The Symphony in D minor is the best-known orchestral work and the only mature symphony written by the 19th-century composer César Franck. The work is unusual in being in three, rather than the traditional four, movements. It employs a cyclic form, with important themes recurring in all three movements.
The symphony was premiered in Paris on 17 February 1889 and despite dividing musical opinion, at the time and subsequently, it entered the international orchestral repertoire. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries it been less frequently heard in the concert than it was earlier in the 20th century, but since the 1920s it has received more than 70 recordings by orchestras and conductors from round the world.
Franck, a naturalised French citizen from 1871 until his death, was born in 1822 in what is now Belgium, and was of half-German ancestry. He was a founding member of the Société nationale de musique, founded in 1871 to promote French music, but remained an admirer of German music and was less troubled than some of his colleagues about what was called "L'invasion germanique" of music in France in the 1870s. In the view of the music critics Edward Sackville-West and Desmond Shawe-Taylor, "the quality of [Franck's] imagination, his resolution of formal problems, and the extreme chromaticism of his harmony are decidedly Germanic". When the Société split in 1883 over the admission of non-French musicians, Franck and his former student Vincent d'Indy were keen proponents of admitting German and other composers.
Franck came to his creative peak in his late fifties. His Piano Quintet and the oratorio Les Béatitudes appeared in 1879, the Symphonic Variations in 1885 and the Violin Sonata in 1886. In 1887 he began sketches for a symphony – a musical form more associated with German than with French music. Saint-Saëns's two-movement "Organ" Symphony had been well received the previous year, but only one earlier symphony by a French composer had firmly established itself in the international orchestral repertoire: Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique composed in 1830. Like Berlioz, Franck revered Beethoven, and several commentators[n 1] have noted the influence of Beethoven, particularly the late string quartets, on the symphony, both as to form – Franck adopted a cyclic structure – and content. Like Berlioz, Franck departed from the customary four-movement form of the classical symphony of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; unlike Berlioz, whose symphony has five movements, Franck limited himself to three. He dedicated the work "To my friend Henri Duparc" (a former pupil and now a colleague in the Société).
Premiere and reception
Paris's symphony orchestras had a reputation for conservatism and avoiding modern works, but the Société des concerts of the Paris Conservatoire was an exception, giving performances of new works including Saint-Saëns's "Organ" Symphony (1888). Franck's symphony was first performed on 17 February 1889 in the concert hall of the Conservatoire by the orchestra of the Société conducted by Jules Garcin.
The piece divided opinion. Le Figaro commented, "The new work of M. César Franck is a very important composition and developed with the resources of the powerful art of the learned musician; but it is so dense and tight that we cannot grasp all its aspects and feel its effect at a first hearing, despite the analytical and thematic note that had been distributed to the audience". The paper contrasted the "exuberant enthusiasm" of some listeners with the coolness of the reception from others. There were some hostile comments. Gounod was reported as calling the work "the affirmation of impotence taken to the point of dogma". [n 2] Exception was taken in conservative quarters to Franck's orchestration: Vincent d'Indy said that an unnamed colleague of Franck's on the faculty of the Conservatoire asked, "Who ever heard of a cor anglais in a symphony? Just name a single symphony by Haydn or Beethoven introducing the cor anglais".[n 3] Franck's use of the brass was criticised as being too blatant, with cornets added to the usual orchestral trumpets.
At a later hearing of the work, Le Ménestrel balanced criticism and praise: it found the music gloomy and pompous, with little to say, but saying it "with the conviction of the Pope pronouncing on dogma". Nonetheless, Le Ménestral judged the work a considerable achievement, worthy of a musician with noble tendencies, though one who had made the excusable mistake of "aspiring to a pedestal a little too high for him".
The score calls for two flutes, two oboes, cor anglais, two soprano clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, two cornets, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, three timpani, harp and strings.
In a departure from typical late-romantic symphonic structure, the Symphony in D minor is in three movements, each of which makes reference to the initial four-bar theme introduced at the beginning of the piece.
- Lento; Allegro ma non troppo.
