In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section César Franck

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Contextual Studies
  • Special Journal Issues and Essay Collections
  • Controversies over Franck’s Place in French Music
  • Achievements, Aesthetics, Style, and Influence

Music César Franck
Brian Hart
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0086


César Franck (b. 1822–d. 1890) was a polarizing figure in 19th-century French music. An organ professor at the Conservatoire, he led what amounted to a composition class for students who resisted the officially sanctioned path of learning to write operas in the currently popular style. Drawn to Franck’s own progressive compositions and his artistic integrity, they responded with an extraordinary loyalty that approached worship. They glorified the man they called “Father Franck” or “Pater Seraphicus” as a supremely disinterested artist devoted to writing pure and sublime works instead of merely entertaining the public. For these disciples—whom opponents derisively labeled “Franck’s gang” (la bande à Franck)—his music symbolized the triumph of faith over doubt and good over evil. Despite his personal gentleness, Franck attracted intense opposition from colleagues at the Conservatoire and other conservative quarters, most notably Camille Saint-Saëns, and his music knew little success in his lifetime. (The composer’s genuinely serene response to harsh antagonism deeply struck his supporters.) Battles between Franck’s admirers and detractors raged for many years after his death. Admirers even argued among themselves over his legacy. Many of the so-called franckistes allied with Vincent d’Indy stressed the spiritual content of his music, in both vocal and instrumental works. Others, such as Romain Rolland and Franck’s son Georges Franck, saw him as a great composer of secular music; Georges promoted his father’s operas, while Rolland insisted that the passionate eruptions and sensual emotions of the Piano Quintet and his multimovement symphonic poem Psyché revealed more earthly concerns underneath his genuine Catholic faith. Opponents of franckisme pointed to his Belgian birth and Germanic ethnicity in order to exclude him and his followers from the French tradition. When examining period literature on Franck, the reader should consider the author’s artistic, religious, and sociopolitical biases, because these often strongly inform that writer’s perspective on the man and his music. Franck remains controversial for 21st-century scholars, if for more strictly musical reasons. For many years writers typically confined themselves to generic and subjective observations about Franck’s music, and often they devoted more space to its alleged faults than to its virtues. Since the centenary of Franck’s death, however, important scholarship has appeared regularly, especially in Germany and France; except for the organ music and the Symphony in D Minor, analytic studies in English remain sparse.

General Overviews

As if to compensate for the neglect during his lifetime, Franck’s popularity grew quickly after his death, especially as pupils like Vincent d’Indy and Ernest Chausson began to achieve their own reputations. In its survey of French music history, the Conservatoire’s official Encyclopédie de la musique et dictionnaire du Conservatoire allotted Franck a separate entry, Bréville 1925, which it did for few other composers; most others are studied in groups. Of the early-21st-century dictionary entries, Trevitt and Fauquet 2011 is briefer but includes a few examples, while Fauquet 2001 provides a more comprehensive overview. Two general reference sources on the 19th century consider Franck: Dahlhaus 1989 criticizes Franck and other French composers for aspiring to “monumentality” through an awkward mix of traditional tonal structures and post-Wagnerian harmonies, while Taruskin 2005 focuses on Franck’s music (especially the Symphony in D Minor) as a conveyor of spiritual messages. No textbooks deal with Franck in any detail, but Finson 2002 analyzes the first movement of the symphony with a schematic and examples. Pierre 1900 collects the major documents and reports from the Conservatoire during Franck’s tenure there, both as student and teacher.

  • Bréville, Pierre de. “César Franck.” In Encyclopédie de la musique et dictionnaire du Conservatoire. Part 2, Vol. 1. Edited by Albert Lavignac and Lionel de la Laurencie, 176–182. Paris: Delagrave, 1925.

    Franck receives an individual entry “in light of the importance of [his] role in the evolution of modern music” (p. 176n). Biography, his style of improvisation, cyclic process in the String Quartet, teaching, and the hostility directed against Franck in his lifetime. Bréville studied with Franck from 1881 to 1887.

  • Dahlhaus, Carl. Nineteenth-Century Music. Translated by J. Bradford Robinson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

    English translation of Die Musik des 19. Jahrhunderts (Wiesbaden, West Germany: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft Athenaion, 1980). Discusses Franck’s symphony as part of the “Second Age of the Symphony” (pp. 274–276) and the String Quartet in the context of “Ars gallica” (pp. 292–293). Franck attempts to achieve “monumentality” but fails, because he unsuccessfully injects a classical formal scheme with Wagnerian harmonies instead of pursuing the thematic integration of Johannes Brahms.

  • Fauquet, Joël-Marie. “César Franck.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. 2d ed. Edited by Ludwig Finscher, 1584–1611. Sachteil 6. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter Verlag, 2001.

    Summarizes most of the major issues of biography and style though without examples. Extensive bibliography and works list.

  • Finson, Jon W. Nineteenth-Century Music: The Western Classical Tradition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002.

    Presents Franck as one who borrows from both the “New German School” and the “Absolute Music” camps of German composers.

  • Pierre, Constant. Le Conservatoire national de musique et de déclamation: Documents historiques et administraitifs, recueillis ou reconstitués par Constant Pierre. Paris: Heugel, 1900.

    An important repository of the official documents of the Paris Conservatoire; covers the years Franck studied and taught at that institution. Originally published in 1900, it is now available online from the University of Rochester.

  • Taruskin, Richard. The Oxford History of Western Music. Vol. 3, The Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    Focuses on the influence of Franck’s Symphony in D Minor on the symphonic tradition and its emblematic status as the French symphony designed to convey a spiritual message (pp. 774–783). Discusses its debts to Ludwig van Beethoven’s late quartets, Franz Liszt, and Richard Wagner. In Volume 4 (p. 266), Taruskin briefly notes Franck’s little-discussed impact on Charles Ives.

  • Trevitt, John, and Joël-Marie Fauquet. “César Franck.” In Grove Music Online. 2011.

    Good summary of Franck’s style, especially his harmonic language and cyclic process. Strongly favors his instrumental music (especially the late chamber works) over the vocal compositions. Available online by subscription.

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