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Marking two hundred years since his birth, this article celebrates Belgian composer César Franck by recounting the highlights of his life and work.
In the mid-19th century, Paris attracted personalities from all backgrounds who travelled there to sharpen their skills and seek their fortune. César Franck, born in Liège in 1822, was one of them: a Belgian in Paris who, first as a student at the Conservatoire, then as an organ teacher at the same institution, tried, with difficulty, to fit in and establish himself in the diverse musical scene of the Ville lumière. Known to most as a 'serious' organist, he actually covered all musical genres, not disdaining opera or even the much-fashionable salon music. Admired by Liszt, among many others, Franck left behind a generation of students who, over the years, would form the so-called 'Franckian School'.
Liège-paris, Round Trip
César Franck was born in Liège on 10 December 1822. Therefore, it was in the easternmost part of Wallonia, a crossroads and melting pot of different cultures, that the composer who would eventually renew the French music idiom of the second half of the 19th century grew up. César's father, Nicolas Joseph Franck, wanted his son to study music and pursue a career as a virtuoso, following in the footsteps of the famous Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt. In 1831, Nicolas enrolled César at the Liège Conservatoire, where the boy took piano, solfège and harmony classes.
For a French-speaking Belgian from Liège, the choice of Paris as the 'ideal' city to further his music studies was probably an automatic one. In the 19th century, Paris, the beating heart of European arts, attracted countless personalities from all backgrounds who travelled there to sharpen their skills and seek their fortune.
Nicolas, ambitious to a fault, decided that his son should attend the prestigious Paris Conservatoire. Thus, in 1835, the Franck family settled in the French capital. However, once in Paris, César could not immediately enrol at the Conservatoire, as he was Belgian. Meanwhile, renowned authorities agreed to give him private lessons: he studied counterpoint, fugue and composition with Anton Reicha and piano with Pierre Zimmermann. It was in 1837, when his father obtained French citizenship, that he entered the Conservatoire.
The following year, he won the Grand Prix d'Honneur for piano, specially created for the young student. In 1840, he also won the Premier Prix in counterpoint and, once his talent was recognised, he was admitted to François Benoist's course, the first organist of the Chapelle Royale.
César was now ready to participate in the prestigious Prix de Rome, a prize coveted by all young composers working in France, and which allowed him to benefit from a stay at the Académie de France in Rome’s Villa Medici. However, his father had other plans for his son: he forced César to leave the Conservatoire (April 1842) to pursue a career as a composer-virtuoso. In fact, the young man performed in several cities in Belgium, including Liège, Brussels and Aix-La-Chapelle. We do not know much about this stay in Belgium, but things probably did not go as Nicolas had hoped; in fact, in 1844, the Franck family was back in Paris.
Meanwhile, César had also taken up composition. Worthy of attention are the Deux mélodies for piano, op. 15 (1837), the Deuxième sonate for piano, op. 18 (1838) and the Trois Trios concertants, op. 1 (1842). His father Nicolas saw these compositions as an additional source of income and encouraged his son - who had not applied for French citizenship - to dedicate the three Trios 'To His Majesty Leopold I, King of the Belgians'. Liszt, who was in Brussels for some concerts (just like Franck in 1843) sensed the value of those pieces. However, he advised César to compose another finale for the third Trio and to change the existing one into a new Trio. And so the Quatrième trio concertant, op. 2, in one movement, dedicated to Liszt, was born. It was in these Trios that Franck outlined the cyclic form technique, one of the cornerstones of music writing in the second half of the 19th century.
Between 1843 and 1846, again at his father's behest, César composed a biblical oratorio, Ruth, hoping it would pave the way for his success. With Ruth, Franck in fact attempted to approach the world of opera by employing a musical form that was hailed by critics in those years. However, the piece did not achieve the hoped-for success. After this oratorio, César did devote himself to the vocal repertoire, but turned away from the world of theatre. In fact, he wrote several mélodies for voice and piano.
Also noteworthy is a piece for another type of ensemble: the orchestra. It is Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne, composed between 1845 and 1847, one of the earliest examples of a symphonic poem. This piece was inspired by the poem of the same name by Victor Hugo included in the collection Les feuilles d'automne. Liszt, considered to be the father of the symphonic poem, also composed one based on the same poem by Hugo; he only began working on it in 1848...
Meanwhile, César had started dating Félicité Saillot, one of his best students, daughter of the Desmousseaux, actors at the Comédie Française. To Félicité, César dedicated the mélodie L'Ange et l'Enfant. His relationship with his father Nicolas - who disapproved of his relationship with Félicité - broke down, and in 1846 Franck moved to 45 rue Blanche, where, in addition to teaching piano, he devoted himself to composition. With the revolutions of 1848, many wealthy Parisians left the capital, including many of his students. Despite the difficult period, César and Félicité married on 22 February 1848 at Notre-Dame de Lorette.
