I, too, have written some beautiful things.
This essay was submitted to fulfill a class assignment. The assignment requirements were detailed and specific, but nonetheless yielded some “fun facts” about Franck. (Hint to readers: the footnotes likely contain the best bits.) Most of all, I knew readers would enjoy learning that Franck’s works were catalogued and by whom and look forward to an opportunity to check my counts of Franck’s compositions by genre. (Also, just a note to say, computer malfunctions and class work have put me behind in visiting; I’m hoping to catch up a bit in the next few days.)
My introduction to César Franck’s music came in the guise of a creature of fiction, the composer Vinteuil in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Byron Adams wrote that the “equally timid” Franck was the model for “the timid composer whose heart was broken by his mannish daughter’s lesbianism.” [B 40] I knew little about Franck, so this assignment seemed a good opportunity to learn more.
Franck (1822-1890) was born in Liège, in what is now Belgium. [CN; H] An early teacher was Antonín Reicha, in whom Franck had “the father figure he never saw” in his own father. [H] Their time together was brief, however, as Reicha died in 1836. [H] Beginning in 1840, Franck studied organ with François Benoist. [CN; H] While Franck was a fine organist, he didn’t have the social acumen for a concert career. (n.1) He settled in Paris in 1846, where he earned a living as a teacher and organist. [CN; H] Finally, in 1872, he attained “the post of organ professorship at the [Paris] Conservatoire.” [H] Richard Taruskin wrote of Franck that, just as Olivier Messiaen “was without question the most important organist-composer of the twentieth century,” so Franck “had been in the nineteenth.” [TO 230] In addition, “both Messiaen and Franck were famous and much-sought-after teachers of composition, whose pupils and disciples formed an elite group of modernists who universalized their master’s teaching and made it an important ‘mainstream’ influence.” [TO 230]
While the potted online histories don’t reveal a connection to Beethoven, Richard Taruskin notes that Franck’s Symphony in D minor, “Like all nineteenth century symphonies in D minor . . . was haunted by the lofty spirit of Beethoven’s Ninth; but it also mined Beethoven’s last quartet for an emblematic motive that audibly haunted the work and carried its spiritual message from first movement to last.” [TO 266]. Franck was also “inspired by the music of Liszt and Wagner, masters of thematic transformation, novel orchestral effects, and bold new forms.” [CSO]
With “the deadly political rivalry and conflict between France and Germany that came to a head in 1870 with the Franco-Prussian War . . . there was an understandable and intense search among French musicians and intellectuals . . . to define a contemporary concert musical culture that was distinctly French and independent of German influence.” [LB] Leon Botstein points to Franck as “The founding figure in that development during the second half of the nineteenth century,” who “inspired through his music a French penchant for cyclical structure and an intense interest in color and the spatial atmosphere of sound.” [LB] (n. 2) Though no compositional school grew out of Franck’s music, he influenced “an entire generation of French composers, including Vincent d’Indy and Ernest Chausson, who were nearly idolatrous in their devotion.” [CSO] (n. 3) There is another composer I would never have associated with Franck, on whom Franck’s influence turns out to have been profound: Charles Ives. (n.4)
“Franck was fifty-five before he began the works that are considered to be masterpieces: the Piano Quintet, the Symphonic Variations, the Violin Sonata, the Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue, the String Quartet, and the Symphony in D minor.” [H] He wrote in several genres, including a symphony and an opera, other orchestral (6), concertos (3), choral (12), chamber music (14), works for voice (25), and piano and organ music (39). [AM; NX] (n. 5) His “organ compositions stand at the apex of the Romantic organ repertoire [CA],” and Liszt believed Franck’s Six Pieces for Organ merited “a place alongside the masterpieces of Johann Sebastian Bach [Houston].” Franck, however, was typically unassuming in assessing his own work, saying only that “I, too, have written some beautiful things.” [H] Wilhelm Mohr catalogued Franck’s works; the catalogue numbers are referred to by “FMV” or “M.”
Though Franck was Proust’s model for the fictional composer Vinteuil, he was not the source for “la petite phrase,” though his Violin Sonata in A Major was in the running. That honor goes to Camille Saint-Saëns. As Proust wrote to Jacques de Lacretelle, “the ‘little phrase’ of the Sonata—and I have never said this to anyone—is . . . the charming but mediocre phrase of a violin sonata by Saint-Saëns, a musician I do not care for.” [B 41]
Further information about “la petite phrase” may be found here.
n.1: Franz Liszt, who heard Franck perform on a number of occasions, wrote to a friend, “He will find the road steeper and more rocky than others may, for, as I have told you, he made the fundamental error of being christened César-Auguste, and, in addition, I fancy he is lacking in that convenient social sense that opens all doors before him.” [H]
n.2: “Perhaps one could suggest that Wagner’s obsession with the connection between music and the dramatic—with epic and language—led Franck and his followers to connect music to the one arena in which Wagner was clearly weakest: the visual. If German-speaking Europe confidently evinced superiority in music during the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century (an arrogance that extended from Mozart to Schoenberg), it was during precisely that same time period that the French dominated the European scene in the visual arts in architecture, sculpture, and painting, as well as the decorative arts of design and fashion.” [LB]
n. 3: “With broad brush strokes one might paint a narrative canvas that links Franck to Messiaen and Dutilleux. Along the way, we can locate as descendants of Franck [among others] Vincent d’Indy, Debussy, Ravel, Saint-Saëns, and the members of Les Six.” [LB] “Without his influence on the younger generation the world could quite possibly never have known a Debussy (much as he hated to admit it) or a Fauré.” [H]
n. 4: ” . . . predictably, nowhere in the Philharmonic programs is any music by the composers whom Ives revered and to whom he felt himself most directly comparable: ‘César Franck, Brahms, d’Indy or even Elgar’ . . . . It shows Ives to have been, dissonance notwithstanding, no modernist at all but a nostalgist . . . . The world he loved and imaginatively inhabited was the world of the American ‘agrarian myth.’” [TD 188]
n. 5: There may be some overlaps in count by category.
A listening list of pieces by Franck, including the Violin Sonata in A Major, may be found on Spotify here. (The Spotify listening list includes Bach’s Organ Passacaglia in C minor and Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 135. The former relates to Liszt’s comment on Franck’s Six Pieces for Organ; the latter to Taruskin’s comment on Franck’s Symphony in D.)
The Violin Sonata in A Major may be found on YouTube here.
The first movement of the String Quartet in D Major may be found on YouTube here.
The Symphony in D may be found here.
B: Bard Music Festival 2012 Program, Saint-Saëns and His World (program; no online reference)
LB: Leon Botstein, Pioneering Influence: César Franck
CN: Classical Net
TO: Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, Music in the Early Twentieth Century (book; no online reference)
TD: Richard Taruskin, The Danger of Music (book; no online reference)
The image of Franck at the head of the post may be found here.