Symphony in D minor (Franck)

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Franck, by Pierre Petit, 1887

The Symphony in D minor is the best-known orchestral work and the only mature symphony written by the 19th-century composer César Franck. The work is unusual in being in three, rather than the traditional four, movements. It employs a cyclic form, with important themes recurring in all three movements.

The symphony was premiered in Paris on 17 February 1889 and despite dividing musical opinion, at the time and subsequently, it entered the international orchestral repertoire. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries it has been less frequently heard in concerts than it was earlier in the 20th century, but since the 1920s it has received more than 70 recordings by orchestras and conductors from around the world.


Franck, a naturalised French citizen from 1871 until his death, was born in 1822 in what is now Belgium, and was of half-German ancestry.[1] He was a founding member of the Société nationale de musique, founded in 1871 to promote French music, but remained an admirer of German music and was less troubled than some of his colleagues about what was called "L'invasion germanique" of music in France in the 1870s.[2] In the view of the music critics Edward Sackville-West and Desmond Shawe-Taylor, "the quality of [Franck's] imagination, his resolution of formal problems, and the extreme chromaticism of his harmony are decidedly Germanic".[3] When the Société split in 1883 over the admission of non-French musicians, Franck and his former student Vincent d'Indy were keen proponents of admitting German and other composers.[4]

Franck came to his creative peak in his late fifties. His Piano Quintet and the oratorio Les Béatitudes appeared in 1879, the Symphonic Variations in 1885 and the Violin Sonata in 1886.[5] In 1887 he began sketches for a symphony – a musical form more associated with German than with French music.[1] Saint-Saëns's two-movement "Organ" Symphony had been well received the previous year, but only one earlier symphony by a French composer had firmly established itself in the international orchestral repertoire: Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique composed in 1830.[6] Like Berlioz,[7] Franck revered Beethoven, and several commentators[n 1] have noted the influence of Beethoven, particularly the late string quartets, on the symphony, both as to form – Franck adopted a cyclic structure – and content.[6][9][10] Like Berlioz, Franck departed from the customary four-movement form of the classical symphony of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; unlike Berlioz, whose symphony has five movements, Franck limited himself to three.[6] He dedicated the work "To my friend Henri Duparc" (a former pupil who was at that time a colleague in the Société).[2][11]

Premiere and reception[edit]

Paris's symphony orchestras had a reputation for conservatism and avoiding modern works, but the Société des concerts of the Paris Conservatoire was an exception, giving performances of new works including Saint-Saëns's "Organ" Symphony (1888).[12] Franck's symphony was first performed on 17 February 1889 in the concert hall of the Conservatoire by the orchestra of the Société conducted by Jules Garcin.[12]

The piece divided opinion. Le Figaro commented, "The new work of M. César Franck is a very important composition and developed with the resources of the powerful art of the learned musician; but it is so dense and tight that we cannot grasp all its aspects and feel its effect at a first hearing, despite the analytical and thematic note that had been distributed to the audience". The paper contrasted the "exuberant enthusiasm" of some listeners with the coolness of the reception from others.[12] There were some hostile comments. Gounod was reported as calling the work "the affirmation of impotence taken to the point of dogma".[13] [n 2] Exception was taken in conservative quarters to Franck's orchestration: Vincent d'Indy said that an unnamed colleague of Franck's on the faculty of the Conservatoire asked, "Who ever heard of a cor anglais in a symphony? Just name a single symphony by Haydn or Beethoven introducing the cor anglais".[14][n 3] Franck's use of the brass was criticised as being too blatant, with cornets added to the usual orchestral trumpets.[16]

At a later hearing of the work, Le Ménestrel balanced criticism and praise: it found the music gloomy and pompous, with little to say, but saying it "with the conviction of the Pope pronouncing on dogma".[17] Nonetheless, Le Ménestrel judged the work a considerable achievement, worthy of a musician with noble tendencies, though one who had made the excusable mistake of "aspiring to a pedestal a little too high for him".[17]

From the 1920s to around the 1970s, the symphony was popular with audiences and was frequently performed by leading U.S. orchestras, but since then it has substantially declined in prominence and is no longer part of the orchestral canon. In 2022, musicians attributed this to changing musical tastes, an overfamiliarity with the music, or the spirituality of the processional slow movement becoming less relevant in a more secular age.[18]



The score calls for two flutes, two oboes, cor anglais, two soprano clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, two cornets, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, three timpani, harp and strings.[19]


In a departure from typical late-romantic symphonic structure, the Symphony in D minor is in three movements, each of which makes reference to the initial four-bar theme introduced at the beginning of the piece.

