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After a childhood during which his prowess as a pianist was exploited mercilessly by an ambitious father, César Franck (1822-1890) eventually became a thoughtful and serious composer of music of many sorts. The works for which he is justly celebrated, however, date from his later years. Franck’s last decade was an intense one, a creative period during which he produced several major chamber works (including the Violin Sonata, which Pinchas Zukerman and Marc Neikrug will perform during a Celebrity Recital in November), a pair of symphonic poems, and an oratorio. He also began – but did not complete – two operas.

It was perhaps the greatest opera composer of the time, Richard Wagner, whose influence is felt in the atmospheric opening of the Symphony in D minor (Franck’s second work in the form after a now-neglected work from his late teen years). The rich blending of low string sonorities with sustained chords in the winds reveals the composer’s long-standing familiarity with the organ, an instrument which allowed Franck to combine his performance skills with composing. (When Franck’s Six Pièces were published in 1868, Franz Liszt declared them to be worthy of “a place beside the masterpieces of Bach.”) Liszt was an ardent supporter of Wagner, and his musical influence is also echoed in Franck’s Symphony, in the use of recurring melodic materials (a technique which became known as cyclic form). Liszt also inspired Franck to continue the development of the hybrid form (uniting a specific dramatic idea with purely instrumental music) which we know as the symphonic poem.

 

Without any need for analyzing the D-minor Symphony’s structure or Franck’s composing technique, however, the listener who surrenders to the emotional elements in Franck’s music is drawn into a universe of yearning and questing, of searching and seeking. The opening movement makes its way from the uncertain introduction to an affirmative climax, with the organist-composer pulling out all the stops. In the single middle movement, where most symphonies have a slow movement and a scherzo, Franck blends the two in a complex union of repose and anxiety. The haunting scoring unites the string section and the harp in a pizzicato accompaniment to a plaintive English horn. (Contemporary critics chastised Franck for using this lower-pitched cousin of the oboe in a symphony, and yet Berlioz – and Haydn, too – had done so, years before, without provoking any scandal!) In his description of the triumphant last movement, Franck wrote about his utilization of a technique also employed by Beethoven: “The finale, as in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, recalls all the themes. But they do not appear as mere quotations. I make something of them, they become new elements.”

 

This work has gone in and out of favor over the years. It was a brand-new addition to the repertory of conductor Otto Klemperer when he came to the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1933, and it has proved attractive to conductors from Toscanini and Furtwängler to Monteux and Bernstein. Clearly, there are depths to be explored and musical messages to be communicated.