Mary Moran celebrates the music of César Franck

Former French Prime Minister Charles de Freycinet was walking amongst the urbane people of Paris when he recognized César Franck approaching at a fast trot, his uniform an oversized frock coat, grey trousers hoisted too high, top hat haphazardly brushed against the nap. The Prime Minister slowed to talk, but Franck, without breaking stride, called as he passed, “Will you come with me to Sainte-Clotilde? But don’t speak to me. I heard last night heavenly things, and I don’t want to forget them!”

Had the Prime Minister followed, he would have witnessed the organiste titulaire take his place at the Cavaille-Coll console, and in dreamy reverie tease the heavenly things into divine themes, pausing occasionally to draw from his dress coat pocket a red notebook, in which he would scratch notes for later.

And when later came, on any given Sunday or feast day, Franck would browse the notebook, perform his ritualistic meditation of tapping his forehead with the third finger, and from that moment on nothing would exist for him but the music.

Alas, this meant a tendency to lose track and not stop when required. In desperation the pastor installed a bell in the pumper room. “When rung, this means, M. Franck, by order of the pastor, STOP!” When this proved ineffective, a louder electric bell was installed which M. Franck couldn’t help but hear, and yet on he played, unruffled, exclaiming “But I never have time to return to the tonic!”

Franck’s student, Vincent d’Indy, who witnessed many of these musical extravaganzas, explained: “Franck never played the organ to be heard, but to acquit himself as best he could as a duty toward God and his own conscience. And his best was of a sane, elevated, sublime art.”

We will never personally witness this improvisational genius but there is still plenty of the man’s talent for us to savour. When Franck’s death was announced in November 1890, obituaries around the world noted him as a prolific composer of almost all genres, specifically referencing Ruth, Les beatitudes, Le chasseur maudit, Variations symphoniques and Symphony in D minor. They also acknowledged his contribution as a teacher and his humility as a person.

Franck was born in the country we now know as Belgium, at a time when it was politically contested. During his lifetime, there was a tendency for the French to dismiss him as too German, while the Germans found him too French.

It required World War I for Franck’s reputation to really anchor, his ambiguous national identity finally working to his advantage, with the sweet strains of his music falling like healing rains. One violinist, who’d experienced a horrendous time in the trenches, said, after giving an exquisite performance of Franck’s music: “One is not studying music down there and yet one is learning how to express thoughts as Franck has here, as never before one could have expressed them.”

The bicentennial of Franck’s birth provides opportunity to reflect on the events of the last century and our modern times. Globally, we have a greater interdependence than ever through the reduction of various national barriers, including trade, communication, and travel, and the need to work together on various global challenges. Has this bought us any closer to understanding the spirit of human unity that Franck seems to have been before his time celebrating?

This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of the Fine Music Sydney Magazine