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Cesar Franck 1822-1890

( Originally Published 1935 )



Symphony in D minor

I. Lento—Allegro non troppo

II. Allegretto

III. Allegro non troppo

The dark, glowing, mystical symphony of Cesar Franck is constantly suggestive of the organ on which he was wont to improvise in the loft of Ste. Clotilde's in Paris. Franck was a Belgian, a poor music-teacher in Paris, one of the meek whose praises are sung in the "Beatitudes" which he set to music. He had lived a hard youth at the hands of a father whose intention it was to exploit his precocious musical talent; for Franck, at an early age, could play the piano brilliantly. Because of this exploitation, and other repressive circumstances,. Franck was long in reaching his creative maturity. As a young, industrious and not over-fortunate musician he married a wife whom he came to fear, and the wedding party climbed over the barricades of the Commune. In an age of social corruption and vitiated public taste, a period of cynical materialism, Franck pursued his way, and his music falls upon the ear like the still small voice of vision and faith. He never arrogated virtue to himself, but composed, in his most prosperous years, two hours in the early morning, before he began to trot around Paris giving lessons, and in the evening gathered about him a group of young disciples which came to include some of the leading composers of modern France. By the self-seeking, Franck was ignored; and when he died, as the result of a street accident, professors of the Conservatoire where he taught were pointedly absent from the obsequies. When his symphony was first performed in 1888 it was ridiculed by eminent authorities and coldly received by the public. But when Franck was asked about it, according to Vincent d'Indy, his pupil and biographer, his face glowed and he answered happily, "Oh, it sounded well, just as I thought it would."

Franck has been called a composer without the dramatic spirit. What is meant is probably his complete innocence of theatricalism. His symphony is the inner drama of doubt and triumph. His is the cry of the man who supplicates: "Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief."

The first theme (r) of the symphony, announced by the basses and 'cellos, is the root of many developments, and of a cyclic treatment of thematic material which develops variously in different movements, in a manner peculiarly Franck's.

The opening of this symphony could be the scene of the unveiling of the Grail. It is profoundly meditative and tender.

There is something indescribably rich, shadowy and mystical in the shifting harmonies that: merge chromatically, one into another, in the introduction, and the tremulous figures of the strings that have the shadow and mystery of cathedral arches. After repetition of this sombre and majestic introduction come more impassioned pages and the addition of a completing phrase to the first theme (2) . A lyrical second theme (3), tender and sensuous, is given the strings, with an answer from the 'cellos in free imitation. The solo trumpet has a majestic motive (4) like the swinging of the censer. This trumpet phrase, as also the theme of the opening, is carried over into other movements. The first movement of the symphony has the customary divisions—the statement of the themes, their development (5), and restatement. When the moment for restatement comes it does so with a stern magnificence that is utterly Gothic, the passage being given principally to the brass, in "imitation," in the canonic manner (6). Again the strings carry up-ward their supplication. The last measures of this movement, after a peculiarly agitated. development, present once more the initial motive of three notes, carved as if from granite by the reverberant orchestra. It is the composer's signature, "Cesar Franck," and the capstone of the movement.

The second movement is a religious meditation. Formally it combines elements of the slow movement and scherzo. It opens, after chromatic harmonies of harp and strings, with a song of the English horn that only Franck could have conceived (7). In repetition a{ warm counter-phrase of the 'cellos is set against it. Later there are fantastical scherzo figures for the strings (8). Then the song of the English horn and the flickering string figures combine. A new theme, over the accompaniment of the strings, is given the clarinet (9) . Toward the end of the movement comes one of the most touching passages in the symphony, when the wind choir responds with chorale-like phrases to the melody of the violins (i o) . I know little in music so naive and tender—a little conversation of Franck, fearless as a child, and his God.

The finale of this symphony is not only dramatic, but almost spectacular in certain of its pages. The color is golden. The shadows have gone. The opening is jubilant, quivering with light. A joyous melody is played by the violoncellos (i 1). Later, at first softly and then with commanding brilliancy, the brasses in-tone the song of the warrior of the faith (12) . There )are various contrasting episodes, some of them subdued and self-questioning. But this is not for long. Radiant decorations of tone are flung about the themes. Motives from the preceding movements re-turn. The English horn theme of the second movement appears first under a "triplet" figuration (13) ; reappearing, it is flung out with the full power and splendor of the orchestra (14) . Toward the end the trumpet motive of the first movement is discoursed by woodwinds, then by strings in a low register, then whispered by the violins high up over deep gulf of tone (r 5) , the harmonies for the low strings being so spaced as to remind one of similar great depths in the. instrumentation of Beethoven. There is an instant when the symphony hangs between heaven and earth, before it begins to ascend, with sweeping harps and horn-calls from the promised land. The calls are repeated in rising sequences. In answer, motives previously heard assemble (r 8) , as the just and the unjust, the quick and the dead, might assemEe and pass be-fore the throne. At last the higher brass instruments send forth stabs of light, like that which lances from the sky in old Italian religious picture.

This symphony has not Beethoven's intensiveness, and it is no longer an expression of modernism. But its pure, naive and passionate spirit will for a long time search the hearts of men.



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