César Franck: A Reserved Romantic

University of Houston Moores School of Music

Student Project by Hitomi Kato

César Franck’s life spanned most of the important musical events of the nineteenth century. Beethoven died when Franck was only five years old; as a boy he learned to play Hummel’s piano concerto while Hummel was still alive; he survived Liszt by four years; and he lived to see Debussy publish his Cinq Poèmes de Baudelaire and heard Richard Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung. Franck’s own influence upon the world can be seen by his late masterpieces, including the Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue. His entire band of French disciples, known as the Franckists, have also left us with his great influence. Despite all this, Franck was a quiet man. He did not seek glory; he preferred to live the life of an organist at the church of Sainte-Clotilde. Reserved and hardly recognized during his lifetime, Franck has become one of the master musicians in the history of western music.

Much dispute has occurred over Franck’s cultural origins. All the sources agree that he was born in Liège, an attractive provincial city in Belgium, on December 10, 1822. Unfortunately, Franck’s pupil d’Indy claimed that his teacher had been born “in a land which is peculiarly French, not only in sentiment and language, but also in its external aspect”.1 Liège officially gained independence from French colonial rule in 1830, up to which point Liège was officially described as being in the Walloon district of the Netherlands in which the French language was spoken. His mother’s ancestry was German and his father’s people came from the vicinity of Gemmenich, only a few miles west of the Aachen border. Eight years after Franck was born, the Flemish and Walloon districts were united under King Leopold and awarded the status of an independent country, so there can be no doubt that Franck became Belgian according to this new proclamation. In May 1835 the Franck family moved to Paris where his father reapplied for French nationality so that Franck could enroll in the Paris Conservatoire. After much controversy, he was finally allowed to enter on October 4, 1837. In April 1842 his father withdrew him from study and returned to live in Belgium in order to concentrate on a career as a virtuoso. And finally, as if this were not enough, the composer himself reapplied for French nationality as late as 1873 to get a post as an organist. For these reasons it is difficult to say which country should have the benefit of adding Franck’s name to its musical heritage due to his cultural origins.2

At a particularly early age César displayed a talent for music, and hence was destined by his irresponsible and ambitious father to follow the profession of a virtuoso. In an age which admired prodigies more so than the previous one (from Mozart and Beethoven to Liszt and Paganini), Nicolas-Joseph Franck was determined that his elder son earn the fame and fortune he felt his family deserved. Nicolas-Joseph became obsessed with making as much money as possible. When César reached the age of twelve, Nicolas-Joseph, a “petit clerc,” did little work except to scheme up ways to manage his son’s career as a virtuoso pianist. He used his authoritative position as father and maneuvered César into the position of being family provider.3

In October 1830, Nicholas-Joseph enrolled César at the Liège Conservatory, where he rapidly gained first prize for solfege in 1832 and piano in 1834. In 1834, Nicholas-Joseph planned a tour throughout Belgium, including Brussels, where King Leopold heard César play. These concerts produced nothing for Nicholas-Joseph, since César was pitted against a variety of well-known artists. On these concerts it was typical for a child prodigy to perform some of his own compositions, if time allowed. César’s earliest compositions show no hint of the prediction that he was more likely to be a composer than a performer. He produced a couple of sets of variations brilliantes in the accepted fashion of the day, a “Grand Rondo”, some variations on a theme from Hérold’s Pré-aux-Clercs, a Concerto classified as Opus 2, two ambitious sounding sonatas for the piano, and also a number of other fantasias and trios. Of course it was Nicholas-Joseph who classified his compositions.4

Nicholas-Joseph believed that a bright concert career lay ahead in Paris, so the family moved to the French capital. In 1837 César enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire, where he took lessons from Zimmerman for piano, Leborne for composition, and Habeneck for violin. While in Paris he met the Bohemian professor of composition, Antonín Reicha. It is probable that the gentle mysticism Franck later developed in his religious compositions Rédemption and Les Béatitudes was a direct influence from this man. Also, it is from Reicha that Franck learned how to write a good fugue. In Reicha, Franck saw the father figure he never saw in Nicholas-Joseph. It was a pity that Reicha died in 1836 soon after their acquaintance.5 In 1840, Franck decided to study the organ with Benoist, whom Franck would eventually succeed as Professor of Organ at the Conservatoire.