  1. Lento; Allegro ma non troppo.
    An expansion of a standard sonata-allegro form, the symphony begins with a harmonically lithe subject (below) that is spun through widely different keys throughout the movement.
    Orchesterwerke Romantik Themen.pdf
  2. Allegretto
    Famous for the haunting melody played by the cor anglais above plucked harp and strings. The movement is punctuated by two trios and a lively section that is reminiscent of a scherzo.
    Orchesterwerke Romantik Themen.pdf
  3. Finale: Allegro non troppo
    The movement begins with a joyful and upbeat melody and is written in a variant of Sonata form. The coda, which recapitulates the core thematic material of the symphony, is an exultant exclamation of the first theme, inverting its initial lugubrious appearance and bringing the symphony back to its beginnings.
    Orchesterwerke Romantik Themen.pdf


The work has been infrequently programmed in concert halls in recent years,[20] but has been much recorded. The BBC published a list of recordings in connection with its programme Record Review, on which a comparative review of recordings was broadcast in 2017:[21]

Conductor Orchestra
Henry Adolph South German Philharmonic
Yuri Ahronovitch Vienna Symphony
Jonas Alber Brunswick State Orchestra
Antonio de Almeida Moscow Symphony Orchestra
Ernest Ansermet Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Christian Arming Orchestre Philharmonique de Liège
John Barbirolli New York Philharmonic
Sir John Barbirolli Czech Philharmonic
Daniel Barenboim Orchestre de Paris
Sir Thomas Beecham Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française
Roberto Benzi Arnhem Philharmonic
Paavo Berglund Bournemouth Symphony
Leonard Bernstein New York Philharmonic
Leonard Bernstein Orchestre de Paris
Leonard Bernstein Orchestre National de France
Leon Botstein American Symphony
Sir Adrian Boult Philharmonia [n 4]
Semyon Bychkov Orchestre de Paris
Guido Cantelli NBC Symphony
Sergiu Celibidache Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma e Torino della RAI
Sergiu Celibidache Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly Concertgebouw
André Cluytens Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française
Jean-Philippe Collard Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse
Antal Doráti Minneapolis Symphony
Charles Dutoit Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal
Wilhelm Furtwängler Vienna Philharmonic
Philippe Gaubert Paris Conservatoire
Jean-Yves Gaudin Tbilisi Symphony
Carlo Maria Giulini Philharmonia
Carlo Maria Giulini Berlin Philharmonic
Carlo Maria Giulini Vienna Philharmonic
Philippe Herreweghe Orchestre des Champs-Élysées
Marek Janowski Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Armin Jordan Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Herbert von Karajan Orchestre de Paris
Vassil Kazandjiev Sofia Symphony
Otto Klemperer New Philharmonia
Ken-ichiro Kobayashi Czech Philharmonic
Kirill Kondrashin Bavarian Radio Symphony
Jan Latham-Koenig Strasbourg Philharmonic
Fritz Lehmann Bamberg Symphony
Raymond Leppard Royal Philharmonic
Andrew Litton Bournemouth Symphony
Jesus Lopez-Cobos Cincinnati Symphony
Peter Lucker Savaria Symphony
Lorin Maazel Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Lorin Maazel Cleveland
Jean Martinon Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française
Kurt Masur New York Philharmonic
Willem Mengelberg Orchestre de Radio-Paris Théâtre des Champs Élysées
Willem Mengelberg Concertgebouw
Dmitri Mitropoulos Minneapolis Symphony
Pierre Monteux Chicago Symphony
Pierre Monteux Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française
Pierre Monteux San Francisco Symphony
Charles Munch Boston Symphony
Charles Munch Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française
Riccardo Muti Philadelphia
Gunter Neuhold Royal Flanders Philharmonic
Yannick Nézet-Séguin Orchestre Métropolitain
Eugene Ormandy Philadelphia
Eugene Ormandy NDR Symphony
Willem van Otterloo Concertgebouw
Seiji Ozawa Boston Symphony
Paul Paray Detroit Symphony
Michel Plasson Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse
Artur Rodzinski NBC Symphony Orchestra (1939),[n 5] Vienna Philharmonic (1954)
Rico Saccani Budapest Philharmonic
Kurt Sanderling Dresden Staatskapelle
Constantin Silvestri Philharmonia
Yuri Simonov Moscow Philharmonic
Leopold Stokowski Philadelphia
Leopold Stokowski London Symphony
Evgeny Svetlanov USSR State Symphony
George Szell Cleveland
Yan Pascal Tortelier BBC Philharmonic
Arturo Toscanini NBC Symphony Orchestra

