Symphony in D minor, Op. 48 (1888)

  1. Lento, allegro non troppo
  2. Allegretto
  3. Finale: Allegro non troppo

Among great composers, César Franck (1822-1890), along with Jean-Philippe Rameau, are unusual in that all the music they are known for was written after the age of fifty.  In Franck’s case, his early efforts are universally regarded as so mediocre as to not even suggest the giant he was to become, when suddenly, at the age of fifty, he composed his Piano Quintet, inspired by a passionate affair with one of his students,  His new found musical intensityity and rigor informed the series of masterpieces he composed over the next eighteen years, and this change from dull third rater to great composer astonished all of his friends and colleagues.  The only person with a contrary view of  Franck’s development was, predictably, his wife, who disdained the overheated romanticism of his late works and believed to the end that the dull organ works and church music he had composed in his earlier career were much superior to the intense late works composed as she said, “under the influence of that tart.” The last of these tart-inspired works was his only Symphony, a masterpiece that can be seen as a summing up of the musical development of the late blossoming as a composer.

The Symphony, quite apart from the disapproval it received from Madame Franck, had a difficult time getting started in the concert hall. Any work called  “Symphony” was associated with German musical tastes and trends. He could not get a major French Orchestra to program the work, and ended up having it performed by the orchestra at the Conservatoire. Then, in a kind of “can’t win” situation, he was criticized for the use of the English Horn and Harp in the Symphony, for these were considered instruments not suited to the Symphony as a form! Despite a mediocre performance and a lukewarm reception, the work quickly became a staple of the concert world. In recent years it has faded from view, and although rarely heard today, it is still recognized as a major contribution the orchestral repertoire.

What to listen for

Unusually, the work is in three movements instead of four, and it is a classic example of cyclical form, in which the same themes are presented in different movements in altered forms, It begins with a quote, and a quote that was both controversial and meaningful. The opening phrase echoes the intervals used by Beethoven in his last quartet over which he had inscribed Beethoven’s words Muss Es Sein? (Must it be?) Theories abound as to what Franck meant by this quote. Was he referring to war between German and French musical styles that was poisoning the musical atmosphere and development in France? Was he referring to his uptight wife? We don’t know. We do know that this motive and the melody that develops from it move out of the opening slow music into a main Allegro section that it is in classic Sonata form.  The development of the music here is deeply linked to the music of the slow introduction, but  in the course of its development and transition it moves through some incredible transformations before ending  in major key sunlight. The second movement starts with a beautiful melody on the English Horn, based on material heard in the first movement but transformed here almost beyond recognition. And, in a stunning sleight of hand, he transforms this elegant slow tune into infectious fast music for the central episode of the movement.  The Finale begins in high spirits with the major key transformation of first movement material. As Franck said, “The finale takes up all the themes again, as in [Beethoven’s] Ninth. They do not return as quotations, however; I have elaborated them and given them the role of new elements”. This is true; the music continues to develop and change the material throughout the movement before ending in blaze of D major glory, the culmination of the extraordinary struggle of the journey that the music has taken. It is as though he has answered the question Beethoven asked “Muss Es Sein?” with the profound realization of the answer: “Es Muss Sein!”