Leading the life of both a performer and student took its toll on young César. The long struggle to win acclaim as a performer had already begun while Franck was still a pupil at the Liège Conservatory. Part of his failure came from the blunders his father made in preparing the concerts. Liszt, having heard César on various occasions and “who knew better than anyone what was needed for success in the world of the salons, lost no time in warning Nicolas-Joseph...that young César seemed deficient in the social qualities required by the career which had been proposed for him. Unfortunately, Liszt’s advice was ignored.”6 This statement by Liszt, though probably quite accurate on his part, by no means should undermine Franck’s playing. He just did not have the personality for a virtuoso career. Franck himself knew it, and in later years never again appeared on stage as soloist except to perform his own works. Léon Vallas’ book includes part of a letter written by Liszt to Ary Scheffer, the painter:

Liszt was not unaware of certain barriers to success in young Franck himself. “He will find the road,” writes Liszt, “steeper and more rocky than others may, for, as I have told you, he made the fundamental error of being christened César-Auguste, and, in addition, I fancy he is lacking in that convenient social sense that opens all doors before him. For these very reasons, I venture to suggest to you that men of spirit and good will should rally on his side, and the great friendship which you have for so many years shown towards me makes me hope that you will forgive any indiscretion I may have made in thus approaching you at this moment."7

Nicholas-Joseph, unhappy with César’s progress at the Conservatoire, moved the family back to Belgium in April 1842. César did not even have the chance to compete for the Prix de Rome. After an unsuccessful series of concerts in Belgium the family returned to Paris to try again. Unfortunately, the critics were not altogether kind in their reviews, hinting several times at the high-handedness of the father’s exploitation of his son’s gifts.

While in Belgium Franck experienced a burst of creative composing activity. Franck’s respect for the classical forms was obvious, and in his mind he started to take off from where Beethoven left off. Critics would suggest that he began to

conceive new possiblilities in a cyclical handling of form...of permitting a recurrence of themes from movement to movement...to economize on material, while avoiding the temptation to make each work a string of unrelated tunes.

It would be disingenuous to claim that Franck deserves all the credit for this idea. Many commentators have since pointed to Liszt as a musician whose early understanding of the cyclical principle was patently evident. Franck’s innovations were slow to develop. Even though he may still have been the first to give expression to the new philosophy, he can hardly be credited with having used it to create a masterwork.8 In later works, such as the Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue, Franck would expand on this idea of cyclical form, in a manner different from Liszt, Wagner, and other composers who used the form.

In the early part of 1844, Franck showed signs of declining mental health. In addition to the concert tours prepared by his father, Franck had to teach in order to support his family. His commitments included the city’s boarding schools and a variety of religious institutions, but almost all of his hard-earned money (which was a pitifully small amount) went to his father’s extravagant concert propagandizing for his son. One of these concerts was the disastrous performance of his oratorio Ruth. Franck, unable to handle all the performances and his father’s bullying, eventually had a small nervous breakdown and the year 1848 thus marks the culmination of Franck’s intentions of leaving his father.

Around 1846 Franck became engaged to his student, Félicité Saillot (1824 - 1918). She came from a theatrical family and made use of the theatrical name of her parents, the Desmousseaux, who played at the Comédie-Française. He found it much more tolerable to spend time with the Desmousseaux family than at his own home. One day Nicholas-Joseph found a song with the dedication, “To Mlle F. Desmousseaux, in pleasant memories.” Nicholas-Joseph tore up the score. He made his son’s life unbearable since marriage would inevitably interfere with his son’s future career as a virtuoso pianist, and also interfere with any income coming into the household. Nonetheless, César and Félicité married on February 22, 1848. This year signalled the year of the political revolution of 1848 and of Franck’s freedom from his father.9