- An expansion of a standard sonata-allegro form, the symphony begins with a harmonically lithe subject (below) that is spun through widely different keys throughout the movement.
- Famous for the haunting melody played by the cor anglais above plucked harp and strings. The movement is punctuated by two trios and a lively section that is reminiscent of a scherzo.
- Finale: Allegro non troppo
- The movement begins with a joyful and upbeat melody and is written in a variant of Sonata form. The coda, which recapitulates the core thematic material of the symphony, is an exultant exclamation of the first theme, inverting its initial lugubrious appearance and bringing the symphony back to its beginnings.
The work has been infrequently programmed in concert halls in recent years, but has been much recorded. The BBC published a list of recordings in connection with its programme Record Review, on which a comparative review of recordings was broadcast in 2017:
Notes, references and sources
- Donald Tovey cited the String Quartet No. 13; Daniel Gregory Mason No. 16; and in a study in The Musical Times, F. H. Shera mentioned both.
- "Cette symphonie, c'est l'affirmation de l'impuissance poussée jusqu'au dogme"
- Laurence Davies points out in his biography of Franck that in fact Haydn had used the cor anglais in one of his symphonies: No. 22 in E♭ major, The Philosopher.
- Billed as "London Orchestra Society" and "RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra" on early releases for contractual reasons. 
- Trevitt, John, and Joël-Marie Fauquet. "Franck, César(-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert)", Grove Music Online, Oxford University Press, 2001. Retrieved 30 June 2021 (subscription required)
- Strasser, Michael. "The Société Nationale and Its Adversaries: The Musical Politics of L'Invasion Germanique in the 1870s", 19th-Century Music, vol. 24, no. 3, 2001, pp. 225–251 (subscription required)
- Sackville-West and Shawe-Taylor, p. 285
- "Société nationale de musique", Bibliotheque nationale de France. Retrieved 13 May 2021
- Bayliss, p. 205
- Bayliss, p. 203
- Bonds, p. 409
- Mason, p. 71
- Shera, F. H. "César Franck's Symphony in D Minor". The Musical Times, April 1936, pp. 314–317 (subscription required)
- Mason, p. 71
- Franck, title page
- Darcours, Charles. "Notes de musique", Le Figaro, 20 February 1889, p. 6
- Kunel, p. 190 and Stove, p. 266
- D'Indy, p. 62; and Davies, p. 236
- Davies, p. 236
- Mason, p. 69
- Boutarel, Amédée "Concert Lamoureux", Le Ménestrel: journal de musique, 26 November 1893, p. 383
- Franck, p. 1
- Service, Tom. "Symphony Guide", The Guardian, 29 April 2014
- "Record Review", BBC. Retrieved 1 July 2021
- Stuart, Philip. Decca Classical 1929–2009. Retrieved 25 May 2020.
- Bayliss, Stanley (1949). "César Franck". In Ralph Hill (ed.). The Symphony. Harmondsworth: Penguin. OCLC 1023580432.
- Davies, Laurence (1977). César Franck and his Circle. New York: Da Capo. OCLC 311525906.
- D'Indy, Vincent (1909). César Franck. London: John Lane. OCLC 13598593.
- Franck, César (1890). Symphony in D minor (PDF). Paris: Hamelle. OCLC 1156443684.
- Kunel, Maurice (1947). La Vie de César Franck. Paris: Grasset. OCLC 751302461.
- Mason, Daniel Gregory (1920). The Appreciation of Music, Vol. III: Short Studies of Great Masterpieces =. New York: H.W. Gray. OCLC 670027725.;
- Sackville-West, Edward; Desmond Shawe-Taylor (1955). The Record Guide. London: Collins. OCLC 500373060.
- Stove, R. J. (2012). César Franck: His Life and Times. Lanham: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-81-088208-9.
- Bonds, Mark Evan (Autumn 1992). "Sinfonia anti-eroica: Berlioz's Harold en Italie and the Anxiety of Beethoven's Influence". The Journal of Musicology. 10 (4): 417–463. JSTOR 763644. (subscription required)
|Wikiquote has quotations related to: César Franck|