Franck – Symphony in D-Minor

by Max Derrickson

César Franck   (b in Liège, (then) Belgium, December 10, 1822; d in Paris, November 8, 1890)

Symphony in D-Minor
1. Lento – Allegro
2. Allegretto
3. Allegretto non troppo


Of the relatively few symphonies to come out of France in the entire 19th Century, it’s ironic that Franck’s Symphony in D-Minor is one of that era’s crown jewels.  To begin with, it was his only mature attempt at the genre, and he had to be persuaded by his organ students to write it.  That persuasion took place in 1886, and Paris was at that time still a city gone crazy for opera – a genre that Franck had attempted several times without success.  On top of that, its premiere performance in 1889 was awful.  Worse yet, essentially anyone who was anybody in the petty and political musical circles of Paris hated it.  Charles Gounod offered Paris’ most derisive opinion by saying that Franck’s Symphony showed “incompetence driven to dogmatic lengths.”  As unlikely as its success should have been after all of that, within a year of Franck’s death, his Symphony in D-Minor began winning admirers far and wide, and has done so ever since.  And what makes us love it so is mostly twofold: the writing is intelligent yet completely accessible, and, its beauty and enthusiasm are undeniably sincere.


Franck’s musical heroes were Bach, Beethoven, his life-long friend Liszt, and to a lesser degree Wagner.  It comes as no surprise, then, that the brooding, unresolved three-note motif that opens Franck’s Symphony, and which is the germinal seed of the entire work, is derived from Beethoven, Liszt and Wagner.  A very similar three-note motif begins the finale to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16, Op. 135, a stirring work on whose score, overtop the three notes, Beethoven wrote the cryptic message “Must it be?”  Similarly, Liszt used this motif as a central musical figure in his Les Preludes, as did Wagner in his Ring cycle as the leit-motif for the questioning of fate.  What Franck does with the motif, by contrast, is create a formal symphony from it, in the Classical Germanic tradition, where a theme is presented and developed, yet unencumbered by a storyline like Liszt and Wagner did.  But the Symphony is indeed a Romantic creation, rich with deep emotion, gorgeous chromatic Romantic harmonies, and a very clever structural form.


Franck’s opening three-note motif in the Lento is then developed [. . .]


The second movement is an utterly unexpected and wonderful musical creation.  Harp and strings begin by plucking what sounds like the accompaniment to an antique carol or hymn.  The English horn then enters, [. . .]


[. . .]   This last movement is, in a very genuine way, a celebration of itself by way of what came before it, stoked full of energy and joy.  Even as the very mysterious introductory theme from the first movement, with that famous three-note motif, is remembered, Franck manipulates it in a way that makes us feel as though the curtains are being drawn aside, and that golden light is about to burst forth.  Then comes the exciting and powerful ending, where brass and full orchestra, again like mountains of sound from an organ, blaze brilliantly away into the final chords.