After his marriage Franck seems to have been reconciled to the fact that his life would be obscure. He became an organist, a teacher, and a devoted husband and father. With his appointment as organist of the newly completed basilica of Sainte-Clotilde in early 1858, a new phase of Franck’s career began. Beginning at the age of 37, Franck was in command of a magnificent organ, one of the greatest achievements of the great French organ-builder, Cavaillé-Coll. It was his after-service extemporizations that made Franck famous. People from all over came just to hear his playing, even though he never acquired a first-class pedal-technique despite all his practicing at home at his new pedal-board. This period is when Franck started to publish some works, including the Six Pieces for Organ (1860 - 62). Liszt proclaimed them worthy of a “place alongside the masterpieces of Johann Sebastian Bach”.10

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 Franck began working on Les Béatitudes, a project which was to occupy his thoughts for a dozen more years. On October 15, 1871, success came unexpectedly with the resurrection of his oratorio Ruth. After having made some important modifications and improvements, the public favorably received the performance. It was during this period that he was laying the foundations for one of the most remarkable phenomenon of French culture: the cluster of pupils known as the “Franckists”. This little group of musicians, some of them classical-minded and others advanced Wagnerians, included Henri Duparc, Gabriel Fauré, Camille Saint-Saëns, Théodore Dubois, Ernest Chausson, Vincent d’Indy and many others. According to Edward Burlingame Hill the pupils of Franck,

adhered loyally to their master’s teachings. Since he believed that the classic types of structure, the canon, the fugue, the variation form and the sonata could still serve as a medium for sincere emotion and individual expression, they were bound to imitate his example. Accordingly they unite in emphasizing solidity of structure, based on the classics, as the first duty of the artist. If, by the standards of Debussy and other impressionists they are merely reactionaries, these disciples of Franck have remained true to the dictates of their individual artistic consciences, and have never sterilely echoed the past. While this group can hardly be considered progressive in the generally accepted meaning of the word, it has produced much music of a genuinely evolutional character. It is, moreover, representative of one phase of French musical thought.11

On February 1, 1872, Benoist retired from the post of organ professorship at the Conservatoire, an event that gave Franck the job which firmly established him in the world of music. He and his disciples were “largely responsible for bringing about at the Conservatoire a new interest in absolute as opposed to dramatic music.”12 As a member of the Société Nationale, Franck tried to attend as many meetings as possible (which were not that many since he had to adhere to a rigorous teaching schedule) in order to study with care and with indulgence the scores submitted to the Société. The Monday evening meetings, held in Saint-Saëns’s house, were a joyous time for Franck, during which they showed each other their latest scores for mutual discussion and criticism.

On November 15, 1874, Franck heard the “Prelude” to Tristan und Isolde, and his memory retained a deep impression of this music. One can find hints of it in Franck’s works for organ and for orchestra, most of all in Les Éolides, the symphonic poem. The basic thematic ideas in Les Éolides owe greatly to the chromaticism of Tristan, here to be observed for the first time in Franck’s music. Regardless of this Wagnerian influence, the public did not receive the work very well.13

In contrast, on January 1880 his Piano Quintet was performed and the audience was taken by surprise at its dramatic intensity. It was a great success. The musical public and critics alike testified to the disturbing vitality and command of the Quintet. Franck was finally getting some of the credit he long deserved. Ironically, Mrs. César Franck was furious with the work because the dedicatee was Franck’s student, a female singer with whom the entire Conservatoire was in love.

