Whatever we learn of César Franck
endears him to all who would know and
appreciate the beautiful character which shines through his art. He was
always kind, loving, tender, and these qualities are felt in the music
composed. Some day we shall know his music better. It has been said of
unique composer: "Franck is enamored of gentleness and consolation; his
music rolls into the soul in long waves, as on the slack of a moonlit
It is tenderness itself."
In Liège, Belgium, it was that
César Franck was born,
December 10, 1822.
Chopin had come a dozen years earlier, so had Schumann, Liszt and other
gifted ones; it was a time of musical awakening.
The country about Liège was
peculiarly French, not only in
appearance, but in language and sentiment. Here were low hills covered
with pines and beeches, here charming valleys; there wide plains where
flowering broom flourished in profusion. It was the Walloon country,
the Francks claimed descent from a family of early Walloon painters of
same name. The earliest of these painters was Jérome Franck,
born away back
in 1540. Thus the name Franck had stood for art ideals during a period
more than two and a half centuries.
When César and his brother were
small children, the father, a
man of stern
and autocratic nature—a banker, with many friends in the artistic and
musical world—decided to make both his sons professional musicians.
His will had to be obeyed, there was no
help for it. In the case of
however, a musician was what he most desired to become, so that music
was always a delight.
Before he was quite eleven years old,
his father took him on a tour of
Belgium. It looked then as though he had started on a virtuoso career,
the wonder children—Mozart, Chopin, Thalberg, Liszt and others who had
preceded him, had done. The future proved, however, that César's
was to be composing, teaching and organ playing, with a quiet life,
busy Paris, instead of touring the world to make known his gifts.
During this youthful tour of Belgium, he
met a child artist, a year or
older than himself, a singer, also touring as a virtuoso. The little
was called Pauline Garcia, who later became famous as Mme. Pauline
When César was twelve he had
learned what they could teach him
at the Liège
Conservatory, and finished his studies there. His father, ambitious for
musical success of his sons, emigrated with his family to Paris, in
César applied for entrance to the Conservatoire, but it was not
following year, 1837, that he gained admission, joining Leborne's class
composition, and becoming Zimmermann's pupil in piano playing. At the
of the year the boy won a prize for a fugue he had written. In piano he
chose Hummel's Concerto in A minor for his test, and played it off in
style. When it came to sight reading, he suddenly elected to transpose
piece selected a third below the key in which it was written, which he
able to do at sight, without any hesitation or slip.
Such a feat was unheard of and quite
against the time-honored rules of
competition. And to think it had been performed by an audacious slip of
boy of fifteen! The aged Director, none other than Maestro Cherubini,
shocked out of the even tenor of his way, and declared that a first
could not be awarded, although he must have realized the lad deserved
To make amends, however, he proposed a special award to the audacious
pianist, outside the regular competition, to be known as "The Grand
of Honor." This was the first time, and so far as is known, the only
such a prize has been awarded.
César Franck won his second prize
for fugue composition in 1839.
writing had become so natural and easy for him, that he was able to
his task in a fraction of the time allotted by the examiners. When he
returned home several hours before the other students had finished, his
father reproached him roundly for not spending more time on the test
which so much depended. With his quiet smile the boy answered he
the result would be all right. And it was! The next year he again
the first prize for fugue; this was in July 1840. The year following he
entered the organ contest, which was a surprise to the examiners.
The tests for organ prizes have always
been four. First, the
of a plain chant, chosen for the occasion; second, the performance of
an organ piece with pedals; third, the improvising of a fugue; fourth,
improvising a piece in sonata form. Both the improvisations to be on
set by the examiners. César at once noticed that the two themes
combined in such a way that one would set off the other. He set to
and soon became so absorbed in this interweaving of melodies that the
improvisation extended to unaccustomed lengths, which bewildered the
examiners and they decided to award nothing to such a tiresome boy.
Benoist, teacher of this ingenious pupil, explained matters with the
that César was awarded a second prize for organ.
