Cesar-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert Franck was a leading composer, pianist, organist and an inspiring music teacher who lived in Paris and created dynamic and enthralling symphonic, chamber and keyboard works. He gave his maiden concerts in 1834 in his birth place. He studied initially in Paris. After a brief return to Belgium and a bad experience in his early career, he moved back to Paris, married Eugénie-Félicité-Caroline Saillot and led a successful career prominently as a music educator and organist. He was not only popular for his compositions, but also as an ambitious improviser. He travelled all across France to propagate the new musical instruments invented by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. As a teacher, Cesar Franck had a very powerful and positive influence on young French composers. He helped to restore and strengthen chamber music and developed the use of cyclic form. He was one of the most humble, earnest and sincere composers who presented the world with some of his greatest works to become significant in the standard classical repertoire.
Cesar Franck’s Childhood And Early Life
Franck was born in Liège. At that time, it was a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (and from 1830 part of Belgium). His father was Nicolas-Joseph Franck, who was a bank clerk, whose family relocated from the German-Belgian border, and his mother Marie-Catherine-Barbe Franck (née Frings) was from Germany. As a child, Franck illustrated both music and drawing skills, his father strongly believed him to become a great composer and musician, just like Sigismond Thalberg or Franz Liszt who will fetch recognition and wealth to his family. To fulfill this desire, his father got him entered at the Royal Conservatory of Liège in October 1837 to learn organ, solfège, piano and harmony from Joseph Daussoigne-Méhul and other renowned faculties. Franck gave his first concert in 1834 at Leopold I of the newly formed Kingdom of Belgium.
In 1838, young Franck won his first prize in piano. He included organ studies with François Benoist, including both the performance as well as improvisation, which fetched him the second prize in 1841. Surprisingly, for unknown reasons, he made a voluntary retirement from the Conservatoire on 22 April 1842. Though initially compositions performed by him were successfully welcomed by audiences, but due to his father’s undue marketable promotion, Parisian musical journals and critics were irritated. Though Franck’s technical abilities as a pianist was appreciated, but as a composer, fame eluded him.
Franck As A Teacher And Organist (1842–1858)
At Belgium, Franck suffered a bad luck as his concerts commercially panned, critics were contemptuous and there was lack of support or sponsorship from the Belgium court. Thus, his father, Nicolas-Joseph brought his son back into the genre of teaching and family concerts in Paris. Though earnings were still low, it proved to be very beneficial for Franck in long run. Through his life’s early experiences, Franck composed his first mature composition, a set of Trios (piano, violin, cello)! Franz Liszt went through his compositions, encouraged him and gave his valuable constructive criticism, and even performed them some years later in Weimar. In 1843, Franck initiated his work on his maiden non-chamber work, the ‘Oratorio Ruth’. It got privately premiered in 1845 before Liszt, Meyerbeer, and other eminent musical personalities, who gave reasonable feedback and constructive criticism. As Franck always aspired to be an organist, his dream came true when he became the assistant organist in 1947 at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette Franck's parish church. Franck had a fascination for the musical instruments of Cavaillé-Coll and travelled widely throughout France to illustrate and popularize the instruments by playing them at inaugural concerts.
There were two significant happenings in his life that changed Franck’s outlook towards life, depicted in his musical compositions. His relations with his parents, especially his father that got worse due to his undue interference in Franck’s professional as well as personal life. This was fueled due to Franck’s obsession with one of his students ‘Eugénie-Félicité-Caroline Saillot ‘(1824–1918). Their friendship was as old as Conservatoire days and her family and home provided a respite to Franck from his domineering father. Franck finally left his father’s house and went to live with her family. From that time, Franck declared his official name as ‘Cesar Franck’ or just C. Franck. He married his lady love on 22 February 1848.
Titulaire Of Sainte-Clotilde (1858–1872)
Franck was appointed as organist and maitre de chapelle at Sainte-Clotilde (from 1896 the Basilique-Sainte-Clotilde) on 22 January 1858. A few months later, the parish inaugurated a new three-manual Cavaillé-Coll instrument and Franck was appointed as the ‘titulaire’. A deadly combination of this organ along with Franck’s past piano experience built up the foundation of his future success in music world. Franck was so dedicated towards this instrument that in order to improve his control over this organ and its thirty-note pedal, he bought a practice pedal board from Pleyel et Cie for practicing at home and improve his pedal technique.
The melodious sound and mechanical facilities of this organ helped Franck to gain popularity as a composer and an improviser. Franck’s organ works and harmonium compositions began to gain popularity, including the ‘Messe à 3 voix’, (1859). One of the most remarkable works of Franck is the set of ‘Six Pièces’ for organ, authored in 1860–1862 and published in 1868. These compositions were devoted to his fellow pianists and organists, to his teacher Benoist, and to Cavaillé-Coll. This set of ‘Six Pièces’ for organ included his best-known organ works, the "Prélude, Fugue, et Variation", op. 18 and the "Grande Pièce Symphonique", op. 17.
"Père Franck", Conservatory Professor and Composer (1872–1890)
In 1872, Benoist retired as professor of organ at the reopening of the Paris Conservatoire. Franck’s name was proposed among others, but to be appointed to this post, he needed to be of a French citizen. Franck underwent the naturalization process and was appointed on 1 February 1872. Several of his dedicated students were studying at the Paris Conservatoire including Henri Duparc, Vincent d'Indy, Louis Vierne and Ernest Chausson who became quite famous in their own musical career. At this stage, Franck was very comfortable composing some of his greatest works such as Les Béatitudes, the oratorio Rédemption (1871, revised 1874), the secular cantata Les Éolides (1876), the Trois Pièces for organ (1878), and the piano Quintet (1879).
In 1886, Franck gifted his ‘Violin Sonata’ to the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe as a wedding present. This was a great achievement for Franck’s career! In 1888, Franck again worked on an opera – Ghiselle. When the huge ‘String Quartet’ got completed, it was performed in April 1890, and was welcomed by audiences and critics.
Death And Legacy
Franck began his new session at the Conservatoire in October, but was infected by a cold mid-month. This worsened and was converted into pleurisy complicated by pericarditis. From this time, his health never stabilized and went on deteriorating and he expired on 8 November 1890. His funeral took place at Sainte-Clotilde and as expected was attended by large worshippers including Léo Delibes (officially representing the Conservatoire), Eugène Gigout, Saint-Saëns, Édouard Lalo, Alexandre Guilmant, Gabriel Fauré and Charles-Marie Widor (who succeeded Franck as professor of organ at the Conservatoire). One of his great legacies include a number of compositions written by him such as the Prelude, Chorale and Fugue for piano solo (1884), Symphony in D minor (1886–88), the Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major (1886) to name a few. His works largely inspired the young generation and set new trends in the world of music.