Cesar Franck (1822 - 1890)
Cesar Franck was born at Liege, Belgium, in 1822 and was the son of a
banker. His father was a keen music lover and gave his two sons, Cesar and
Joseph, a decent musical education. He wanted Cesar to travel as a virtuoso pianist and placed both sons in the Paris Conservatory in 1836, studying
under Reicha. Cesar achieved great success from an early age, and won first
prizes in piano, organ, and fugue. It was during the finals of a
sight-reading competition in Paris that he impressed the judges by breaking
the rules when he transposed a piano fugue concerto from Eb to C. For this,
he was awarded a special 'Grand Prix d'Honneur', thus establishing his
potential as a promising pianist.
The church organist
Unfortunately, Franck's career as a pianist faded quickly and at age
30, he turned to the organ. Upon leaving the Paris Conservatory, he began to
teach and play as a church organist. His brother, Joseph, later also became
a church organist, but his career was not as distinguished as Cesar's. For
the next forty years beginning in 1858, Franck, being a devout Christian,
was the organist at St Clotilde. It was here that Liszt stated that his
organ improvisational skills were the greatest since Bach. Franck revived
the 'classical' organ playing style in France and his first important series
of organ works, called Six Pieces pour grand orgue, came out in 1862. He was hailed as one of the
great hopes of French music, and also gained a reputation as a piano and organ virtuoso.
Later life and criticism
The Six Pieces pour grand orgue were his only notable works before the
1880's, when he composed most of the music by which he is known. But even
these did not make him famous, and Franck was still considered to be
unimaginative as a composer. Franck spent the rest of his life in Rue de
Rennes with his wife and four children, moving there in 1865. Madame Franck disliked his music, and their marriage was
made even worse when she clearly expressed her hate of the F minor Piano
Quintet and the D minor symphony.
Franck's music was more recognised prior
to the 1880's. In 1871, one of his works was put on the very first program
of The Societe Nationale de Musique, and a year later he was appointed
professor of organ at the Conservatory. A group of pupils gathered together to advocate his music around Paris. They helped Franck steer French composition toward symphonic and chamber music, and away from the more conservative opera. Franck passed on his ideas of harmony to his pupils, and became well known for his penchant for frequent modulations. At the premiere of his Piano Quintet in 1880, Saint-Saens, the pianist, hated the continual key changes so much that he didn't wait for applause.
Franck's Symphony in D minor also attracted criticism for similar reasons.
Other 'failed' works include his oratorio Redemption (1873), Les Beatitudes
(1869-79) and his oratorio Rebecca (1881). It is said that his first real
success as a composer came when his String Quartet was warmly applauded at a
concert of the National Society of Music. He died a few months later as a
result of a car accident.
His best known works
It was after he died that Franck's music became quite popular. The popular
works include: the Symphony, the Symphonic Variations for piano and
orchestra (1885), the A major Violin Sonata (1886), his Prelude, Chorale and
Fugue for solo piano (1884) and his Prelude, Aria and Finale (1887). The
three Chorales of 1890 were composed when his organ style reached its peak,
and his Piano Quintet (1878), his tone poems Les Eolides (1875-76), Le
chasseur maudit (1882), Les Djinns (1884), and Psyche (1887-78), and even
the D minor Symphony helped to establish his growing reputation. Organists
still perform his Chorales and the Grand Piece symphonique.
The Wagnerian chromaticism of Franck's harmonies, along with his extensive use of cyclical form (in which a single theme recurs in each section of a work, often modified or transformed), confused audiences of his day, but his music is now recognized for its harmonic richness and structural innovation. The D minor Symphony is generally regarded as the French answer to the monumental symphonies of Bruckner.
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Harmony: Franck's harmonies are highly inspired by by the chromatic 'slithering' of Wagner, but have their own characterstic style
Structure: Franck's most important contribution to symphonic style was his use of cyclical form. A technique pioneered by Berlioz, it involves using a single theme, recurring in each movement, to unite a work