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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National
Richard Taruskin

For composers of the Boston School, an even more influential symphonic model than Dvořák's “New World” Symphony, because it preached less a national than a spiritual sensibility, was the Symphony in D minor by César Franck (1822–90). Despite his Germanic surname, Franck was a Walloon (French-speaking Belgian) composer who plied his trade in Paris, and whose career paralleled Bruckner's in many ways.

Like Bruckner, he hailed from the cultural provinces; he was born in Liège, a medium-sized Belgian town, and received his early education there before coming to Paris with his family. Like Bruckner he earned his living for the greater part of his career as a church organist. (Unlike Bruckner, however, Franck composed some important music for his instrument that exploited the resources of the huge organs built by the French firm of Cavaillé-Coll, whose paid “artistic representative” he became.) Like Bruckner, Franck was an outsider to the musical establishment who eventually secured a teaching post at a prestigious institution (in his case, the Paris Conservatory), but not in composition (in his case, it was in organ playing). Finally, like Bruckner's, Franck's class quickly became an unofficial composition seminar that attracted a circle of eventually eminent composers who venerated him despite (or perhaps in part because of) his maverick status.

Franck composed his single symphony, one of his last works, in 1886–88, when he was already in his middle sixties. Its first performance (17 February 1889), by the Paris Conservatory orchestra, had an equivocal success, but its American premiere by the Boston Symphony under Gericke less than two months later was a triumph. The work long remained a beacon for the English-speaking music world, which was looking for “ideas,” as Matthew Arnold put it, “that criticize life.” This was the “aspirational” or affirmational view of art that more modern writers (like Bryan Magee, quoted near the end of chapter 10) have declared bankrupt in the wake of Wagner. But it outlasted Wagner, and (as we shall see) even saw itself, rightly or wrongly, as continuing the Wagnerian tradition.

War Brings it to France

fig. 14-6 César Franck at the organ, ca. 1890, portrait by Jeanne Rongier.

Edward Burlingame Hill, John Knowles Paine's star pupil and one of his successors as head of the Harvard music department, pronounced Franck a musician “unique in the selflessness of his life, and the concentration of his efforts to reveal the luminous truth of Art.”19 As for the Symphony, it was the “ripest expression” of a “new creed of instrumental music.”20 In a remarkable passage, the Bostonian composer-critic extolled Franck's ascetic virtues in the unmistakable terms of Matthew Arnold's Anglo-Saxon artistic evangelism:

Franck's outlook upon Art may be accurately summarized as a gospel instead of a métier [profession]. Franck's ascendancy over his pupils springs from the spiritual reaction exercised upon them through his character. He taught the moral obligations of the artist, the need for elevated standards, the consideration of quality rather than quantity in the students’ tasks, emotional sincerity as an absolute prerequisite in all artistic expression, and above all faith as a primary ingredient. Moreover, Franck steadily inculcated a disdain for immediate success, and a disregard of the public as a prerequisite for attaining durability in a work of art. But vital and constructive as were Franck's maxims for guidance in the artists’ career, the fact that he bore out these principles in his own life made them the more compelling.21

And yet the most noteworthy aspect of Franck's status as preceptor and example remains the simple fact that he made his mark primarily as a composer—and inculcator—of “absolute” instrumental music. This was virtually unprecedented in a French composer. We have not associated the name of any French composer with instrumental music at all since the time of Berlioz. But a glance at the complete list of even Berlioz's works reveals a preponderance of vocal music, as it does for all French composers save the court instrumentalists (violinists, lutenists, gambists, harpsichord specialists) of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Indeed, Berlioz's instrumental music, as we encountered it in chapter 6, was among the most powerful stimuli leading instrumental music into a rapprochement (as the French say) or reconciliation with opera, which from the time of the transplanted Parisian Rossini had been practically the sole focus of French composers. Even Hill agreed that Franck “showed an intellectual fervor and a sense of artistic responsibility as a rule uncharacteristic of the Gallic musician of the period.”22

And yet his wide circle of pupils and disciples, who remained active and influential well into the twentieth century, put Franck forward as the spiritual guide of a new and resurgent French spirit in music, which they summed up in the always-capitalized slogan ARS GALLICA. All that the Latin phrase means is “French art.” But when capitalized and applied to a certain school of composers, it meant a French art that arose in nationalistic response—a highly paradoxical nationalistic response—to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71.

