César Franck

César Franck


• 1822 1890

Editor's Choice

Franck's beautiful sonata was composed in 1886 as a wedding present for his fellow Belgian, the legendary violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. Unfortunately, Franck didn't live to see its success, dying only four years after its completion. Ysaÿe continued to perform the sonata for the rest of his own life, which sealed its place in the canon. A quirk of the sonata is the challenges posed by its accompanying part. Franck's piano score is full of virtuosic extensions and runs, reportedly due to possession of larger than average hands himself. Performing on gut strings and a late 19th Century piano, Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov present a delightfully intimate interpretation of the sonata. The famous second movement, in particular, has a sunny quality that contrasts with more modern interpretations. A welcome addition to this 2017 release is Ernest Chausson's hidden gem 'Concert in D Major', which sees Faust and Melnikov join forces with the Salagon Quartet. This lamentably underperformed work was a hit at its 1892 Brussels premiere and demonstrates Chausson's unmistakable flair for chamber music. His career and life were cut short at the tragically young age of 44, and one can't help but wonder what other beguiling music he might have produced in his middle and later years had he lived.


César 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 Liège (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 à 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. François 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 Psyché.

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.