Richard Nisley

The Soul of a Child–the music of César Franck
Music - Classical Released - Aug 17, 2018
Several years ago, I picked up an album entitled “The Great Moments in Music: The Symphony,” that included César Franck's mystical and grand Symphony in D.

The other symphonies were Beethoven’s Third and Fifth, Brahm’s brilliant First, Dvorak’s Ninth (“The New World”), Schubert’s Eighth (“Unfinished”), and Tchaikovsky’s hyper-romantic Fourth and Fifth. The symphonies were abridged so that they all fit on a single LP. To be placed in such exalted company gives you an idea of how great a composer was César Franck. Among this exalted group, his Symphony in D was the only one conceived in three movements, rather then the usual four which was the norm.

Born in the 19th century, César Franck (1822-1890) was a man of his age, which is to say he fits comfortably among the great romantic composers—Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner. As like the others, he composed music with sweeping melodies and grand themes.

As great as his only symphony was, it was his ambitious String Quartet in D was that first captured the attention of music critics. Wrote one critic: "Franck's Quartet is highly ambitious in its scale, its almost orchestral textures and its complex use of cyclic form always seems on the point of bursting the seams of the intimate genre of the string quartet." Indeed, continued the critic: "Franck seeks to take up the challenge presented by the late Beethoven in a way that few nineteenth century composers attempted, not even Brahms." Nearly as great was his "Sonata in A for Violin and Piano." Franck also wrote an oratorio, based on "The Sermon on the Mount," entitled "Les Beatitudes."

While Franck never attempted to write a concerto, his "Variations for piano and orchestra" sounds very much like a piano concerto. As with Saint-Saëns, César Franck's instrument was the organ, for which he wrote reams of music, the "Piece Heroique" (in B minor) being the most famous.

While often classified as a Frenchman, César Franck was, in fact, born in Liege, Belgium.

His contemporary the sharp-tongued French composer, Claude Debussy, who ridiculed the music of Edvard Grieg, had soft feelings about Franck. He said of him: "He was a man without guile. The discovery of a beautiful harmony was sufficient to make him happy as the day is long . . . This man was unfortunate, unrecognized, possessed the soul of a child, and one so good that neither contradictory circumstances nor the wickedness of others could ever make him feel bitter."

On the list of great composers César Franck weighs in at 36.

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