1885: Franck: Symphonic Variations in F# minor

Symphonic Variations in F# minor, age 63

To understand what is going on you really have to listen to the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto. I have to find the best possible recording of that. It’s magic. The orchestra starts angry, shouting. The piano answers in a whisper. By the end of this amazing movement, the piano tames the orchestra, so that both end very gently, but in sadness. It’s really a magic moment in music, eloquent and moving. Here Franck is channeling Beethoven. It’s not just sorta, kinda. It’s a direct tribute to Beethoven.

First section, dramatic, turbulent, often stormy, but always with the idea of the piano and orchestra talking to each other:

First he sets out two contrasting themes:

Now he’s ready to develop things. I’m on the fence about whether or not these are really variations. It’s so complex, so free, that it’s more like he is endlessly varying his themes, but it’s so liquid and so seamless that it’s really more like a tone poem, and very VERY much like Liszt in this section. He was only 11 years younger than Liszt. Liszt was still alive when he wrote this even though Franck himself was by this time fairly old.

  • 1:54: He seems to be in C# minor, but kind of caught between C# minor and E major, and he plays with this idea for a long time.
  • 2:51: He’s in G major
  • 3:21: This is like the beginning, dialogue between the piano and orchestra. He gets to the key of G and stays there awhile. He’s morphing so fast it makes your head spin. But he has to get back to his main key.
  • 4:07 allegretto: He got to C# major. I know how he got there, but it’s sneaky. He prolongs this with smoke and mirrors. He’s not really in C# major. It’s a V chord in his key, and he’s going to go back to it, to F# minor.
  • 4:21 a tempo: F# minor, and basically playing with that and the relative minor,  A major. He goes nowhere, but it’s a beautiful nowhere. He finally gets to C major from A major, a kind of semi-morph, then right back to F# minor

Now he goes to to D major. He’s going to say there awhile, but in his style he’ll slide all over the place. He has a whole bunch of tempo indications, but the tempo stays suprisingly steady, and it’s up for the artists to bend things a bit. it’s very free. Mostly he uses key areas to change moods, then his textures change from transparent to light to heavy.

  • 6:36: morph to D major, mood change, but then moves to B major, then to Eb major.He moves to G# minor, then suddenly  C7 to B major. Dim to E minor. But he knows he’s going to get back to D major.
  • 7:34: D major, but it keeps sliding back and forth between that and F#m/C#. This starts out light, but his move to F# minor and slowing down shows he is going to change moods.

Slow section, like a dream, but tinged with incredible melancholy at the end.

  • 8:08 molto più lento, espressivo, sempre legatissimo: F# major and this is static. He moves a bit, but you know he is at home in F# major, and he’s going to stay there. This is peaceful, and relaxing. It’s very pastoral. Then there is a total shift in mood.
  • 9:20 a tempo: F# major, morphing to F# minor, and this is dark. Everything is about sighs, moans.  He gets to G#7, C# minor,  A minor. B7, G#7, which gets us to C# major. He stays there for a few second. Then Bb7 to G7 to E7 to C#7.This is one of the loveliest examples of morphing in all of music. Finally chromatics suspended over a C#7 chord.

Final section, and a total mood change:

The rest is mostly major, light or energetic, and after the darkness there is light. It’s truly a happy ending, and this is light as Franck ever got musically.

  • 11:44 allegro non troppo, trill: Finally he settles into a key, F# major
  • 12:44 ff, big orchestral entrance: And back to D major, but he wants to move up to Eb major. He uses a ton of tricky morphs to get there.
  • 13:29 un pochettino ritenuto : He morphs between Eb major and G major, then to Db, Gb, then morphing back and forth so fast that you can barely track it with dim chords and gets right back to Eb.
  • 14:03 tempo I: Eb major, then Eb minor, B7 to morph to E major, to G#7, circle of 5ths to C#7. Toggle between C# dim and C#7, then back to original key.
  • 14:35: Back in F# major. Tutti (everyone plays), a coda, and he ends on pure pentatonic for a very light and totally upbeat ending.


  • 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons
  • 3 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani
  • strings

Close to the end of his life…

It was written in 1885, and it was very late in his life. Franck was slow to mature as a composer, so his masterworks came shortly before his death. He wrote this work for piano and orchestra written in 1885, which of course means he was born in 1822, and the only composers born very close to that date that remain very famous today are Franck and Bruckner, who was born in 1824. It’s easy to lose both of these composers because they were lost in a great deal of political turbulence that leaked into musical affairs, forming musical camps that were competitive, petty, and very stifling.

It brought Franck one of his rare critical successes…

The premiere on 1 May 1886 went almost unnoticed. However, before and after Franck’s death his works were championed by his students, and his Symphonic Variations soon entered the repertoire of major pianists, and this work slowly became one of the most popular pieces of music every written for piano and orchestra.

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