Class Notes: Fun Facts about César Franck

César Franck

César Franck

I, too, have written some beautiful things.
—César Franck

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.

Basic Facts:

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.

Listening List:

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.


AM: AllMusic

B: Bard Music Festival 2012 Program, Saint-Saëns and His World (program; no online reference)

LB: Leon Botstein, Pioneering Influence: César Franck

CSO: Chicago Symphony Orchestra Program Notes

CN: Classical Net

CA: Classical Archives

H: University of Houston Moores School of Music

NX: Naxos

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.

18 thoughts on “Class Notes: Fun Facts about César Franck

  1. David N

    Despite the Proust link, I’d never have thought you’d focus on Franck, of all composers. There are a couple of his pieces I adore: the Prelude, Choral et Fugue for piano and the String Quintet (I think, if I remember rightly, though it may be a Quartet that sounds bigger than it is). Have yet to hear a performance of the Symphony that sets me alight, though the big tunes are memorable. Don’t know the organ pieces well, because I have no love fo that instrument.

    1. David N

      Scrub ‘string quintet’; it was the piano quintet which you’ve encouraged me to take down from the shelves (for relatively easy listening between acts of Parsifal!)

    2. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: You know me well. The composer had to have lived entirely in the 19th C, I wanted to stay away from German composers who were obviously influenced by Beethoven, I don’t know much about Franck or his music, and I had this one “fun fact” about him in hand. I do like that Violin Sonata, but like you, I’m not partial to organ music generally. (I’m not surprised you haven’t heard a concert of the Symphony in D that set you alight. I think it would be a tall order.) I did enjoy finding out more “fun facts,” though, particularly those from Botstein’s program note on Franck, such as his observation that, after the Franco-Prussian War, the French sought to “define a contemporary concert musical culture that was distinctly French and independent of German influence,” not to mention his point of view as expressed in n. 2. (The next assignment, as you shall see anon should you come back for the second, and likely last, breath-taking “class notes” installment, involved a composer and a work that is decidedly more my cuppa–and yours, too, I believe.)

  2. Mark Kerstetter

    I’m intrigued that he was an inspiration to Ives. Also intrigued that he was well over 50 when he wrote the works considered his masterpieces. I find these examples you’ve shared here eminently listenable.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: It is interesting what’s hidden away in the corners when you start to look. Without the internet capability, I would have been s**t out of luck for researching this, of course. I like that Violin Sonata, particularly, quite a lot. Franck is right: he did write some beautiful things.

  3. angela

    It reads as if this course is taking you into areas of music you would not normally explore – bravo. I’ve no idea why Franck seems one I know, however, listening right now, there is no doubt that he was someone I stumbled upon when working music at B&N – the somber pieces of any composer fill me with joy.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Angela: I suspect you’re taking your cue from my “preface” to the essay, which is a bit misleading without the context. Franck wasn’t on the suggested list, and my effort was to get away from the Germanic tradition (the composers up to this point were Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms–you get the idea). The class has been better for information about how pieces are constructed, though the presentation was a bit, well, not ModPo, shall we say? I’m amused by your statement that the somber pieces of any composer filling you with joy. Love that!

  4. Steve Schwartzman

    Thanks for all that information on Franck, about whom, frankly, I knew almost nothing, even though two of his pieces— the Symphony in D and the Sonata for Violin and Piano—have been among my favorites for decades. I didn’t realize that his first name wasn’t just César but the august César-Auguste.

    1. Steve Schwartzman

      Oh, and I forgot to ask if you knew that the Met Life “Peanuts” promos that accompanied PBS’s “Live from Lincoln Center” featured the famous theme from the last movement of the Sonata for Violin and Piano.

    2. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: Loved that comment from Liszt! I, too, knew very little about Franck, so it was interesting to track a few things down. As to your next comment, among the oh, so many things I don’t know, I did NOT know that the Met Life Peanuts promos featured a theme from the Violin Sonata. You are indeed a font of information!

            1. Susan Scheid Post author

              You’re right about that. And I have The Hollow Crown recorded to watch (at least I hope so). Guess I’m waiting for a cold winter night for those. Won’t be long now . . .

  5. Britta

    Dear Sue,
    I’m always betwitched by seeing life as a sort of tapestry into which is woven one colour of this and another of that: (of course) I heard a lot of essays on Proust these days (whom I like to read – am very interested in a new German translation, but maybe dare to read it in French now); then you mention the Franco-Prussian War which I have to tackle at the moment (only a bit), and then I see the impressive side whiskers of Cesar Franck, which reminds me of a man I saw yesterday at the mall, and wondered (how much time he will put into those whiskers). Andf of course I am pitying a society that makes the heart of a father break because his daughter doesn’t live up to his expectations (though that is his fault too, I think – in Fontane’s Effie Briest, were Effie became a (I think: innocent) adulteress, the young woman was banned to Berlin, but the mother sneaked for visits to her – that’s the spirit of love, I think.
    You see, dear Sue: a lot of trivial thoughts, because I leave the music to those who know :-) (But of course I listen and like!)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: Trivial thoughts? I’d say no! I love where your mind wanders. The post, which was after all, a little Gradgrindy, has become much richer and more interesting as the result of the byways down which you’ve taken us here.

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