Friday, February 21, 2014

Montage #144– César Franck (1822-1890)

As of  March 21, 2014, this montage will no longer be available on Pod-O-Matic. It can be heard or downloaded from the Internet Archive at the following address:



Last year as part of some of our Organ posts, I featured works by the French-Belgian composer Cesar Franck, and discussed where Franck sat within the “pecking order” of the French music scene – which  has always included a strong teaching and apprentice component to it.

Because he was born in Belgium, though he had lived and worked in France for all his adult life, he had to apply for French citizenship in 1872 in order to be granted a faculty position at the Paris Conservatoire. Many of his original circle of students had studied or were studying at the Conservatoire, among the most notable in later life were Vincent d'Indy, Ernest Chausson, Louis Vierne, and Henri Duparc. This group became increasingly tight-knit in their mutual esteem and affection between teacher and pupils. d'Indy relates that independently but unanimously each new student came to call their professor Père Franck.

On the other hand, Franck experienced some tensions in his faculty life: he tended to teach composition as much as he did organ performance and improvisation; he was considered unsystematic in his teaching techniques ("Franck never taught by means of hard and fast rules or dry, ready-made theories"), with an offhand attitude towards the official texts and books approved by the Conservatoire; and his popularity among some students provoked some jealousy among his fellow professors and some counter-claims of bias on the part of those professors when judging Franck's pupils for the various prizes, including the Prix de Rome.

Because of his prowess as an organist and improviser, Franck is best remembered for his organ compositions. The most brilliant of Franck's compositions were written during the final decade of his life; the Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra, the famous Violin Sonata, the D major String Quartet, and, perhaps most important, the Symphony in D minor are all the products of a single, remarkable five-year period.

One of his most ambitious works, Psyché—a vast "symphonic poem" for chorus and orchestra in seven movements—was composed in at his vacation retreat at Combs-la-Ville-Quincy over the summer of 1886, the orchestration was completed the following summer..

The story is drawn from the second century Metamorphoses (often translated as The Golden Ass) of Lucius Apuleius which tells of Eros' nocturnally veiled love for the mortal Psyche, Psyche's wish to behold her lover face to face, and the lovers' parting and reconciliation. In Franck's retelling, Psyché first dreams of Éros, then is carried by zephyrs to Éros' secret garden, where the orchestra enacts a rapturous love duet. Rarely performed in its original form, the main orchestral sections are often presented as a “suite” – as is the case in today’s montage.

One of the glitterati of the French music scene, Louis Diémer (1843-1919) had taken the piano part in Franck's Victor Hugo-inspired Les Djinns, for piano and orchestra, on March 15, 1885; he earned for the composer a rare positive review from the press. Franck was delighted and credited his success to Diémer's brilliant playing which he promised to reward with "a little something." Good to his word, Franck dedicated his orchestration of the Variations symphoniques to Diémer.

Today viewed as a masterpiece of French orchestral repertoire, the three-movement Symphony, by no means an immediate success with critics or audiences, has nevertheless become so fused with the popular image of César Franck that it is nearly impossible to think of him without also thinking of this 40-minute orchestral juggernaut.

I think you will love this music too.