On 25 February 1871, “a few days,” as Carl Dahlhaus once tartly reminded his readers, “before the Prussian army marched down the Champs Elysées”23 (the broad avenue that runs through the heart of Paris), a group of youngish French musicians headed by Camille Saint-Saëns founded an organization they called the Société Nationale de Musique: the National Musical Society. It was to be a concert-sponsoring association that would exclusively promote the work of living French composers, and that sought to assert through music the unique essence or spirit of France in a manner that would elevate and educate public taste. The preamble to the group's by-laws read:

The proposed purpose of the Society is to aid the production and popularization of all serious works, whether published or not, by French composers. To encourage and bring to light, as far as lies within its power, all musical attempts, whatever their form, on condition that they give evidence of lofty artistic aspirations on the part of their author. Fraternally, with entire forgetfulness of self, with the firm resolve to aid each other with all their capacity, the members will unite their efforts, each in his own sphere of action, to the study and performance of their countrymen's works which they shall be called upon to select and interpret.24

Yet despite these avowedly nationalistic aims, the Société Nationale, through its declared emphasis on “serious” music of “lofty artistic aspiration” and its practical emphasis on the larger instrumental forms, became in effect the vehicle for the unprecedented Germanization of French music. In retrospect it is clear that the motivation behind the founding of the Société Nationale was an aspect of the sense of national shame brought about by the outcome of the war with Prussia, and that the Society's aims implied a dual objective of repudiation and emulation: first, to restore high and respectable purpose to art after the Offenbachian bacchanale of the Second Empire; and second, to overtake and surpass the achievements of German “absolute” instrumental music, the highest and most respectable sphere of musical endeavor. Never was the music of any country so thoroughly transformed by an inferiority complex.

Franck served on the board of directors of the Society from the time of its founding. From 1886 to his death four years later at the age of sixty-eight he was its figurehead, during which time he composed, in addition to the Symphony, a violin sonata, a string quartet, and a neo-Bachian “Prelude, aria, et final” for piano. Other works he had composed since the founding of the Society included a Piano Quintet in F minor, the same key as Brahms's essay in the genre (1879), a set of “Symphonic Variations” for piano and orchestra (1885), and an even more neo-Bachian “Prelude, chorale, and fugue” for piano (1884). This was an output unprecedented for a French composer, even if Franck's four symphonic poems (including one, Psyché, with chorus) and vocal works from the period (one opera and two biblical oratorios) are reckoned in. The programmatic pieces and the oratorios were less successful than the essays in “absolute” music, and have fallen into relative neglect. The reception of Franck's music, no less than its production, was thus a sign of the times.

Not only in its general esthetic and stylistic orientation, but in all manner of specific details, Franck's Symphony announces its allegiance to Germanic rather than French tradition. To write a symphony in D minor was in itself such an announcement, and Beethoven's Ninth haunts the work no less pervasively than it had haunted Bruckner's Third Symphony, or the symphony that eventually became Brahms's First Piano Concerto. But Franck's invocation of Beethoven's reputedly hermetic and rarefied spiritual domain went beyond the Ninth to encompass the most emblematic and aura-surrounded works of all, the “late quartets.” The symphony's thematic kernel was none other than the highly fraught échappée figure from the last movement of the last quartet (F major, op. 135; see Ex. 8-2), the movement jestingly titled “The Difficult Decision,” in which a slow chromatic three-note motif mock-portentously labeled “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?) is hilariously answered by a quick diatonic inversion, “Es muss sein! Es muss sein!” (It must! It must!). Taken ultraseriously, as everything in late Beethoven was eventually taken, the phrase had haunted the whole nineteenth century. Among its progeny already familiar to us are the generative phrase in Liszt's Les préludes and the “Fate motif” that haunts Wagner's Ring, beginning with Die Walküre (see Ex. 10-2d).

Having suffused a quartet movement, a symphonic poem, and a trilogy of operas, with Franck the motif entered the domain of the traditional symphony. Not only did it furnish the first movement with its thematic mainspring; it was also incorporated into the main themes of the succeeding movements and returned in its original form in the coda to the finale (Ex. 14-12).

War Brings it to France

ex. 14-12 César Franck, Symphony in D minor, thematic conspectus

It was Franck (or rather his pupil Vincent d'Indy, in his biography of the master that came out in 1906) who officially dubbed this process of multimovement motivic unification “cyclic form.”25 No one ever claimed that Franck was its inventor—it all too obviously goes back through Liszt to Berlioz and beyond—but the dogmatic insistence on its spiritual necessity was distinctively Franck-school. To those who claimed that Franck derived his procedures from Liszt's “thematic transformations,” the Franckists retorted (1) that their master had already recycled the themes of his Piano Trio in F-sharp Minor, op. 1, no. 1, composed in 1841 at the age of eighteen; (2) that Franck played the Trio for Liszt in 1842 and presented him with a copy; and (3) that therefore it was Franck who had influenced Liszt.