Notes, references and sources[edit]


  1. ^ Donald Tovey cited the String Quartet No. 13;[6] Daniel Gregory Mason No. 16;[8] and in a study in The Musical Times, F. H. Shera mentioned both.[9]
  2. ^ "Cette symphonie, c'est l'affirmation de l'impuissance poussée jusqu'au dogme"[13]
  3. ^ Laurence Davies points out in his biography of Franck that in fact Haydn had used the cor anglais in one of his symphonies: No. 22 in E♭ major, The Philosopher.[15]
  4. ^ Billed as "London Orchestra Society" and "RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra" on early releases for contractual reasons. [22]
  5. ^ Issued anonymously on World's Greatest Music label. [23]


  1. ^ a b Trevitt, John, and Joël-Marie Fauquet. "Franck, César(-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert)", Grove Music Online, Oxford University Press, 2001. Retrieved 30 June 2021 (subscription required)
  2. ^ a b Strasser, Michael. "The Société Nationale and Its Adversaries: The Musical Politics of L'Invasion Germanique in the 1870s", 19th-Century Music, vol. 24, no. 3, 2001, pp. 225–251 (subscription required)
  3. ^ Sackville-West and Shawe-Taylor, p. 285
  4. ^ "Société nationale de musique", Bibliotheque nationale de France. Retrieved 13 May 2021
  5. ^ Bayliss, p. 205
  6. ^ a b c d Bayliss, p. 203
  7. ^ Bonds, p. 409
  8. ^ Mason, p. 71
  9. ^ a b Shera, F. H. "César Franck's Symphony in D Minor". The Musical Times, April 1936, pp. 314–317 (subscription required)
  10. ^ Mason, p. 71
  11. ^ Franck, title page
  12. ^ a b c Darcours, Charles. "Notes de musique", Le Figaro, 20 February 1889, p. 6
  13. ^ a b Kunel, p. 190 and Stove, p. 266
  14. ^ D'Indy, p. 62; and Davies, p. 236
  15. ^ Davies, p. 236
  16. ^ Mason, p. 69
  17. ^ a b Boutarel, Amédée "Concert Lamoureux", Le Ménestrel: journal de musique, 26 November 1893, p. 383
  18. ^ Allen, David (2022-03-18). "What Happened to One of Classical Music's Most Popular Pieces?". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2022-03-19.
  19. ^ Franck, p. 1
  20. ^ Service, Tom. "Symphony Guide", The Guardian, 29 April 2014
  21. ^ "Record Review", BBC. Retrieved 1 July 2021
  22. ^ Stuart, Philip. Decca Classical 1929–2009. Retrieved 25 May 2020.
  23. ^ Gray, Michael. "The 'World's Greatest Music' and 'World's Greatest Opera' Records: A Discography". Retrieved 14 August 2021.



  • Bayliss, Stanley (1949). "César Franck". In Ralph Hill (ed.). The Symphony. Harmondsworth: Penguin. OCLC 1023580432.
  • Davies, Laurence (1977). César Franck and his Circle. New York: Da Capo. OCLC 311525906.
  • D'Indy, Vincent (1909). César Franck. London: John Lane. OCLC 13598593.
  • Franck, César (1890). Symphony in D minor (PDF). Paris: Hamelle. OCLC 1156443684.
  • Kunel, Maurice (1947). La Vie de César Franck. Paris: Grasset. OCLC 751302461.
  • Mason, Daniel Gregory (1920). The Appreciation of Music, Vol. III: Short Studies of Great Masterpieces =. New York: H.W. Gray. OCLC 670027725.;
  • Sackville-West, Edward; Desmond Shawe-Taylor (1955). The Record Guide. London: Collins. OCLC 500373060.
  • Stove, R. J. (2012). César Franck: His Life and Times. Lanham: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-81-088208-9.


  • Bonds, Mark Evan (Autumn 1992). "Sinfonia anti-eroica: Berlioz's Harold en Italie and the Anxiety of Beethoven's Influence". The Journal of Musicology. 10 (4): 417–463. JSTOR 763644. (subscription required)

See also[edit]

External links[edit]