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Learn About the Belgium-French Composer, César Franck's Works and Life

César Franck: Overview 

  • Born: 1822 - Liege, Belgium
  • Died: 1890 - Paris, France
  • Historical Period: The 20th Century 
  • Musical Media: orchestra, chamber music, keyboards, choral, opera, songs

Composer, Cesar Franck at organ

César-Auguste Jean-Guillaume Hubert Franck, or more popularly, César Franck was born in Belgium in the year 1822. He was one of several foremost musical champions of his era and the Belgian-French composer of the Romantic style. His central figure in a later musical movement that changed French music forever, with a level comparable to the German masters. He passed away in 1890 after a long and wonderful spell of musical masterpieces such as the Symphony in D and Panis Angelicus.

César Franck: Revolutionizing European Music

Franck was born to a French father and German mother, and when he was only eight, he got recognized for his talents, earning him an admission at the Liège Conservatory. His development was so monumental that his father took him to Paris in 1834 to learn from Anton Reicha, a notable composer. Although Franck tried to join the Parisian Conservatory in 1836, his application was, at first, refused because he wasn’t French. This prompted his father to appeal and set up naturalization papers, and finally, in 1837, Franck was admitted to the Conservatory. The young musical marvel won the coveted Grand Prix d’Honneur, that was followed by the first place for fugue in 1840 and the second place for organ in the following year. 

The year 1840 was a pivotal point for the young Franck, which saw him devote his focus on the organ, churning out considerably more serious music than before. The Trio for violin, cello, and piano written during this time, is a testament to that and is thought to have been an attempt at impressing Franz Liszt, the composer. A notable work during this period in Franck’s life was Ruth, a cantata, debuting in 1846, but which found true recognition only after being revived in 1871.

In his personal life, Franck fell for Félicité Saillot who was an actress. He had to leave his home to be with her because his father disapproved of the fact that her parents worked at the theatre. In 1848 the wedding happened and the couple decided to move to Paris which the composer would go on to have a quiet and peaceful life.

Franck was accepted as the organist to the Church of Saint-Jean-Saint-François in the year 1851, and to Sainte-Clotilde in 1858 where he also fulfilled the role of choirmaster. This was the time when he adapted the improvisations in organ and choral works that make him stand out. His growing name and artistic prowess eventually gained him a number of disciples. These were young musicians who took note of Franck’s improvisations at Sainte-Clotilde, along with his exceptional pieces Rédemption in 1871 and Les Béatitudes in 1879. Franck was appointed as a venerable professor at the Paris Conservatoire in 1872. 

French music composer Vincent d’Indy was among Franck’s pupils and in 1872, he introduced a propagandist drive, dedicated to Franck’s work, which served to restore his reputation and personal confidence. Other notable members of Franck’s disciples were Pierre de Bréville, Charles Bordes, and Ernest Chausson. Franck’s works during this time included the Piano Quintet in F Minor in 1879, Variations symphoniques in 1885, Sonata in A for Violin and Piano in 1886, Symphony in D Minor in 1888, and String Quartet in D in 1889. 

Franck’s immense charisma was, without doubt, a force of nature, but it is also an unavoidable fact that he was significantly inspired by Wagner and Liszt, notably by the former’s “Tristan und Isolde.” The style that Franck picked up were in the areas of modulations and harmonies, with a distinctly Germanic style in some of his works. Franck also wrote the Prélude, Aria et Final, Op. 23 (1886-87) for the piano. 

Panis Angelicus was set to music by Franck in 1872 and is considered as a composer’s most defining work among others. It was initially composed as a stand-alone musical piece but went on to be a part of Mass for Three Voices (1860). Wagner’s concept, “Infinite Melody” is of particular importance as an inspiration and we can notice this influence in Franck’s Psyché in 1887, Les Eolides in 1876, Les Djinns in 1884 and Le Chasseur maudit in 1882.

France’s chamber music that had suffered obscurity with time was revived by Franck’s continuous efforts concerning expressive notes and the cyclic construction integrated into his tunes, such as in the aforementioned Piano Quintet of 1879 and the Violin Sonata of 1886. Without Franck’s contributions, the likes of Ravel or Debussy would never have been able to compose their string quartets. 

Franck employed Wagner’s style of chromaticism in his harmonies, vastly utilizing cyclical form, catering to his contemporary audiences. Today, his body of work is well-recognized for its innovations in musical structure and its rich tunes. Taking his capabilities and incredible virtuosity into consideration, it is clear that Franck was a master of both the keyboard and the organ. This is demonstrated by his technical brilliance and the fact that his compositions were ahead of his time.




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