, he made a “voluntary” retirement from the Conservatoire on April 22, 1842.

This withdrawal may have been at his father’s behest. While César-Auguste was pursuing his academic studies, he was, at his father’s demand, also teaching privately and giving concerts. These concerts performed by young Franck (some with his brother on the violin, some including Franck’s own compositions) were at first received well, but increasingly Nicolas-Joseph’s commercial promotion of his sons antagonized the Parisian musical journals and critics. Nicolas-Joseph decided that a return to Belgium was in order, and in 1842 compelled his son to leave the Conservatoire and accompany him. The return to Belgium lasted less than two years. Nicolas-Joseph then brought his son back into a regime of teaching and family concerts in Paris. During this period his first mature compositions emerged, a set of Trios (piano, violin, cello), which are the first of what he regarded as his permanent work. In 1843, Franck began work on his first non-chamber work, the oratorio Ruth. A public performance in early 1846 met with public indifference and critical snubs. In reaction, César-Auguste essentially retired from public life to one of obscurity as a teacher and accompanist.

In 1847 Notre-Dame-de-Lorette gave Franck an appointment as assistant organist, the first of a succession of increasingly more important and influential organ posts. He now had occasion to match his Roman Catholic devotion with learning the skills needed for accompanying public worship, as well as the occasional opportunity to fill in for his superior, Alphonse Gilbat.On February 22, 1848, Franck married one of his private piano pupils, Eugénie-Félicité-Caroline Saillot (1824–1918), whose parents were members of the Comédie-Française company under the stage name of Desmousseaux. in 1851 the church’s Abbé Dancel moved to the new church of Saint-Jean-Saint-François-au-Marais as curé and two years later invited Franck to assume the position of titulaire, or primary organist. Also in 1851 he attempted an opera, Le Valet de Ferme. Then on January 22, 1858, he became organist and maître de chapelle at the newly consecrated Sainte-Clotilde, where he remained until his death. Pieces by Franck for organ, for choir, and for harmonium began to circulate, among the most notable of which is the Messe à 3 voix (1859). More notable still is the set of Six Pièces for organ, written 1860–1862 (although not published until 1868). The group includes two of his best-known organ works, the “Prélude, Fugue, et Variation”, op. 18 and the “Grande Pièce Symphonique”, op. 17.

Franck continued to write compositions for use by choir in this period, but most were never published. He was encouraged to begin work (1869) on a major choral work, Les Béatitudes, which was to occupy him for more than ten years, the delay partly due to the interruptions of the Franco-Prussian War. Franck’s reputation was now widespread enough, through his fame as performer, his membership in the Société Nationale de Musique, of which he was the oldest member, and his smaller but devoted group of students, that when Benoist retired as professor of organ at the reopening of the Paris Conservatoire in 1872, Franck was proposed as successor. This exposed the embarrassing fact that Franck was not a French citizen, a requirement for the appointment. It turned out that Franck did not know that when his father, Nicolas-Joseph, became a naturalized French citizen to enter his sons into the Conservatoire as students, they were counted as citizens only until age twenty-one, when they were obliged to declare their allegiance to France as adults. Franck had always regarded himself as French from the time of his father’s naturalization but in fact had to go through the naturalization process at once.

Franck was now in a position to spend time composing works for which ideas had been germinating for years. He interrupted his work on Les Béatitudes to produce (among many shorter works) the oratorio Rédemption (1871, revised 1874), the secular cantata Les Éolides (1876), the Trois Pièces for organ (1878), and the piano Quintet (1879). Les Béatitudes itself finally saw its first performance in 1879. Franck was finding, in the 1880s, that he was caught between two stylistic advocates: his wife Félicité, who did not care for changes in Franck’s style from that to which she had first become accustomed; and his pupils, who had a perhaps surprising influence over their teacher as much as he over them. In addition, there were some discords within the Société Nationale, where Saint-Saëns had put himself increasingly at odds with Franck and his pupils. A number of his more “advanced” works appeared in this time period: the Quintet of 1879, the symphonic poems Le Chasseur maudit (1882) and Les Djinns (1883–1884), the Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue for piano (1884), the Symphonic Variations (1885), and the opera Hulda (1886).

On August 4, 1885, Franck was made a Chevalier of the French Légion d’honneur. In 1886 Franck composed the Violin Sonata as a wedding gift for the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. This became a resounding success. The dissension between Franck’s family and his circle of students reached a new height when Franck published Psyché (written 1886–88), a symphonic poem based on the Greek myth. Further controversy arose with the publication of Franck’s only symphony, that in D minor (1888). In 1888, Franck tried his hand again at another opera, Ghiselle. It was more sketched out than composed and Franck never completed it. In contrast, a massive String Quartet was completed and performed in April 1890, and was well received by public and critics. During July 1890 Franck was riding in a cab which was struck by a horse-drawn trolley, injuring his head and causing a short fainting spell. There seemed to be no immediate after-effects; he completed his trip and he himself considered it of no import. However, walking became painful and he found himself increasingly obliged to absent himself first from concerts and rehearsals, and then to give up his lessons at the Conservatoire. He took his vacation as soon as he could in Nemours, where he hoped to work on the proposed organ pieces as well as some commissioned works for harmonium. During the vacation he was able to start on both projects.

While Franck could not complete the harmonium collection, the organ pieces were finished in August and September 1890. They are the Trois Chorals, which are among the greatest treasures of organ literature, and which form a regular part of the repertory today. Franck started the new term at the Conservatoire in October, but caught a cold mid-month. This turned into pleurisy complicated by pericarditis. After that, his condition rapidly worsened and he died on November 8. The funeral mass for Franck was held at Sainte-Clotilde, attended by a large congregation including Léo Delibes (officially representing the Conservatoire), Camille Saint-Saëns, Eugène Gigout, Gabriel Fauré, Alexandre Guilmant, Charles-Marie Widor (who succeeded Franck as professor of organ at the Conservatoire), and Édouard Lalo. Emmanuel Chabrier spoke at the gravesite at Montrouge. Many of Franck’s works employ “cyclic form”, a method aspiring to achieve unity across multiple movements. This may be achieved by reminiscence, or recall, of an earlier thematic material into a later movement, or as in Franck’s output where all of the principal themes of the work are generated from a germinal motif. His music is often contrapuntally complex, using a harmonic language that is prototypically late Romantic, showing a great deal of influence from Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner.

The following works by Franck are included in my collection:

Le Chasseur maudit (The Accursed Huntsman, 1882).
Psyche (1888).
Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra (1885),
Symphony in dm.


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