1822 — 1890
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César Franck is an important composer who rose to prominence in the second half of the 19th century and whose greatest compositional masterpieces are represented in his symphonic, chamber and keyboard works. In his music we can find a unique balance between his innate emotional approach and his use of counterpoint and classical forms. He composed in a recognisable French idiom, living and working in Paris for most of his professional life and was a great influencer for later generations of French composers.
Born in 1822 in Liége in what is now Belgium, Cesar Franck was a child prodigy, who showed excellence in solfége, harmony, counterpoint and piano. He was pushed into performance tours by his father, who was, according to the Grove Dictionary, “tyrannical”. In Spring of 1835 his father arranged for him to perform a concert series in Brussels, Liége and Aachen and in May of that same year, the family moved to Paris. His father made sure that we was allowed entry into the Paris Conservatoire by securing nationalisation papers, as he had been refused due to not being a French citizen.
Franck’s most celebrated output came from his time as the organist of the Basilica of Sainte Clotilde. HisSix Pieces for organ were his first substantial works, representing a remarkable achievement, in comparison to the works for organ by his contemporaries. During this time he also became renowned for his improvisation skills on the organ in the style of the era, which was sugary-sweetness and tenderness which was a particular style in French ecclesiastical music at the time.
One of the exceptional elements in Cesar Franck’s compositional style is the use of the ‘chord pair’, where the second playing of the chord pair carries with it a slight alteration, giving an implied sforzando, for instance in his violin sonata,Six pieces, Fantasie and in the opening of Les Eolides, which can also be said to be influenced by Wagner-style chromaticism. Franck’s insights into chord juxtaposition had an effect on composers of the following decades, particularly Debussy, who made use of changing colours in contrasting chord pairs.
In 1872, Franck became professor of the Paris Conservatoire, where his openness, familiarity and lack of sophistication gained him lots of friends among the students but had the opposite effect among his colleagues. On February 25, the National Society of Music was established, which assured a future for the style of music in which Cesar Franck was composing in, strengthening the solemnness in style in late 19th century French music. Franck and his pupils were at the centre of this new development.
Franck worked on his monumental oratorio, Le Béatitudes from 1869 until 1879. In the five years before its ultimate completion, he worked on almost nothing else. It is widely evident that Franck was influenced by Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in terms of harmonies and chromaticism, particularly in the fifth Béatitude. This chromaticism is a distinct feature of several of his later works. He followed this soon after with two more oratorios,Rébecca and Hulda.
In 1886 he composed his lush Violin Sonata as a wedding gift for Eugéne Ysaÿe which became a phenomenal sensation when Ysaÿe played it on tour, earning the stature of one of Franck’s most famous compositions.
César Franck died of pleurisy in 1890 while he was in the middle of a large project – a collection of pieces for harmonium, having completed 59 of his attempted 91 pieces. His funeral was attended by Fauré, Delibes, Lalo, Chabrier and Widor.