Both parties to the argument conveniently forgot that Schubert had recycled the slow movement theme in the finale of his Trio in E-flat major, op. 100, completed and published in 1828. But even Schubert had Beethoven's Fifth and Ninth as models. As usual Beethoven was the common progenitor; the heirs were merely squabbling in probate court, so to speak, over his estate. But though the point at issue may seem trivial in retrospect, the quarrel was not. Under the influence of historicist thinking matters of priority were becoming heavily fraught. In the twentieth century they would become obsessive and disastrous.

But we have only begun to explore the extent to which Franck's Symphony mined the legacy of the late Beethoven quartets. The unusual form of the first movement, in which the initial slow section (or Introduction, as it must at first appear) alternates with the ensuing allegro throughout the movement, emulates the opening movements of two of the late quartets: op. 127 in E-flat and op. 130 in B-flat. But where in Beethoven the alternation of tempos also involved an alternation of themes, in Franck both the portentous slow music and its frantic sequel are equally derived from the opening “Muss es sein” motto, differently continued.

Patently Lisztian after all is the key sequence, measured by the reappearances of the opening Lento. From D minor the first important modulation is to F minor. The F minor switches soon enough to F major to make way for a traditional “second theme” in the relative key. But the initial juxtaposition of minor keys pitched a third apart would commit a confirmed Lisztian to a complementary swing from D to B, and possibly an antipodal move to A♭/G♯ to complete the circle. These are supplied, in short order and not at all by coincidence, at the outset of the “free fantasia” or development section: A♭ minor (approached through a “classic” Lisztian sequence) at m. 199 and C♭/B major/minor at m. 206. At the recapitulation, moreover, which takes the form of a climactic, canonic Lento at m. 331, B minor is approached directly from D minor to mirror the opening ascent to F.

But if key relations tend toward the Lisztian (circles of thirds alongside traditional circles of fifths), the local harmonizations and progressions tend toward the Wagnerian—and not only the generally Wagnerian but the specifically Tristanesque. Franck and his generation (e.g., Brahms) were haunted by echoes of Wagner's Prelude as much as their fathers (e.g., Wagner) had been haunted by echoes of Beethoven—and of course they went on being haunted by Beethoven as well: the more “belated” a member of any tradition, the more haunted; and the more haunted, the more difficult it becomes to contribute. (Hence Franck's lone symphony as compared with Brahms's four, Beethoven's nine, Mozart's forty-one, and Haydn's hundred-plus.) To catch Franck in the act of being spooked, one can look for four-note chromatic ascents that come directly out of Tristan: a whole sequence of them goes from the first violin in mm. 17–21 into the viola at mm. 21–25 and back into the violins at mm. 25–28 (Ex. 14-13). Or one can look for the chromatically descending basses that combine resonances of the Tristan motif with those of the coda to the Ninth. They are pervasive. A short one accompanies the ascending sequence just described in contrary motion. Sometimes they are amazingly ample. At mm. 8–11 (repeated at mm. 55–59) the chromatic descent goes through eight degrees (ever so slightly disguised by octave transfers).

War Brings it to FranceWar Brings it to France

ex. 14-13 César Franck, Symphony in D minor, I, mm. 17–28

The mother of them all occurs, as one would expect, in the development: it begins in m. 249 with the bass on A♭, makes an immediate descent through five chromatic degrees to E, where it is interrupted by a theme; it is resumed at 259 for another five degrees (through m. 261) where it stalls as a pedal before proceeding down one more degree to make eleven. Were it not for the whole step in the bass between m. 269 and 270, there would have been a full unfolding of the chromatic scale, the functional equivalent in this modulatory context of a full circle of fifths. For its ascending near-equal, nine progressions, see the bassoon in Ex. 14-14. The coda embeds an eight-degree progression within a motivic sequence: start tracking the bass at m. 485 to see E♭ descend to C♯; the next segment, C to B♭, follows in mm. 489–490, A to G in mm. 490–491.

