César Franck is the father of modern French music, and the link between that tradition and 19th-century German composition. His music echoes Beethoven and anticipates Debussy and Ravel, even though they would reject certain aspects of his style.
Born in Liège to parents of German ancestry, he toured as child prodigy pianist at the urging of his ambitious and eccentric father. He studied at the Paris Conservatory after being becoming a French national, a prerequisite for enrollment. After his career as a prodigy fell apart, he made his living as a music teacher and church organist. In 1871 he was appointed organ professor at the Paris Conservatory, and his reputation began to grow as he turned his organ class into an unofficial composition seminar, attracting a circle of adoring students.
Though Franck had composed all his life, his most important works date from his last 20 years. It’s a small catalogue of pieces, usually just one in any given genre: the Symphony in D Minor, the Violin Sonata in A Major, the Piano Quintet in F Minor, the String Quartet in D Major.
In 1906, one of Franck’s students, the composer Vincent D’Indy (1851–1931), published a fawning biography of his old teacher. It moves freely between anecdotes, musical analysis, and hagiography: the book clearly shows Franck’s influence on the next generation of French musicians, and also offers rare insight into a composer’s working process, documented by someone who witnessed it. Of the String Quartet in D Major, D’Indy recalled:
In 1888, when we used to see with astonishment his piano littered with the scores of quartets by Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms, [Franck] did not get beyond the contemplation of the idea. The first actual sketches date only from the spring of 1889. The first movement, the dominating idea, caused him infinite trouble. Frequently he would start afresh, rubbing out with a nervous hand all that he had believed to be permanent the day before. He built up a good third of the opening section upon a melodic idea, of which he afterwards modified almost the whole elemental structure. He did not hesitate even then to cut out what was already written in clear copy, and to begin again according to a second version, which in its turn failed to satisfy him, and was destroyed and replaced by a third and last scheme.
The effort was evidently worth it, as D’Indy finds the first movement to be “the most wonderful piece of instrumental music which has been constructed since the last of Beethoven’s quartets.” Franck does indeed recall Beethoven in his confident use of contrasting ideas and handling of fugal passages. But he also establishes a distinctively French quality with ambiguous, floating harmonies and haunting, whispered textures. D’Indy explains: “Its form … consists of two musical ideas, each living its own life and possessing its own complete organism, which interpenetrate without becoming merged in each other, thanks to the perfect ordering of their various elements and diversions.”
The second movement Scherzo is “a round danced by sylphs in a moonless landscape, as it would have been described during the Romantic period,” D’Indy says, evidently recognizing the end of the Romantic period by 1906. He reports that Franck wrote the Scherzo in ten days, and made barely any revisions, quite unlike the arduous work of the first movement.
“The Larghetto is in B major—a favorite key of the composer’s,” D’Indy continues. “It is also a model of purity, grandeur, and melodic sincerity.… With what joy [Franck] called to me from the other end of his sitting-room, when I went to see him one day: ‘I have got it at last! It is a beautiful phrase; you must see for yourself!’ Without loss of time he hastened to the piano to make me share in his happiness.”
D’Indy’s effusion slackens only slightly for the last movement, which he calls “well worth studying, although it is not so spontaneous in structure.” It reintroduces themes from the previous movements, an example of the inventive, cyclical forms Franck often used in his large works.
The Quartet was premiered on April 19, 1890, by the Société Nationale de Musique, an organization founded by Camille Saint-Saëns to champion French music. Franck was elected president of the Société in 1886, and was succeeded by D’Indy upon his death. In the summer of 1890, Franck suffered a head injury when his carriage was hit by a horse-drawn trolley. Though he did not appear seriously hurt, his health quickly declined, and he died of a respiratory infection the following autumn.