César Franck, who was born in Liège, Belgium on December 10, 1822, was a late achiever in pursuing his true love in music – composition. He started early at the Liège Conservatory concentrating on the piano. He was only eleven when he embarked on a concert tour, and two years later he won the Conservatory’s first prize in piano. At fifteen, he entered the Paris Conservatory. Although he was a brilliant student his grim pater in the father-knows- best mold had other designs on his son’s future – that of becoming a world-class piano virtuoso!
The elder Franck withdrew César from the Conservatory in 1842 and over the next two years the dutiful son made several tours as a pianist. But he soon recognized his shortcomings as a virtuoso and devoted himself to composition. At the same time, he played the organ and taught the piano.
In 1858 he became principal organist of Sainte-Clotilde, a position he held until the end of his life. In 1872 he was appointed professor of organ at the Paris Conservatory. Many pupils flocked to him and were inspired by him including Vincent d’Indy. A humble man, dedicated to this art, Franck lived for many years in obscurity. The masterpieces he was composing failed to gain public recognition.
Between 1873 and 1877 Franck introduced in Paris such important works as Variations symphoniques for piano and orchestra, which suffered from indifferent performances. However, that composition itself was notable both for its fine use of the variation form and for the skill with which the interest is shared between piano and orchestra. Listen now to it performed by the British pianist: Clifford Curzon plays Franck.
He also recorded a well-received 45 rpm Extended Play disc of that work on Decca, a copy of which I still have in my collection. What amazes me how much better the piano and the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult sound than on a ‘modern’ CD!
[As a side note, I had the pleasure of hosting Sir Clifford during his visit to the US on a concert tour, which included a pair of concerts with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, NY.
By the way, he always had a fear of flying, so he came to New York City by the Queen Mary liner and took the train to Rochester from Grand Central: his arrival was in the wee hours, but I was at the railway station to pick him up and whisk him to his hotel of choice downtown. He was a delightful guest to squire around and the fact that I’d spent school and university in his home country helped me no end in bonding with him and making his visit memorable in more ways than one. ]
Nevertheless, even the performance in 1889 of Franck’s now-famous Symphony in D minor was a fiasco. Not until the last year of his life did he receive any measure of public recognition. The première of his String Quartet on April 19, 1890 was acclaimed by both audience and critics. His death in Paris that winter on November 8 was brought on by pleurisy.
Franck was a Romanticist who worked within classical structures. But when creative maturity came to him albeit belatedly, he was able to produce a succession of works of poetic beauty, serenity, profound religious feeling and at times mysticism and spirituality. Who cannot be drawn into his soulful church music exemplified by the brief but deeply felt work for tenor, organ, harp, cello and double bass – Panis angelicus?
Franck was partial to a structural technique of his own making – the cyclic form – that used melodic fragments called “generative phrases” which are allowed to grow into fully developed melodies. Structural unity is then achieved through recapitulation of earlier material later on – in the case of a large work – in the movements that follow.
Fortunately, the Franckian spirit is unmistakable: It is sometimes described as mysticism, but the word seems to suggest cloudiness rather than a kind of sophisticated naïveté. At his best, Franck, as player, composer and teacher will remain one of the outstanding figures of his time.
References: David Ewen’s Encyclopedia of Concert Music; Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Vol. III), My Diary.
Over the years, I have enjoyed performing some of Franck’s more difficult works for piano solo, such as his masterly Prélude, choral et fugue. That along with other late pieces in his sixties were written as he was “struck by the lack of serious works” for piano solo. Thank goodness for his sustained creative powers toward the end of his musical life!
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