1888: Franck: Symphony in D minor

TUESDAY, September 8, 2020 – 8:45 AM

1888: Franck: Symphony in D minor

The Symphony in D minor is the most famous orchestral work and the only mature symphony written by the 19th-century naturalised French composer César Franck.
After two years of work, the symphony was completed 22 August 1888.

It was premiered at the Paris Conservatory on 17 February 1889 under the direction of Jules Garcin. Franck dedicated it to his pupil Henri Duparc.

  • 0:01 – I. Lento; Allegro ma non tropo, D minor: It starts with a slow, ominous intro, but this intro is also the 1st theme, which is extremely unusual if not unique. Franck is one of the “king’s of morphing”. Everything slips and slides from one chord to another. The fast theme is the 2nd theme, also in D minor. This is also unusual. Then the expo repeats, but with a twist. The 2nd time the beginning theme is altered, so it’s not simply a repeat. From there on it all unfolds in a somewhat predictable and very solid form, but there is nothing predictable about the music. It ends on a Picardy 3rd.
  • II. Allegretto, Bb minor: This is a triple morph, what I call the “Schubert morph” because he did it first, or at least he did it in a very obvious way in his very famous Bb Piano Sonata. D to Db, A to Bb, F# to F. Two go down, one goes down. This slow movement, like the one in the Dvorak “New World Symphony”, uses the English Horn for a haunting melody. That very serious melody then leads to something much lighter and more upbeat. The 1st theme repeats, then there is a hopeful feeling as it all ends in Bb major. Again it ends on a Picardy 3rd.
  • III. Finale: Allegro non troppo: He morphs back from Bb major to D major, a double morph. Suddenly the music is joyous, with an unusually syncopated rhythm. For the most part the music remains positive, optimistic, but towards the end he develops themes from both the 1st and 2nd movements. I think this is terribly important because he binds all the movements together, showing that they belong together. The story is not complete without hearing all the movements, and they belong together.


2 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 soprano clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 cornets, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, 3 timpani, harp and strings.

His only symphony…

Why did he wait so long? He died shortly before his 68th birthday, in 1890. He finished this symphony in 1988, about two years before his death, and it was not performed until 1889.

One of the best symphonies ever written…

It eventually became very popular and today is an audience favorite. It is not only one of my favorites, there is none that I am more emotionally connected to. In my opinion it is one of the best things every written.

He was surrounded by snakes…

Let me think a minute – do I hate stupid critics more? Or jealous fellow musicians who will do anything to undermine the greatest geniuses of their generations? Franck had to contend with both, and the result was absolutely disgusting. He had to contend with quite a few absolutely horrible human beings – or stupid – or both. Probably both.

The old argument about German traditions vs. nationalism…

Both Tchaikovsky and Dvorak ran into the same war between people wanting to sever all ties with the past and those who worshiped it. But nowhere was that war more vicious than in France towards the end of the 1800s.

Almost no symphonies for France…

I’ve read a lot about this, but the bottom line for me is just that there were a lot of really ugly people vying for power. The symphony was a mainstay of German music, going all the way back to at least Haydn, and the French resisted this German influence. France gave a free pass to Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique, but perhaps he got that pass because it was so revolutionary. There is Saint Saens Organ Symphony, but maybe he got a pass because of throwing in the organ along with many other instruments. Other than that, I can’t think of any really famous French symphonies from that time.

So when Franck decided to write his symphony he was bucking the tide, and that tide very nearly destroyed him.

Franck wrote more like the Germans…

Franck’s Symphony in D minor in many ways is more like Liszt and Wagner, with many themes connected together in all the movements, but there is a very German Romantic symphonic form. Today we celebrate all of it. It is brilliant. But in the late 1800s it was almost utterly rejected.

Now for more than some of the nastiest and stupidest comments:

The noted music critic, a close friend of Camille Saint-Saëns, Camille Bellaigue (1858-1930) dismissed it is as:

“arid and drab music, without … grace or charm,”

And the principal four-bar theme so important to the symphony as:

“hardly above the level of those given to Conservatoire students.”

A review said:

“morose…. [Franck] had very little to say here, but he proclaims it with the conviction of the pontiff defining dogma.”

And Charles Gounod said:

“incompetence pushed to dogmatic lengths.”

I’m sure there is a lot more stupidity I have not yet found, and I’ll add more in the future.

Fortunately, the world ignored these idiots…

And thank God for that. As always these critics were either forgotten or  eventually ridiculed, as they should be. But never forget how often the best music ever written was completely unappreciated at the time.


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