Symphony in D Minor

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            Franck, along with Saint-Saëns, must be considered the most important French musician in the second half of the nineteenth century.  In this country concert halls have long been dominated by the hegemony of German-speaking composers, for a number of reasons.   Berlioz, of course, is well known, but after that, a few compositions by Franck, Saint-Saëns, and others, such as d’Indy, constitute the common French symphonic repertoire in this country before the advent of the towering Debussy and Ravel.  Franck was born in what is today’s Belgium, but later became a French citizen and spent most of his life in Paris, where he was a revered organist and teacher.  He was perhaps the most important organist and composer for that instrument after J. S. Bach, and spent many years as the resident organist at the famed basilica church, Sainte-Clotilde, in Paris.  Serving as professor at the Paris conservatory, he enjoyed the adulation of an important circle of pupils, most of whom went on to become a significant part of the music scene in late nineteenth-century France.   Although he composed many songs, sacred choral works, and other compositions for the stage, on the whole they don’t measure up to the importance and quality of his keyboard compositions, chamber music, and symphonic works.  There are exceptions, such as his evergreen Panis angelicus, but they are just that, exceptions.  Success as a composer came rather late for him; his major works for orchestra were mostly written in the last decade of his life.  Those compositions are the Symphonic Variations, a few tone poems, and, of course, his evergreen Symphony in D Minor.

            During most of the nineteenth century opera ruled the stage in France, and the symphony genre more or less languished.  When Franck’s Symphony in D Minor was premièred in 1889, the only major French symphonies high in the repertoire were Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique of almost sixty years earlier and Saint-Saëns “Organ” symphony, completed only three years earlier.   Its reception in Paris was mixed—and world wide still is, to some degree—with the usual divisions between the audience and the critics.  But, it nevertheless achieved a permanent place in the standard repertoire.  

            It is noteworthy for being in three movements, rather than the standard four, and its employment of cyclicism—that is, the use of the same or similar musical material in all of the movements.   Written for the standard large instrumentation of the nineteenth-century orchestra, following longstanding French practice, it includes parts for two cornets in addition to two trumpets.  But, more astounding to some contemporary snotty critics (Paris was reeking with conservative intellectuals in the arts at the time), Franck had the temerity to include a significant solo for the English horn!  Thitherto, it was allowed only in the opera orchestra for Jewish and Arabic allusions.  Finally, many found the somewhat dense chromatic language—owing much to the influence of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde--and Franck’s mastery of tight motivic manipulation and development a bit scholarly and overweening. Vincent d’Indy reported that the initial audience couldn’t make “head nor tail” of it.  But that was then.  Subsequent audiences have long found the composer’s only mature symphony an attractive, unique work.

            The first movement opens slowly and ominously with the main theme heard immediately in the low strings.  Shortly an allegro follows with the same material.  But, soon Franck—almost operatically—returns to an elaboration of the slow beginning, before jumping back into the faster tempo.  This whole elaboration of the opening material is literally oozing with Franck’s characteristic chromaticism.  But, the happy secondary material in F major is easily to spot, and welcome in its straightforward diatonicism.   In the ensuing development, Franck’s respect for Beethoven’s relentless economy of means and detailed manipulation of a few clear ideas is manifest.  The lengthy and robust recap is heralded by a dignified, stentorian return to the very opening theme in the low brass.  After working thoroughly through the familiar melodic material, a brief, tranquil section for solo woodwinds announces the short coda, ending almost abruptly with our familiar three-note opening theme.

            The second movement, of course, is the famous one with the controversial English horn solo.  Accompanied by pizzicato strings and a prominent harp, the English horn intones a melancholy tune, soon joined by a cantabile countermelody in the violas.  A new tune in the violins leads to the subsequent first contrasting section, built over a string filigree.  The whole orchestra gradually enters, with the filigree continuing.  The third section consists of several short variations on the familiar main theme of the English horn followed by a second contrasting section. The movement proper closes with an extensive treatment of the main theme accompanied by the familiar, soft moto perpetuo in the strings.  Finally, a substantial coda built upon much of what we’ve heard before finally takes us out.

            The energetic third movement begins with a clear statement of the first theme in the bassoons and ‘cellos, soon followed by the second theme heard first in the brass.  All easy to spot.            But, soon, our old friend, the English horn solo from the second movement briefly appears, with the development right on its heels.  Franck then, in his usual careful manner works his way through his material.  It doesn’t take long before the theme from the opening blazes away at the beginning of the rather short recapitulation.  The more substantial coda features a lyrical statement of the very first theme heard at the beginning of the first movement, accompanied by the harp.  But back to business, and the main theme of this last movement forcefully returns and takes us to the end.