We are so accustomed to stories of child prodigies whose careers take off in their 20s that we sometimes forget that there are many composers who languish in a semi-obscurity before they are “discovered”. The great French pianist/conductor and composer, César Franck (1822-90) lived such a life. A Belgian by birth, he attended the Paris Conservatory, where he studied piano, organ and composition. He showed solid promise as a composer early on, but for some reason, his career didn’t take off. For many years, he made his living as an organist, most notably at the church of Sainte Clodide in Paris, where he gradually built up a following of admirers. It was for his gift as an improviser at the organ that he gained a small measure of fame. He had an uncanny ability to modulate from key to key with great ease, all the while working with the Gregorian chants that were still such an important part of Roman Catholic worship in the nineteenth century. He was in demand as an organ soloist and consultant on the construction of many new organs– in an age in with the French “organ school” was beginning to gain real traction.
But it wasn’t until the age of 50 that Franck’s career really took off, largely in recognition of his outstanding organ skills. When the Paris Conservatory reopened in 1872, after the Franco-Prussian War, Franck was appointed professor of organ. Ironically, it was as an organ teacher that he emerged as a major French composer. His lessons were as much about composition as they were about organ technique (improvisation– a form of composition–being an essential part of a church organist’s role), and he was deeply admired by his students. This list includes some of the most prominent French composers in the period just before Impressionism: Louis Vierne, Vincent d’Indy, Ernest Chausson and Henri Duparc. To these and other young musicians, he was known as “Père Franck”, the leader of French Romanticism.
In years to come Franck would be seen as old-fashioned and too German in his compositional style, thus paving the way for the greatest native French artistic movement, Impressionism. And though it is certainly true that Franck’s music owed a heavy debt to Wagner and Liszt, there are ways in which Franck appears as more of a transitionary figure than the Impressionists gave him credit for. In fact, Franck was humble enough to learn from his students, and he often asked them for feedback in his newer compositions. Perhaps because of this contact with the next generation, his later works showed a freshness and vitality that was missing from his earlier ones. In fact, all of his most famous pieces date from the 1880s, the last decade of Franck’s life: the Symphony in D Minor; Prelude, Chorale and Fugue for piano; the Violin Sonata; and the Piano Quintet in F Minor.
This Sunday, we will sing a choral piece from that decade– Franck’s setting of Psalm 150, which he wrote for the dedication of a new organ at the Institute for the Young Blind in 1883. The work shows all of the hallmarks of Franck’s style– modulations to related keys, soaring melodies, and a huge dynamic range from the softest to loudest possible. Of course, the organ accompaniment is exciting; though the work was originally composed for orchestra, it is almost exclusively performed with organ these days. In America, it is also usually sung in English; here is a recording of the original French version.