Cesar Franck

Portrait of Cesar Franck

César-Auguste Jean-Guillaume Hubert Franck was a French Romantic composer, pianist, organist, and music teacher. He was born on 10th December 1822 in Liège Belgium and died on 8th November 1890 in Paris, France aged 67.

Major Works

Piano Quintet in F Minor (1879)
Variations Symphoniques” (1885) 
Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano (1886)
Symphony in D Minor (1888) 
String Quartet in D Major (1889)

Biography Timeline

Cesar-Auguste Franck was born on 10th December 1822 in Liege, then part of the Netherlands (now Belgium). His father was Nicolas-Joseph Franck, a bank clerk from the German-Belgian border. His mother was Marie-Catherine-Barbe Franck (née Frings) and was German.

1830: His father enters him into the Liège Conservatory aged eight due to his talent. He studies piano, organ, and harmony under Joseph Daussoigne-Mehul.

1834: He gives his first concerts, one being in front of Leopold the First the King of the newly formed country of Belgium. However, there is no patronage from the Royal Court nor future money to be made so his father takes him on tour. His first compositions are a set of piano trios (which Franz Liszt admired and played himself in Weimar in later years).

1835: His father sends him and his younger brother Joseph to Paris, where he works with the composer Anton Reicha, a professor at the Paris Conservatory, and Pierre Zimmerman who teaches him piano. The Paris Conservatory does not except foreigners so his father seeks French citizenship which is granted in 1837.

1837: He is now able to enter the Paris Conservatory in October and he wins a Grand Prix d’Honneur for transposition in the sight-reading test. 

1838: He wins first prize in piano at the end of his first year.

1840: He wins first prize for fugue. 

1841: He wins second prize for organ. Although he now qualifies to enter for the Prix de Rome his father is determined to make him a touring virtuoso.

1842: On 22nd April he retires from the Conservatory at his father’s request. 

1843: He begins work on the oratorio “Ruth”

1845: “Ruth” is premiered privately with Liszt and Giacomo Meyerbeer in the audience who seem to like the performance.

1846: “Ruth” is given its first public performance on 4th January at the Conservatory but it is not popular with the audience and is not revived again until 1872. His father finds a secret note that the work is dedicated to Mlle. F. Desmousseaux, the stage name of the actress Eugénie-Félicité-Caroline Saillot and her actor parents. He is furious and forbids the two to see each other again. In July he leaves the house for good carrying his worldly possessions under his arm and moves in with the Desmousseaux family. From then on he signs himself simply as Cesar Franck.

1847: He is appointed assistant organist at the church of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette.

1848: He marries Eugénie-Félicité on 22nd February at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette having had to wait to be old enough in French law so that he didn’t need his father’s permission anymore. The Paris Revolt is going on and the wedding party have to climb over the revolutionary barricades to enter the church. He then earns his living as an organist and teacher. His compositions to celebrate the new Second Republic fall out of favour after the rise of Louis-Napoleon.

1851: He is appointed organist at the church of Saint-Jean-Saint-François-au-Marais which has a newly built Cavaillé-Coll organ. He becomes famous for his improvisations on the organ during services and works with the Cavaillé-Coll company to demonstrate their instruments in towns throughout France. He begins writing an opera “Le Valet de Ferme” but it comes to nothing.

1854: He admires the new organ pedal work popularised by Lemmens and sets about practising the technique himself.

1858: On 22nd January he becomes organist and maître de chapelle at the newly consecrated church of Sainte-Clothilde and later in the year they install a new three-manual Cavaillé-Coll instrument which has been described as one of the manufacturer’s best. 

1859: He composes the “Messe à Trois Voix“.

1860: He begins to compose the set of “Six Pièces for Organ” (completed 1862, published 1868) which include the “Prélude, Fugue et Variation” and the “Grande Piece Symphonique”.

1866: In April Franz Liszt sits in the choir to listen to Franck’s improvisations.

1869: He hears Anton Bruckner play the organ at Notre Dame in Paris and is very impressed. He begins work on the choral piece “Les Beatitiudes”.

1870: Due to the Franco-Prussian War the Conservatory is closed for the academic year.

1871: The Societe Nationale de Musique (National Society of Music) is founded on 25th February by Franck and his pupils and it’s first concert is held n November.

1872: He is appointed Professor of Organ at the Paris Conservatory but finds out his French Citizenship ended when he was 21 as he had unwittingly not declared his allegiance to France at that time and therefore, he was not strictly eligible. However, he is allowed to take up the post in February and officially becomes a French citizen again in 1873. He interrupts work on “Les Beatitudes” to write the oratorio “Redemption”. 

1876: He composes the symphonic poem “Les Eolides”.

1878: He composes Trois Pièces for Organ”.

1879: He composes the Piano Quintet in F Minor. “Les Béatitudes” is finally given its premiere. He works on his next opera “Hulda”, which is set in eleventh century Norway.

1882: He composes the symphonic poem “Le Chasseur Maudit” (The Accursed Hunter) based on a work by the German Gottfried August Bürger.

1884: He composes the symphonic poem “Les Djinn”s” and the “Prelude, Chorale and Fugue” for piano.

1885: He is made a Chevalier of the French Legion d’honneur for services to organ playing on 4th August. He composes “Variations Symphoniques”

1886: He composes “Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano” as a wedding present for the Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaye, which proves to be very popular, and the symphonic poem “Psyché” based on the Greek myth.

1887: He completes “Prélude, Aria et Final” for piano.

1888: He composes “Symphony in D Minor” which is received coldly by the audience at its first performance at the Conservatory on 17th February. It receives mixed reviews from the critics. He sets out to write another opera “Ghiselle” but it is never completed.

1890: He composes “String Quartet in D Major” which is first performed in AprilIn July he is riding in a taxi which is struck by a horse drawn goods vehicle. He is hit on the head and has a fainting fit. Afterwards he continues on his way thinking nothing more of it, however he begins to experience pains and cancels concerts and lessons at the Conservatory. He goes on holiday to Nemours to recover and plans to write some commissioned pieces for the harmonium. He starts the new term in October but catches a cold which develops into pleurisy.

Cesar-Auguste Franck died of pericarditis (possibly brought on by the accident) on 8th November 1890 in Paris, France. His funeral was held at Sainte-Clotilde with Leo Delibes, Camille Saint-Saens, Gabriel Faure and Emmanuel Chabrier present. He was buried at Montrouge but later interred in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.

Further Information

List of compositions by Franck.