He was fifty-five before he began the works that were his masterpieces: the Piano Quintet, the Symphonic Variations, the Violin Sonata, the Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue, the String Quartet, and the Symphony in d minor. Although he wrote in many genres (operas, oratorios, cantatas, works for piano, for organ, for orchestra, and chamber music), he is best known for his later works, when his genius bloomed in full. Leland Hall described it best. He remarks that

all his work bears the stamp of his personality. Like Brahms, he has pronounced idiosyncrasies, among which his fondness for shifting harmonies is the most constantly obvious. The ceaseless alteration of chords, the almost unbroken gliding by half-steps, the lithe sinuousness of all the inner voices seem to wrap his music in a veil, to render it intangible and mystical. Diatonic passages are rare, all is chromatic. Parallel to this is his use of short phrases, which alone are capable of being treated in this shifting manner. His melodies are almost invariably dissected, they seldom are built up in broad design. They are resolved into their finest motifs and as such are woven and twisted into the close iridescent harmonic fabric with bewildering skill. All is in subtle movement. Yet there is a complete absence of sensuousness, even, for the most part, of dramatic fire. The overpowering climaxes to which he builds are never a frenzy of emotion; they are superbly calm and exalted. The structure of his music is strangely inorganic. His material does not develop. He adds phrase upon phrase, detail upon detail, with astonishing power to knit and weave closely what comes with what went before. His extraordinary polyphonic skill seems inborn, native to the man. Arthur Coquard said of him that he thought the most complicated things in music quite naturally. Imitation, canon, augmentation, and diminution, the most complex problems of the science of music, he solves without effort....His form...is not organic, but he gives to all his music a unity and compactness by using the same thematic material throughout the movements of a given composition.... Undeniably the sensuous coloring of the Wagnerian school is lacking, though Franck devoted himself almost passionately at one time to the study of Wagner’s scores; yet, as in the case of Brahms, Franck’s scoring, peculiarly his own, is fitting to the quality of his inspiration.... It is this strange absence of genuinely dramatic and sensuous elements from Franck’s music which gives it its quite peculiar stamp, the quality which appeals to us as a sort of poetry of religion.... His works impress by fineness of detail, not, for all their length and remarkable adherence of structure, by breadth of design. His is intensely an introspective art, which weaves about the simplest subject and through every measure most intricate garlands of chromatic harmony. It is a music which is apart from life, spiritual and exalted. It does not reflect the life of the body, nor that of the sovereign mind, but the life of the spirit. By so reading it we come to understand his own attitude in regard to it, which took no thought of how it impressed the public, but only of how it matched in performance, in sound, his soul’s image of it.14

The last pieces Franck wrote were the Three Chorales for organ in 1890. His respect for the classical forms never diminished, and it is this form, the chorale, which Franck adds in his Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue. The Three Chorales, although the idea may have begun in the Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue, was an attempt at legitimizing his belief in his composing equality to Bach. The tendency toward Bach was finally realized in the Three Chorales. Franck died in Paris on Saturday, November 8, 1890.

The writing of Les Djinns (a symphonic poem with solo piano) and the Piano Quintet seems to have reawakened in Franck his interest in writing for the piano, which he had not done since his younger years. His love for the works of Bach led him to use the “prelude and fugue” so familiar to us from The Well-Tempered Clavier; but he also sought to enlarge the form by linking the two with a chorale. He developed the triptych into a full cyclical form in pure symphonic style now known as the Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue.

The Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue was written during the summer of 1884 and was dedicated to Marie Poitevin. In his later pianistic style Franck was influenced by Bach, Beethoven’s sonatas, Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, and Liszt’s Weinen Klagen variations. There is a close reminiscence of Wagner’s Parsifal in the melody of the chorale. The Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue, “in its basic ideas, as well as their technical expression for the instrument...wielded a powerful influence over the rising generation of composers in offering them a kind of ideal to follow, a complete expression of the ideals that were opposed fundamentally to the superficial music then in popular favour.”15

In d’Indy’s biography of his teacher he tells us of Franck’s sudden interest in the piano and how he came to write the Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue:

César Franck, struck by the lack of serious works in this style, set to work with a youthful fervour which belied his sixty years to try if he could not adapt the old aesthetic forms to the new technique of the piano, a problem which could only be solved by some considerable modifications in the externals of these forms.... Thus it came about that he produced a work which was purely personal, but in which none of the constructive details were left to chance or improvisation; on the contrary, the materials all serve, without exception, to contribute to the beauty and solidity of the structure.16

