Born in 1822, César Franck was 65 when he set to work on his Symphony in D minor. An isolated figure for many years despite an early career as a piano virtuoso, he had become more famous as an organist than as a composer. It was as the former, not the latter, that he was appointed at the Conservatoire in 1872. Only then, in his late fifties, did he find himself revered by a small group of younger musicians that included Ernest Chausson, Henri Duparc, Vincent d'Indy, and Albéric Magnard. Conveniently forgetting Franck’s Belgian birth and half-Germanic background, they proclaimed him France’s answer to Beethoven and Wagner. In his youth Franck had written a Symphony, in G major, performed in Orléans in the early 1840s (the manuscript is lost). In the late 1870s and early 1880s, he wrote three symphonic poems, that quintessential nineteenth-century genre, which are among his masterpieces: Les Éolides, Le chasseur maudit, and Les Djinns (this last work with a piano soloist). His choral symphony Psyché (1887), with its free form and pagan theme, may have alarmed his disciples.
Franck was urged to produce his contribution to the grand genre, especially since, in that same year 1887, three important French symphonies had appeared: Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony in C minor, with organ, in January, Lalo’s Symphony in G minor in February, and d’Indy’s openly “Franckist” Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français in March. The main impulse may have come from the Saint-Saëns, a work Franck admired immensely. It was cyclical, meaning that certain musical materials were not restricted to individual movements but could be heard through the entire work—in the case of the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony a motif based on the plainchant Dies irae. This cyclical approach was a technique Franck himself had pioneered in his early Piano Trio No. 1 in F-sharp minor. The traditional view that Wagner’s influence had led either to Franck’s formal designs, or to the chromaticism of his harmony, has been effectively challenged by Joël-Marie Fauquet in his recent, magisterial study.
Begun in the summer of 1887, the Symphony in D minor was completed in the spring and orchestrated in the summer of 1888; the score has since perished in the 1935 fire of the Duparc family château in the Pyrenees. Rejected by the prominent conductor Charles Lamoureux, it was premiered on February 17, 1889 at the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire led by Jules Garcin. Franck’s partisans acclaimed it, but the work gained wide public acceptance only when Lamoureux finally took it on in 1893. It was then recognized as a modern classic, a status it retained through most of the twentieth century. Franck actually applied the term “classical” to his Symphony and provided further descriptive tags: an “energetic and warm” first movement; a “sweet and melancholy” Allegretto, which was inspired by the distant vision of a cortège; and a “radiant, quasi luminous” finale.
The opening motif, on which the first movement is based, was from the outset likened to the “Muss es sein” question in Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 135. The return of music from the first two movements in the finale also evokes Beethoven (in the Ninth Symphony) but may also be a reminiscence of Schubert’s Trio in E-flat. Franck was particularly happy with the haunting middle movement, which is at once a slow movement and a scherzo. As for the ebullient, almost brash conclusion, it contrasts with Franck’s traditional “seraphic” image, a reminder that he enjoyed the unbuttoned quality of Chabrier’s music and saw nothing wrong with boisterous operettas like La fille de Madame Angot.