He now began to prepare for the highest
honor, the Prix de Rome. But
parental authority interfered. For some unexplained reason, his father
compelled him to leave the Conservatoire before the year was up. It may
have been the father desired to see his son become a famous virtuoso
pianist and follow the career of Thalberg and Liszt. At any rate he
insisted his boy should make the most of his talents as a performer and
should also compose certain pieces suitable for public playing. To this
period of his life belong many of the compositions for piano solo, the
showy caprices, fantaisies and transcriptions. Being obliged to write
kind of music, the young composer sought for new forms in fingering and
novel harmonic effects, even in his most insignificant productions.
among the early piano works, the Eclogue, Op. 3, and the Ballade, Op.
are to be found innovations which should attract the pianist and
His very first compositions, a set of
three Trios, Op. 1, were composed
while he was still at the Conservatoire, and his father wished them
dedicated "To His Majesty, Leopold I, King of the Belgians." He wished
secure an audience with the King and have his son present the
to his Majesty in person. It may have been for this reason he withdrew
boy so suddenly from the Conservatoire. However this may have been, the
Franck family returned to Belgium for two years. At the end of that
they all returned to Paris, with almost no other resources than those
earned by the two young sons, Josef and César, by private
And now began for César Franck
that life of regular and tireless
which lasted nearly half a century. This industry was expressed in
lesson-giving and composing.
One of the first works written after his
return to Paris, was a musical
setting to the Biblical story of "Ruth." The work was given in the
room of the Conservatoire, on January 4, 1846, when the youthful
was twenty-three. The majority of the critics found little to praise in
music, which, they said, was but a poor imitation of "Le Desert," by
One critic, more kindly disposed than the others, said: "M.
César Franck is
exceedingly naïve, and this simplicity we must confess, has served
well in the composition of his sacred oratorio of 'Ruth.'" A quarter of
a century later, a second performance of "Ruth" was given, and the same
critic wrote: "It is a revelation! This score, which recalls by its
and melodic simplicity Mehul's 'Joseph,' but with more tenderness and
modern feeling, is certainly a masterpiece."
But alas, hard times came upon the
Franck family. The rich pupils, who
formed the young men's chief clientèle, all left Paris, alarmed
forebodings of the revolution of 1848. Just at this most inopportune
moment, César decided to marry. He had been in love for some
a young actress, the daughter of a well-known tragedienne, Madame
Desmousseaux, and did not hesitate to marry in the face of bad times
the opposition of his parents, who strongly objected to his bringing a
theatrical person into the family.
César Franck was then organist in
the church of Notre Dame de
the marriage took place there, February 22, 1848, in the very thick of
revolution. Indeed, to reach the church, the wedding party were obliged
climb a barricade, helped over by the insurgents, who were massed
this particular fortification.
Soon after the wedding, Franck, having
now lost his pupils—or most of
them—and being continually blamed by his father, whom he could no
supply with funds, decided to leave the parental roof and set up for
himself in a home of his own. Of course he had now to work twice as
get new pupils and give many more lessons. But with all this extra
he made a resolve, which he always kept sacredly, which was to reserve
hour or two each day for composition, or for the study of such musical
and literary works as would improve and elevate his mind. Nothing was
allowed to interfere with this resolution, and to it we owe all his
Franck made his first attempt at a
dramatic work in 1851, with a
entitled "The Farmer's Man." As he must keep constantly at his teaching
during the day, he devoted the greater part of the night to
worked so hard that the opera, begun in December 1851, was finished in
years, but he paid dearly for all this extra labor. He fell ill—a state
nervous prostration—and was unable for some time to compose at all.
