Franck's Organ

Franck’s Symphony in D Minor: Music of a Solitary Dreamer

Franck went through this life as a dreamer, seeing little or nothing of that which passed about him, thinking only of his art and living only for it. True artists are subject to this kind of hypnotism – the inveterate workers, who find the recompense of their labors in the accomplished fact, and incomparable joy in the pure and simple toil of each day.

This is how music critic Philip Hale described the Belgian-born French composer, César Franck (1822-1890). Franck was a widely respected organist (performing at Paris’ Basilica of Saint Clotilde, pictured above) and teacher at the Paris Conservatoire. He came to prominence as a composer only in his later years. He was estranged from his overbearing and vindictive father. His wife despised most of his music, considering it too “emotional” and “sensuous.” As a composition teacher, Franck’s approach grew out of his organ improvisation and was free of theoretical dogma. Revered by his students (who included Vincent d’Indy and Ernest Chausson), he fell victim to the jealousies of Conservatoire faculty. French musicologist Léon Vallas wrote that Franck “with his simple and trusting nature was incapable of understanding…how much back-chat of the nastier kind there could be even in a Conservatoire whose atmosphere he himself always found kindly disposed towards him.”

So it isn’t surprising that Franck’s pinnacle achievement as a composer, the Symphony in D Minor, completed just two years before his death, was surrounded in controversy. Rejected by the leading Parisian conductor Charles Lamoureux and derided by Conservatoire faculty, a half-hearted premiere was given by the Conservatoire Orchestra on February 17, 1889. Part of the problem was political. In the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, the Symphony’s marriage of French style with the influence of Wagner and Liszt was seen as a nationalistic betrayal. Following the disastrous premiere, Franck was happy and undeterred, saying “It sounded well- just as I thought it would!”

Today, of course, it’s Franck’s music which endures as this biographical backstory fades into history. Along with Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” Symphony, written around the same time in 1886, the D Minor Symphony may be the most significant nineteenth century French symphony- the continuation of a symphonic tradition largely neglected in French music since Berlioz’ 1830 Symphonie Fantastique

The opening of first movement (Lento – Allegro, ma non tango) draws us, immediately, into an atmosphere of darkness and haunting mystery. A questioning motive emerges in the low strings. It’s  closely related to a fragment in the introduction of the the final movement of Beethoven’s last String Quartet (No. 16, Op. 135), which Beethoven inscribed with the words, “Must it be?” and a direct quote of the beginning of Franz Liszt’s Les PréludesThe first movement unfolds through a series of sweeping modulations reminiscent of a masterful organ improvisation. In fact, in Franck’s hands the orchestra becomes a living, breathing pipe organ. Instruments are mixed and doubled as if a rich array of stops are being negotiated. Nowhere does this orchestral organ become more powerful than in this passage in the development section in which the opening motive soars to awesome new contrapuntal heights.

The second movement (Allegretto) combines the traditional slow movement and scherzo. The nostalgic, pastoral lament of the English horn, the oboe’s lower sister, emerges over glistening harp and string pizzicati. This is joined by the hushed, ghostly strands of string tremolo.

With the opening bars of the third and final movement (Allegro ma non troppo), we’re swept away by a tidal wave of joyful euphoria. An infectious melody filled with innocent exuberance pulls us forward into a series of musical adventures. Playful canons bring to mind another perfect, flowing Franck melody: the final movement of the Violin Sonata, written as a wedding gift for the Belgian violinist, Eugène Ysaÿe. Could this passage be a playful reference to that memorable moment of sublime chaos in the final movement of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique?

Beyond all of this, the final movement plays an important role in weaving the entire symphony together. Gradually, the themes of the preceding movements re-emerge in a way which builds on Liszt’s thematic transformation, the heroic journey of Schumann’s Second Symphony, and the innovations of Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth Symphonies. Franck imagined these previous themes moving into new, transcendent territory:

The finale takes up all the themes again, as in [Beethoven’s] Ninth. They do not return as quotations, however; I have elaborated them and given them the role of new elements.

One of the most amazing passages in the entire D Minor Symphony occurs just before the end as the themes of the first movement bring us full circle. Following a moment of quiet introspection, the celebration is rejoined, leading to a jubilant conclusion.

Here is the Boston Symphony’s 1993 Deutsche Grammophon recording with Seiji Ozawa:

Five Great Recordings



  1. Grande Pièce Symphonique: Franck’s Symphony for Solo Organ | The Listeners' Club - January 13, 2017

    […] Monday we listened to César Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, a piece in which the orchestra turns […]

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