Birth: Dec 10, 1822 in Liege, Belgium
Death: Nov 8, 1890 in Paris, France
Genre: Vocal Music, Chamber Music, Keyboard
Cesar Franck is an important composer from the latter half of the nineteenth century, particularly in the realms of symphonic, chamber, organ and piano music. His stage works were uniformly unsuccessful, though his choral compositions fared somewhat better. Born in Liege (in the French region which in 1830 became part of a new state, Belgium), on December 10, 1822, he led a group of young composers, among them d'Indy, Duparc, and Dukas, who found much to admire in his highly individual post-Romantic style, with its rich, innovative harmonies, sometimes terse melodies, and skilled contrapuntal writing. This group, sometimes known as "la bande a Franck," steered French composition toward symphonic and chamber music, finally breaking the stranglehold of the more conservative opera over French music.
Franck was a keyboard player of extraordinary ability who had a short stint as a touring piano virtuoso before moving to Paris and throwing himself into musical studies. In addition, he was an organist at several major churches during his career, and his skills on the organ accounted in great part for his compositional interest in that instrument; his organ compositions stand at the apex of the Romantic organ repertoire. Franck was a man of strong religious convictions throughout his life, which often motivated him to compose works based on biblical texts or on other church sources. For much of his life he was organist at the Paris churches of St.-Jean-St. Francois and then Ste.-Clothilde, and in 1872 he became a professor at the Paris Conservatoire.
Individual and instantly recognizable though his music was, it owes a debt to Liszt and Wagner, especially to the latter's Tristan und Isolde and several other late works. He tended to use rather quick modulations, another inheritance from Wagner, and shifting harmonies. There is a Germanic ponderousness in some of his compositions; consider, for example, the opening of the Symphony in D minor of 1888, probably Franck's most famous composition. In this work, one hears a mixture of paradoxical elements so typical of the composer: for example, moments of peace and serenity barely conceal an undercurrent of disquiet. In this symphony, Franck, adapts the Lisztian-Wagnerian predilection toward cyclical structure and melodic motto to an abstract symphonic form. Another characteristic of Franck's music is extended homophonic writing, as exemplified in his choral symphonic poem Psyche.
Franck died in Paris on November 8, 1890. By the turn of the century he had become the leading figure associated with the "Old School" in France, while Debussy came to represent the "progressive" forces.
All Music Guide
Franck, Cesar (1822 - 1890). Born at Liege in 1822, Cesar Franck was originally intended by his father for a career as a virtuoso pianist. In Paris his nationality excluded him at first from the Conservatoire, where he eventually failed to achieve the necessary distinction as a performer, turning his attention rather to composition. In 1846 he left home and went to earn his living as a teacher and organist, winning particular fame in the second capacity at the newly built church of Ste. Clotilde, with its Cavaille-Coll organ. He drew to him a loyal and devoted circle of pupils and in 1871 won some official recognition as the nominated successor of Benoist as organ professor at the Conservatoire. A man of gentle character, known to his pupils as Pater seraphicus, he exercised considerable influence through his classes and performances, although remaining something of an outsider as a composer in a Paris interested largely in opera.
Franck's best known orchestral works are the Symphonic Variations for solo piano and orchestra and the Symphony in D minor, completed in 1888 and first performed at a Conservatoire concert the following year. A brief series of symphonic poems includes the early Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne, based on Victor Hugo, Le chasseur maudit, inspired by a ballad by Burger, Les Djinns, after Hugo, and Psyche, a work that also calls for a chorus.
Franck wrote a number of large scale choral works on biblical subjects, with smaller scale works for occasional or liturgical use. This last category includes the well known Panis angelicus of 1872, originally for tenor, organ, harp, cello and double bass. The Panis angelicus was later interpolated into the three-voice Mass of 1861.
Franck wrote one Violin Sonata, which, like his symphony, is united by a cyclic use of thematic material that connects the movements. There is a fine Piano Quintet, completed in 1879 and a final String Quartet, written in 1890.
As a very distinguished organist, Franck wrote remarkably little for the instrument on which his improvisations had won him fame and pupils. Organ compositions published include Trois chorals of 1890 and three pieces, Trois pieces, written a dozen years earlier. The six organ pieces of 1860-62 include a Fantaisie, Grande piece symphonique, Prelude, fugue et variation, Pastorale, Priere and Final.
Franck's earlier piano music was designed for his own virtuoso performance. Two later works remain in general repertoire, the Prelude, choral et fugue of 1884 and the Prelude, aria et final completed in 1887.