From 1851 to 1853, César, in search of a stable social position, devoted himself to the composition of an opéra-comique: Le valet de ferme, with a libretto by Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaëz. However, the libretto itself did not fully convince Franck who, dissatisfied with the entire work, returned to instrumental music, devoting himself mainly to the organ. So far we have come across many 'mundane' pieces, lacking the religious aura that is so often - and almost exclusively - associated with the figure of César.
From 1851, Franck was organist in residence at the Saint-Jean-Saint-François church (in the Marais) - the organ was designed by the famous French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll - and in 1858, Franck was appointed choirmaster at the Sainte-Clotilde basilica, where he inaugurated another magnificent Cavaillé-Coll. Later, he would write the Six Pièces especially for this instrument. César was particularly brilliant at playing the organ: he performed original and deep improvisations that no one could match.
We know that, in 1866, Liszt listened to César improvise for him at Sainte-Clotilde and exclaimed: 'I have been listening to Johann Sebastian Bach'. Moreover, Franck had composed the Messe solennelle in 1858 and the Messe à 3 voix in 1860.
It is clear that this phase of his composition writing was largely dedicated to sacrality. César had a special relationship with sacred music: his was a mystical religiosity, based on deep self-reflection. However, the more 'uncomplicated' and 'romantic' mélodies continued to underpin his works: for instance, in 1860, César wrote a mélodie entitled Roses et Papillons, based on a text by Victor Hugo from the collection Les Chants du crépuscule, to which he added music so light that it recalled the flight of a butterfly.
In 1865, the composer moved to 95 boulevard Saint-Michel, where he remained until his death. Teaching and playing the organ continued to be his main activities. As the years went by, Franck continued his soul-searching, and only became aware of his own worth around the age of fifty; he spent most of his life feeling insecure, convinced that he did not have the necessary talents to be part of the world of music.
In the midst of this agony, Franck wrote the poème-symphonie Rédemption, for mezzo-soprano, choir, narrator and orchestra, to a text by Édouard Blau. The drafting began in late 1871 and the work was completed in November 1872. The piece consists of two parts; they respectively evoke humanity, prey to the paganism of the senses and condemned to moral misery, and spiritual salvation, favoured by the help of the angels and achieved by the Redeemer. The work ends with a thanksgiving hymn of the worshippers extolling the Nativity. Below, we can read the programme, written by Franck himself, of the original morceau symphonique that introduced the second part of Rédemption:
Les siècles passent. – Allégresse du monde qui se transforme et s’épanouit sous la parole du Christ. En vain s’ouvre l’ère des persécutions, la Foi triomphe de tous les obstacles. Mais l’heure moderne a sonné! La croyance est perdue; l’homme en proie de nouveau à l’âpre désir des jouissances et aux agitations stériles, a retrouvé les passions d’un autre âge!
The instrumental piece referencing this programme was recently edited by Belgian XXI Music Publishing house. Indeed, when it was composed, the piece - which was titled Symphonie in the version for voice and piano - was considered too complex for the orchestral players (who also felt discouraged by the many copying errors), and was therefore deleted at the first performance of Rédemption. However, it didn't prevent that Rédemption was still met with a lukewarm reception, a fact that dealt a further blow to Franck's already tested sensibilities. Between 1873 and 1874, César made a revision of Rédemption, and it was on this occasion that he replaced the Symphonie with another orchestral piece ('plus mélodique', as César said) known as the Morceau symphonique. However, convinced of its value, Franck kept the 1872 manuscript of the orchestral piece, which he titled 'ancien morceau symphonique'.
Also around the 1870s, some events that greatly affected Franck's life started to unfold. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 left him bereft of many students. In 1871, he supported the foundation by Camille Saint-Saëns and Romain Bussine of the Société Nationale de Musique, of which he would become president in 1886. Moreover, he was appointed to the chair of organ at the Conservatoire after the death of his teacher Benoist in 1872. César was only naturalised French on 10 March 1873! His students at the Conservatoire included Vincent d'Indy, Augusta Holmès, Ernest Chausson, Henri Duparc, Guy Ropartz, Gabriel Pierné, Charles Bordes, Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe etc. Franck transformed the teaching of the organ class from a purely technical-instrumental course to a composition school; despite this, he was never officially given this position at the Conservatoire. The lessons at the Parisian institution often continued at his home; this is how, over time, the class began to appreciate and love their teacher: they affectionately addressed him as 'père Franck'.