It was indeed a time of shadows for the
young musician, but the skies
brightened after a while. He had the great good fortune to secure the
of organist and choir master in the fine new basilica of Sainte
which had lately been erected, and which had an organ that was indeed a
masterpiece. This wonderful instrument kept all its fulness of tone and
freshness of timbre after fifty years of use. "If you only knew how I
love this instrument," Father Franck used to say to the curé of
Clothilde; "it is so supple beneath my fingers and so obedient to all
As Vincent d'Indy, one of Franck's most
gifted and famous pupils,
"Here, in the dusk of this organ-loft,
which I can never think of
emotion, he spent the best part of his life. Here he came every Sunday
and feast day—and toward the end of his life, every Friday morning too,
fanning the fire of his genius by pouring out his spirit in wonderful
improvisations, which were often far more lofty in thought than many
skilfully elaborated compositions. And here, too, he must have
the sublime melodies which afterward formed the groundwork of his
"Ah, we knew it well, we who were his
pupils, the way up to that
thrice-blessed organ loft, a way as steep and difficult as that which
Gospels tell us leads to Paradise. But when we at last reached the
organ chamber, all was forgotten in the contemplation of that rapt
the intellectual brow, from which seemed to flow without effort a
inspired melody and subtle, exquisite harmonies."
César Franck was truly the genius
of improvisation. It is said
modern organist, not excepting the most renowned players, could hold
comparison to him in this respect. Whether he played for the service,
his pupils or for some chosen musical guest, Franck's improvisations
always thoughtful and full of feeling. It was a matter of conscience to
his best always. "And his best was a sane, noble, sublime art."
For the next ten years Franck worked and
lived the quiet life of a
and organist; his compositions during this time were organ pieces and
church music. But a richer inner life was the outgrowth of this period
calm, which was to blossom into new, deeper and more profoundly
One of these new works was "The
Beatitudes." For years he had had the
longing to compose a religious work on the Sermon on the Mount. In
set to work on the poem, and when that was well under way, began to
with great ardor, the musical setting.
In the very midst of this absorbing work
came the Franco-Prussian war,
many of his pupils must enter the conflict, in one way or another. Then
early in 1872, he was appointed Professor of Organ at the
which was an honor he appreciated.
The same year, while occupied with the
composition of the "Beatitudes,"
wrote and completed his "Oratorio of the Redemption." After this he
six years to the finishing of the "Beatitudes," which occupied ten
of his activity, as it was completed in 1879. A tardy recognition of
genius by the Government granted him the purple ribbon as officer of
Academy, while not until five or six years later did he receive the
of a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
In consequence of this event his pupils
and friends raised a fund to
expenses of a concert devoted entirely to the master's compositions.
works were given—conducted by Pasdeloup: Symphonic Poem—"Le Chasseur
Maudit," Symphonic Variations, piano and orchestra, Second Part of
Part II was conducted by the composer and consisted of March and Air de
Ballet, with chorus, from "Hulda" and the Third and Eighth Beatitudes.
The Franck Festival occurred January 30,
1887, and was not a very
inspiring performance. The artist pupils of the master voiced to him
disappointment that his works should not have been more worthily
But he only smiled on them and comforted them with the words: "No, no,
are too exacting, dear boys; for my part I am quite satisfied."
No wonder his pupils called him "Father
Franck," for he was ever kind,
sympathetic and tender with them all.
During the later years of César
Franck's earthly existence, he
several masterpieces. Among them the Violin Sonata, composed for Eugene
and Théophile Ysaye, the D minor Symphony, the String Quartet,
remarkable piano pieces, Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, Prelude, Aria and
Finale, and finally the Three Chorales for organ, his swan song. His
gradually declined, due to overwork and an accident, and he passed
away, November 8, 1890.
Chabrier, who only survived Franck a few
years, ended his touching
at the grave with these words:
"Farewell, master, and take our thanks,
for you have done well. In you
we salute one of the greatest artists of the century, the incomparable
teacher, whose wonderful work has produced a whole generation of
musicians and thinkers, armed at all points for hard-fought and
conflicts. We salute, also, the upright and just man, so humane, so
distinguished, whose counsel was sure, as his words were kind.