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Symphony in D minor, M48

'Franck: Symphonic organ works' (CDA68046)
Franck: Symphonic organ works
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Movement 1: Lento – Allegro non troppo
Movement 2: Allegretto
Movement 3: Allegro non troppo

Symphony in D minor, M48
‘Oh, what arid and drab music, without any touch of grace or charm, without a smile! Even the themes are often lacking in interest.’ (Camille Bellaigue, reviewing the first performance of the Symphony in D minor in the Revue des Deux Mondes, 15 March 1889)

From the moment that it was first performed, Franck’s Symphony in D minor has provided us with one of the great conundrums of musical history. Posterity has largely discarded Bellaigue’s view, but the work remains problematic for performers and academics alike. Perhaps it was not so much the themes as the way in which they were presented that aroused reviewers’ hostility. The form and orchestration of the work are controversial; in both we must acknowledge the influence of the organ.

The formal plan of the Symphony has a clear precedent in the Grande Pièce symphonique (for organ) of 1863: both are cyclic, their first movements use variants of a Sonata-Allegro form, the second movements are a compression of the symphonic slow movement and scherzo, and the third movements recall, in the manner of Beethoven, all the themes previously exposed. The influence of Wagner on Franck’s creative thinking (particularly the Prelude to Tristan, which he heard in 1874) might be said to be the defining difference between the two works, the Symphony being far more free-flowing and expansive. Nonetheless, questionable procedures, for example the double exposition in the first movement and the ‘crucible’ of themes in the third, are also indicative of another influence: the organist/master improviser at work. Parisian liturgies of the time were heavily reliant upon improvisation, and the remote position of the instrument and player high at the back of the building made thematic clarity and vividness essential if the congregation were to follow the musical structure.

If criticism of the work’s form was harsh, the orchestration aroused even greater disapproval. The instruments are used in blocks, there is much doubling, the woodwind is frequently asked to contribute little more than crescendo and diminuendo to the ensemble, whilst the brass merely punctuates the big moments. We see in Les Éolides (1876) a composer capable of exquisite touches of orchestration, so we may assume that the broader approach with the later Symphony was deliberate. Léon Vallas’ comment that the orchestration is ‘easily explained, even excusable, when considered in relation to the organ’ carries significant weight: we hear the ghosts of registration changes, manual changes, and use of the swell box in the orchestral original. Franck regretted the experiment, declaring that he would ‘write the wind parts quite differently if there was ever a question of revising the work’.

Given that this didn’t take place (Franck died a year and a half after the first performance), the issues outlined above suggest that an organ transcription may be a valid contribution to our understanding of the work. The paradox of the Symphony was memorably defined by Norman Demuth: ‘Never was there such magnificent music so badly written.’ The present transcription may be seen as an authentic response to that paradox, particularly since modern advances in console control enable Franck’s orchestration to be used as the outline for a detailed registration plan.

There were other reasons why the Symphony initially struggled, not least the political situation of the time. The domain of the symphony was considered by many in France to be Germanic, and Franck’s absorption of the influences of Beethoven, Wagner and Liszt served to confirm suspicions that his music was anti-French. The orchestration, too, pointed towards a Teutonic sound world and away from the more subtle ‘French’ touches exhibited in contemporary works such as Saint-Saëns’ ‘Organ’ Symphony. Nationalistic attitudes may be wholly attributed to the relatively recent Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871). The Société nationale de musique was founded in 1871 in part as a response to anti-German sentiment aroused by the war (their motto was ‘Ars gallica’). A confrontational split in the Société in 1886—the same year that Saint-Saëns completed his ‘Organ’ Symphony and two years before Franck’s—brought the matter of foreign music to a head. The conservative Saint-Saëns was against its promotion whilst the revolutionary Franck supported it: the resulting atmosphere within the French musical establishment was poisonous. The reviewer Bellaigue was not alone among journalists in supporting Saint-Saëns, with whom he also enjoyed a close friendship.

from notes by Simon Johnson © 2013

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Details for CDA68046 track 3
Allegro non troppo
Recording date
12 April 2012
Recording venue
St Paul's Cathedral, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Richard Pinel
Recording engineer
Martin Haskell & Iestyn Rees
Hyperion usage
  1. Franck: Symphonic organ works (CDA68046)
    Disc 1 Track 3
    Release date: October 2013
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