César was a very shrewd teacher who was also empathetic towards his students: he allowed them to express themselves freely and would be sensitive to each student's needs. This somewhat 'teacher-psychologist' talent, which allowed him to give each student's uniqueness the attention it deserved, was frowned upon by the other teachers at the Conservatoire, who disliked him precisely because of his different teaching methods - and probably also because of his Belgian background. After his death, his students would go on to form the so-called 'Franckian school', with the intention of continuing along the path of instrumental music, through compositions with a solid architecture, a flourishing chromatic harmony and the cyclic process.
In the late 1870s Franck wrote Les Eolides - a symphonic poem first performed in 1877 - and most importantly the oratorio 'Les Béatitudes', completed in 1879 and dedicated to his wife. Franck was aware that he had created a remarkable product, but neither the public nor his colleagues understood the piece. In 1878, he also composed the Trois pièces pour grand orgue for the inauguration of the Trocadero organ during the Universal Exhibition in Paris that year.
In 1884 he returned to the piano with the famous Prélude, choral et fugue. In 1885, he completed Hulda, an opera in four acts and an epilogue, based on Halte-Hulda by the Norwegian Nobel Prize laureate Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. This work provided Franck with the opportunity to work on a highly coloured subject. However, Hulda was only performed after his death, in a shortened and revised version, at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo on 8 March 1894.
Also in 1885, he developed the 'Variations symphoniques' for piano and orchestra; they were first performed on 1 May 1886 at the Société Nationale de Musique (Louis Diémer on piano). Again, the piece went almost unnoticed; with subsequent performances, however, the Variations received the due response from the public and critics. It is a highly original piece even in its title: these are, indeed, variations, but symphonic ones, and in fact they are linked together by an articulated structure, as befits a Symphony. Moreover, the piano does not play the role of undisputed soloist, as in a Concerto, but engages in an 'equal' dialogue with the orchestra. The whole piece, in F-sharp minor, originates from two motifs, each consisting of four bars, played at the beginning, one by the orchestra, one by the piano, which then intertwine in a question-and-answer play (Introduction); this is followed by the variations.
In 1886 Franck completed the famous Sonate in A major for violin and piano, dedicated to his student, violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. This was followed by the three masterpieces of the last years of his life.
The Symphonie in D minor (1886-1888) was first performed at the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire on 17 February 1889; again the piece did not receive a favourable reception and for Franck this was yet another disappointment. More fortunate was the String Quartet in D major* (1889) performed at the Société Nationale de Musique on 19 April 1890. It was on this occasion that Franck said: 'There, the public is beginning to understand me...'. He was sixty-eight years old!
It is worth noting the last mélodie written by Franck, published under the title Les Cloches du soir in 1889, to a text by Marceline Desbordes-Valmore: confirming that Franck continued to devote himself to this more mundane genre until the final years of his life.
In the summer of 1890, Franck was run over by an omnibus on his way to visit a friend and suffered a broken rib. He nevertheless wanted to continue playing the organ at Sainte-Clotilde and thus completed the Trois chorals: his musical testament. Around autumn he fell ill with pleurisy; his condition worsened and he died on 8 November 1890. First buried in the Montrouge cemetery, south of Paris, he was exhumed a few years later and buried in the Montparnasse cemetery. In 1891, a monument in his honour was erected in front of the Basilica of Sainte-Clotilde by French sculptor Alfred Lenoir.
We have seen how César Franck's works went through several stylistic changes during his lifetime. The subject of mysticism, however, remained a constant, so profound was his vision of the message of music. He worked mainly in the field of instrumental music, offering innovations that were based on spiritual content rather than blatant expressivity. While also drawing on past eras, he developed a personal form of romanticism that was more introverted and meditated. Moreover, one must bear in mind his Belgian origins: Belgium enjoyed a flourishing 15th- and 16th-century music scene with the so-called Franco-Flemish School, known for the fine counterpoint writing of its composers, who, due to their superior skills, worked successfully in the major European courts and chapels. We may assume that Franck inherited precisely these exceptional talents from his compatriot composer ancestors.
In conclusion, we can consider Franck's works as the link between the world of theatre and the instrumental world in late 19th-century France: his symphonic poem offered, indeed, a third approach to music. Moreover, in his works, as in his life, it is possible to grasp all the unease of a world that was preparing for the turn of the 20th century. An unease that, in his case, manifested itself in the ambivalence of his aspiration, which oscillated between the mundane and the sacred, alternating moments of openness towards trendy works, with the countless mélodies, brilliant pieces for piano, partly chamber music and music for musical theatre, with others imbued with deep and heartfelt mysticism, embodied in the figure of the 'severe' organist: the image he is often too superficially remembered for.