César Franck: Symphony in D minor
César Franck’s cyclic Symphony in D minor was started in 1877 – a time where the slightly older composer was hitting his creative stride. Although firmly planted in the French music scene, Franck very much admired the Germanic stylings of composers before, including Beethoven and Mozart. This work remains the only completed mature symphony that Franck composed. The symphony received its European premiere in Paris in 1889. Mixed reviews came in about Franck’s new symphony, however the work still reached overseas and has remained in orchestral concert repertoire since.
The slightly unusual thing about this symphony is that although it is based on German Romantic conventions, Franck decided to limit himself to three movements instead of the more conventional four or five movements. Set in a cyclic form, many of the themes heard in the symphony return throughout all three movements, creating a close relationship between the music in each movement.
Movement I – Lento – Allegro non troppo
The slow and moody opening sets the scene for the longest movement of the three. The introductory four-bar theme returns throughout all three movements and acts as the central theme for the symphony. Set in sonata-allegro form, the first movement is harmonically adventurous, with Franck moving rapidly through a number of keys. Full of life and vitality when the Allegro non troppo section begins, Franck’s illuminating writing jumps out at the listener. Due to the sheer length of the movement, Franck takes his time building up themes and using the development section to change and enhance them. As the music reaches the big climax near the end of the movement, Franck’s rich harmonic language explodes into fruitful colour. Unlike the opening, the movement ends dramatically, with the orchestra uniting for the final chords.
Movement II – Allegretto
Opening with light pizzicato off-beats from the strings and harp, the second movement starts playfully. The cor anglais emerges with an elongated solo on top of the pizzicato accompaniment. Franck’s thin textures here create space for the soloist, whilst also playing into a haunting atmosphere. The woodwind and horn writing in this movement is one of the best aspects of the music, with ranges being pushed and melodies soaring from this section. After two trio sections ensue, a lively scherzo section takes over. The bubbly character here is cheeky and much lighter than some of the other material in this movement. After a reprise of the main theme, this movement concludes quietly.
Movement III – Allegro non troppo
The finale movement opens with big tutti chords from across the orchestra, before a light melody plays out in the upper strings. The atmosphere here is joyful, and when the orchestra unites within the melody it creates an effective atmosphere. Franck puts lots of focus onto the woodwind and brass during this movement, with dramatic outbursts from the brass adding to the drama of the finale. The exuberant music is woven together tidily, with the symphony concluding with a nostalgic coda.
Ⓒ Alex Burns