The Belgian composer César Franck (César-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Jubert Franck) has an important place in 19th-century music and specifically in French music. He was born in Liege, a town in the south of present-day Belgium, his father being of old Flemish descent and his mother of German origin. Possessing musical talent, he entered the Liege Conservatoire at the age of 8. His father was obsessed with the prospect of his son becoming a famous virtuoso, arranged a concert tour for him – the 13-year-old boy impressed the Parisian public and in 1837 enrolled in the Paris Conservatoire. His first teacher was the Czech master Antonin Reicha. He graduated brilliantly with a degree in piano, organ and counterpoint. From his student years he also developed a growing passion for the organ and sacred music.
But Frank’s life soon took a different direction from that of a virtuoso pianist. The concert tours he undertook at his father’s insistence distracted him from his desire to pursue composition. In addition, the young musician has physical problems and some critical reviews depress him. Rethinking his future, Frank managed to free himself from his father’s psychological pressure and left Belgium. He settled in Paris, where he led a modest life for the rest of his life. He composed and gave private lessons in piano, music theory, theoretical and practical harmony, counterpoint, and organ. He played in churches. In 1858 he took a post as organist at the Basilica of St. Clotilde in Paris, a post he held until his death.
Franck was notoriously modest and entirely devoted to his work. In 1872 he was appointed professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire. From then on, his works began to be performed more widely. In his organ classes he also taught composition, directing students’ attention to instrumental music, to the form and structure of music, to early church music and strict polyphony, to the dialogue between composer, performer and audience, and to emotional expression… His style of organ interpretation, his individual teaching method and his talented students (such as Vincent d’Indy, Ernest Chausson, Henri Duparc) greatly influenced the historical development of French music.
Aside from the fashionable trends in French music at the time, despite his delicate presence, Franck had strong opponents. The tension between his admirers and detractors continued for many years after his death. Even his followers argued among themselves. Some of them point to the depth and spirituality of his music, others to its worldly emotionalism. And his opponents point to his Belgian nationality and German ethnicity to exclude him and his followers from the French tradition.
Franck composed slowly, thinking long and hard about his ideas. Most of his best works were written after his sixtieth birthday. He wrote: three operas, four oratorios, five symphonic poems, a Symphony in D minor, chamber-instrumental works, about 130 pieces for organ, etc. The most repertory of his choral compositions is the oratorio Les Beatitudes, completed in 1879, the same year he completed his Piano Quintet. In 1884 he composed his famous piano work Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, the title suggesting not only the religious tone that hovers over much of Franck’s music but also his own love of Johann Sebastian Bach. The following year saw the appearance of the Violin Sonata, with its characteristic canon in the final movement, and the Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra, and in 1888 the Symphony in D minor. In 1890 he composed his last opus, the famous Three Organ Chorales Op. 90.
César Franck died in Paris on 8 November 1890.