The Kennedy Center

Symphony in D minor

About the Work

 Franck Composer: Franck
© Paul Horsley

Born of a French-Belgian father and a German mother, Franck moved to Paris with his family at the age of 12, and built his musical career in that city. Initially refused admission to the Paris Conservatory because of his nationality, he had remained somewhat of an outsider for much of his life. Like Liszt, he made his career partly as a touring virtuoso pianist, and eventually as one of France's leading organists as well. An important milestone in his career was his appointment, in 1858, as organist in Ste. Clotilde, from which vantage point he composed most of his sacred choral works and his influential compositions for organ. With the exception of a youthful attempt at a Symphony in G, however, Franck did not approach the symphonic form until he was in his 60s.

The history of the French symphony up to that time had not been a long one. In Paris, opera ruled, and instrumental music was a poor cousin. Between Berlioz and Franck, the important French composers of symphonies can be counted on one hand: Gounod, Bizet, Saint-Saëns, and Lalo. Franck's D-minor Symphony became the greatest of them all, and yet few works that have made it into the canon of our orchestral concert repertory have been as vigorously reviled during the early years of their history as this. Composed from 1886 to 1888, just after his tone poem Psyché and the A-major Violin Sonata, this Symphony began to garner contempt after its first performance at the Paris Conservatory in February 1889. The critic Camille Bellaigue wrote of its "arid and gray" melodies that were "devoid of grace or charm," and "destined to vanish at once."

Charles Gounod characterized the piece as an example of "incompetence pushed to dogmatic lengths." Vincent d'Indy, a friend and pupil of Franck, quoted one Conservatory colleague as protesting against the Symphony's use of solo English horn. "Just name a single symphony by Haydn or Beethoven that uses the English horn!" the reactionary professor is said to have remarked. "There, you see: Your Franck's music may be whatever you please, but it will certainly never be a symphony!" (There had been, in fact, several earlier symphonies employing English horn.) The harshness of this criticism, aimed at a well-respected composer at the height of his creative powers, is partly to be explained by the musical-political climate at the Conservatory, where tastes always seemed to lag behind the "real world" of music-making by about a hundred years. Symphonies were supposed to sound Classical, preferably like Haydn or Cherubini--certainly no more modern than Beethoven. That Franck had employed sonata-like structures in the Symphony was no amelioration; his techniques were considered too avant-garde.

The echoes of a number of composers are heard here, including Beethoven and Liszt. Like Berlioz's idée fixe, Franck's forceful "motto" is heard throughout the work's three movements, in various guises--first as the substance of the second theme of the first movement. The Lento and the first theme--which begins Allegro non troppo--are built from an elusive subject in D minor heard at the opening in the violas, cellos, and contrabasses. The modulatory second movement, Allegretto, with its lyrical opening English horn solo, serves the function of both slow movement and scherzo. It is by far the best movement of the work, containing a variety of textures and rhythmic enrichment; only fragments of the "motto" are heard here, which comes as somewhat of a relief. The Allegro non troppo finale, cast in D major, reworks material from the first movement in an exultant mood; the motto returns in triumph to close the work.