César Franck: Symphony in D Minor

Photo of Cesar FranckCÉSAR FRANCK (1822-1890): Symphony in D Minor (1886-88). The Symphony in D Minor is the most famous orchestral work and the only mature symphony written by the 19th-century Belgian composer César Franck. After two years of work, the symphony was completed in August 1888, and premiered at the Paris Conservatory on 17 February 1889, only a year before Franck died.

Franck employed a cyclic structure in the composition of his symphony. Indeed, the Symphony in D Minor remains the most outstanding example of cyclic symphonic writing in the romantic tradition. However, Franck also used a typically “Germanic” sound, eschewing both the novelties of orchestration and the nationalistic themes that inspired Saint-Saëns and d'Indy. As a result, Franck’s Symphony fuses two distinct national forms: the French cyclic form and the German romantic symphonic form, with clear Lisztian and Wagnerian influences.

In a departure from typical late romantic symphonic structure, Franck’s Symphony in D Minor is in three movements, each of which refers to the four-bar theme introduced at the beginning of the piece. The first movement opens with that lithe subject which is spun through a variety of keys and forms the thematic basis for the cyclic treatment of the rest of the symphony. The second movement, famous for the haunting melody played by the English horn above plucked harp and strings, is punctuated by two trios and a lively section in the middle which has the flavour and colour of a scherzo. The Finale begins with possibly the most joyful and upbeat melody Franck ever wrote and is in a variant of sonata form. The coda recapitulates the core thematic material of the symphony which transforms into an exultant exclamation of the first theme, inverting its initial lugubrious appearance and bringing Franck’s symphony back to its beginnings.