The Prelude begins in the key of B minor. (Play audio clip.) The main theme is given, surrounded by an arpeggiated accompaniment figure. Soon a rhapsodic passage, marked a capriccio, hints at the fundamental theme of the entire work. The same two passages appear again, but this time in the dominant minor key of F#. The a capriccio section is lengthened the second time before it leads back to the original key, only after hinting at Eb minor. The last section of the Prelude is in B Major. In the transition to the Chorale Franck turns the tonic chord (B Major) into a dominant seventh chord in one measure. Suspending the F# (Gb enharmonically spelled) in the melody over into the Chorale, he resolves it only after playing an Eb Major chord, the key in which the Chorale starts. Eb Major, consequently, is D# Major enharmonically spelled, a third relation from B minor/Major.



“The Chorale,” says d’Indy,

in three parts, oscillating between E flat minor and C minor, displays two distinct elements: a superb and expressive phrase which foreshadows and prepares the way for the subject of the Fugue, and the Chorale proper, of which the three prophetic words -- if we may so call them -- roll forth in sonorous volutions, in a serene, religious majesty.17

The first section (Play audio clip.) presents a “phrase” suggestive of the subject of the Fugue. This first section modulates to C minor. The first “word” of the Chorale, according to d’Indy, starts at measure 68 with the rolling of the organ-like chords. (Play audio clip.) The next section presents the “phrase” again, this time modulating to the subdominant, F minor. The second “word” is then proclaimed in F minor. The final section suggests a slight variation of the “phrase” by using sequences: there is a climax, preparing the final “word,” in the tonic key of the Chorale, Eb minor.



After an interlude which takes us from Eb minor to B minor (the original key) the Fugue takes off. (Play audio clip.) Franck uses the contrapuntal technique of inverting the subject in the middle of the fugue. (Play audio clip.) After the development of the Fugue the Prelude returns once more, with a rhythmic vigor which is used to accompany a restatement of the theme of the Chorale, then the subject of the Fugue itself enters in the tonic. All three chief elements of the work are combined at the end and “enfolds us in its triumphant personality until the final peal which brings the work to a close”18 in B Major.

As can be seen by this brief analysis, Franck was extremely fond of radical modulations, and encouraged his students to do so in their compositions. The form of this piece shows Franck’s early obsession with the cyclic form, especially apparent in the last section after the Fugue, when all the themes restate themselves. His rich chromatic bass can be heard throughout the piece, indicative of the influence the organ pedals had on him. Because Franck came up with the “prelude, chorale, and fugue”, it is a genre in itself, but as noted earlier, indebted to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and other pieces like it.

A quiet and reserved man, César Franck, though hardly recognized in his lifetime, left us with a great legacy: his late mature music, which was his outlet from a lifetime of resignation. He left us not only with his music, but also left us with a new generation of wonderful French composers. Without his influence on the younger generation the world could quite possibly never have known a Debussy (much as he hated to admit it) or a Fauré. But let me leave it up to Franck to say a little about himself: “I, too, have written some beautiful things.”19

1 Vincent d’Indy, César Franck, trans. Rosa Newmarch (London: John Lane, 1910), 29.

2 Stanley Sadie, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London, Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1980).

3 Laurence Davies, César Franck and His Circle (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970), 42.

4 Ibid., 46 - 47.

5 Laurence Davies, Franck (London: J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1973), 6.

6 Idem, César Franck and His Circle, 43.

7 Léon Vallas, César Franck, trans. Hubert Foss (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951), 74 - 75.

8 Idem, César Franck and His Circle, 53 - 54.

9 Léon Vallas, César Franck, 81 - 93.

10 Ibid., 127.

11 Edward Burlingame Hill, Modern French Music (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1924), 112 - 113.

12 David Ewen, The World of Great Composers (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962), 270.

13 Léon Vallas, César Franck, 153 - 156.

14 Ibid., 275 - 279.

15 Ibid., 184 - 185.

16 Vincent d’Indy, César Franck, 163 - 164.

17 Ibid., 164.

18 Ibid., 168.

19 David Ewen, The World of Great Composers, 280.