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Franck (1822-90) - Symphony in D minor

Franck, Belgian by birth, took to music very early in life, and soon acquired a reputation as a virtuoso organist. He laboured long and hard over his only symphony (1886-8), in spite of being forearmed with the accumulated wisdom of no less than 63 years' experience of life and music. 

In all significant respects, it is an extraordinary work. For instance, its three movement layout harks back to the pre-classical sinfonia, while its cyclical use of very short themes and the intriguing variation of sonata form in the first movement are very much in the avant-garde of the day. 

Nevertheless, the main cause of the disdain, even contempt, from the professional “priesthood” is the highly unusual orchestration. Franck, dull-witted composer of mere organ works, could manage no better than to use the orchestra to imitate the organ (for example, “turgid/turbid* brass/bass*”). Shame on him; he should not dabble in things he does not understand. Except, these what we might politely call mealy-mouthed misery-gutses seem to have overlooked three important points: firstly that it ain't necessarily easy to make an orchestra sound like an organ, secondly it ain't necessarily a Bad Thing, and thirdly none of Franck's other orchestral works sounds like this. Franck made a deliberate and wilful choice of sonority that beautifully complements the sinuous slitherings of the chromatically lubricated themes, just coincidentally sounding a bit like an organ! D'Indy related that, arriving home after the somewhat fraught première, the composer merely smiled and said, “Oh, it sounded well - just as I thought it would.” 

The long first movement is marked lento, but ranges well beyond that as its unusual structure unfolds. The exposition, comprising two complex subjects, is repeated in full, and then Franck springs a third subject, the so-called “swinging theme”, on us! Following an unusually extended and imaginative development, Franck prevents the recapitulation making the movement over-long by the simple but radical expedient of leaving it out! 

The second movement (allegretto) elegantly combines elements of slow movement and scherzo, while the finale‚ (allegro non troppo) furnishes an embarrassment of melodic riches. For me, the only real misjudgement in this entire symphony is the finale's bludgeoning reprise of the middle movement's lovely theme, but even that makes a lovely noise. The denouement is as stunning as it is brief - fired off like a rocket into the November night sky. 

This is a wonderfully original work, teeming with invention, excitement, and interest. The much frowned-on orchestration in fact turns out to be one of the main attractions - a unique sound quality, exuding a darkly burnished glow, deep and rich like french-polished mahagony. It is something of a minor miracle that, in spite of the early and continuing hostility of many musical professionals (which might have buried it for good), ordinary music lovers the world over have taken this symphony to their hearts, and won it a proud place in the repertoire. 
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© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


 

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