César Franck | Biography


César Franck
It took a Belgian composer to convince France of the value of German musical ideas. Before César Franck arrived in Paris, French Romantic music had been primarily a tradition of dazzling orchestral colour and seductive harmonies. Franck was interested in the structural and expressive innovations of Beethoven, Liszt and Wagner. His music combines the best of the two approaches, its Gallic lyricism and harmonic colour shaped through German structural ideas into powerful dramatic forms. Franck began his musical career as a keyboard prodigy. His father was keenly ambitious to see César’s name up in lights. So in 1830 he enrolled his gifted eight-year-old son at the Liège Conservatoire followed, seven years later, by the Paris Conservatoire. Franck received a thorough training. His wide-ranging abilities were such that he won first prize in virtually every contest he entered, whatever the musical activity. But all his father was interested in was exploiting his son’s potential as a performer. For a while he got his way. Franck’s performances were acclaimed wherever he played. He rubbed shoulders with the great Franz Liszt during a tour of Belgium in 1843. The family moved to Paris, and Franck dutifully continued touring. Finally, to his father’s disbelief, César rebelled and departed the family home in July 1846. Franck wrote relatively few works over the following quarter of a century. In 1858 he was appointed organist at the Basilica of Saint Clotilde in Paris where he composed a handful of sacred choral works and a Mass in three voices. In 1862 he wrote a set of Six Pièces for organ that Liszt hailed as worthy of ‘a place beside the masterpieces of Bach’. Yet his duties as an organist, which included performing, improvising and teaching, delayed any major composing activity for another decade. His only works of this period were two short cantatas, some organ miniatures and the Schumannesque piano piece Les plaints d’une poupée (‘A Doll’s Lament’). His big break finally came in 1871, when he was granted membership of the Société Nationale de Musique, acknowledging his leading status as a composer. As if by magic, his creative imagination went into overdrive. The works he produced in the following years fused the chromatic sensuality of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde with the cyclical structural ideas pioneered by Liszt. There were songs, large-scale sacred works, symphonic poems, piano pieces, a Symphony, a Violin Sonata and the Variations symphoniques for piano and orchestra. Just as Franck’s creative light was in the ascendant, in 1890 he was tragically struck by a horse-drawn omnibus. He never fully recovered and died on 8 November following a bout of pleurisy. His legacy to French music was complex and varied. Parisian organists took inspiration from his phenomenal improvisation skills. He also pioneered extended compositions for the organ, which would lead to even grander works by Widor and Vierne. His advocacy of Liszt’s cyclic forms would later influence Debussy and Ravel. But for audiences around the world, Franck will be best remembered for his exhilarating orchestral works. Although few in number, their character marks them out as the work of a master equally at home in both German and French musical traditions.