War Brings it to France

ex. 14-14 César Franck, Symphony in D minor, I, mm. 298–304

These slithery harmonies, directing myriad recombinations of charged motivic particles on their trajectory through musical space, produce an effect even more like that of a Wagnerian music drama than do Dvořák's contrapuntal montages. To compare the mumbled opening statement of the germinating motif with the ecstatic shout that closes the first movement, extending the same motif with an upward thrust to the third degree in the major, is to experience a rhetoric that vies in persuasion—but wordlessly—with Wagner's own. In their heavily fraught but semantically undefined character, Franck's chromatically and motivically saturated textures make metaphorical, metaphysical interpretation as irresistible as it is finally impossible, thus supremely realizing the objective of “absolute” music: to say what is unsayable, to speak the unspeakable, and make it seem (to quote Brahms's comment on his Schicksalslied) “the most important thing.” All the more is this true since the germinating motif had been defined by longstanding “intertextual” tradition as a metaphysical question. Program annotations for the Franck Symphony, accordingly, assumed the character of religious commentary. Here is a sample, from an old handbook for American record collectors called the Victor Book of the Symphony. The author, an organist and conductor named Charles O'Connell (1900–62), had studied in Paris with Charles-Marie Widor (1844–1937), Franck's disciple and successor at the Conservatory, before becoming the head of “artists and repertoire” for the Victor Talking Machine Company, America's largest manufacturer of phonographs and records. O'Connell assures the reader that Franck, a “great and simple soul, is able to lead us to glimpses of a light beyond the world.” The most “mystic” of all, according to this writer, comes in the second movement:

There are flights toward that light as the movement progresses—flights of swift muted notes, like the beatings of thousands of invisible wings, coursing the misty upper airs in clouds of vibrant color and life. Incredibly we find that even this will-o’-the-wisp figure is remotely derived from the eternal question of the first movement—notwithstanding its soaring hopefulness. The meaning seems clear: out of eternal questioning, someday comes an answer; out of living, life.26

So was a piece of textless, “abstract” symphonic music promoted as moral instruction, as initiation into the ineffable, as indoctrination in faith. That was indeed the point of absolute music, as the tradition defined itself post-Beethoven. It was superbly ironic that it reached its zenith in the work of a French composer, a representative of the culture against which absolute music had traditionally defined itself. But it was dismally ironic that so lofty an esthetic so easily lent itself to commercial packaging, which is what O'Connell's book (primarily meant to sell records) amounted to.

Advocacy of “good music” as Arnoldian “criticism of life,” and its promotion as an exercise in middle-class self-improvement, grew directly out of the ideology of the Société Nationale, and it is no coincidence that Matthew Arnold himself based his ideas about culture and society on the art and literature of chastened, post-1870 (“Third Republic”) France. But of course it reached its commercial zenith in America, where recording companies, concert organizations, and schools all cooperated in a minor industry called “music appreciation”: instruction in the passive consumption of “classical music” (with a nearly exclusive emphasis on the symphonic repertoire) as a part of liberal education.

Although it was a twentieth-century phenomenon, receiving its main commercial impetus in the mid-1920s when the market for phonograph recordings (thanks to hugely improved recording technology) expanded exponentially, music appreciation deserves mention here because it continued to reflect the values of the nineteenth-century symphony, and, as it were, to “freeze” the repertoire in its late-nineteenth-century tracks. It thus participated in the process of “reification”—turning artworks into things (most obviously in the case of physically tangible phonograph records) and treating the things thus created as marketable commodities.

And that made music appreciation, in its propagation of a frozen and reified repertoire, one of the factors contributing to the disastrous twentieth-century rift, within the literate or “art” tradition, between the interests of musical producers and those of consumers (a rift complicated, as we shall see, by the creation of two potentially competing or even antagonistic groups—composers on the one hand and manufacturers of records and sheet music on the other, each claiming the role of “producer”). Musical modernism, as we shall also see, threatened the equation of “serious” music with moral uplift; and so the marketing of classical music, which depended (or thought it depended) on that equation, turned all the more resolutely against the new. Only music that encouraged its listeners to identify themselves as a cultured (“Brahmin”) and spiritual (“Franckist”) elite was eligible for promotion under the banner of music appreciation.

Eventually the operation backfired, with dire consequences for the popularity of the music it purveyed. Even in its heyday, music appreciation received warnings from its own practitioners. Deems Taylor (1885–1966), a composer who was hired in the late 1930s to give inspirational intermission lectures during broadcasts by the New York Philharmonic, cautioned that “many a potential music lover is frightened away by the solemnity of music's devotees.”27 Association with self-defined elites put “good music” at risk, especially in America, of association with various kinds of social snobbery (and in the case of Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, we have seen that the concern was not unfounded).

Finally, to cast our eye ahead for a moment, when after World War II the esthetics of modernism finally gained the upper hand in American institutions of higher education, music appreciation was altered to accord with a new ideology—not of uplift but of “formalism” (the study of structure rather than meaning), reflecting the interests of composers rather than marketers. The older version of music appreciation had represented the survival of the older notion of absolute music (music as ineffable expression) into the twentieth century. By midcentury that notion had been done in by its votaries and exploiters, and it now inspires more suspicion than sympathy.

The grim history of the twentieth century—something Brahms or Franck could never have foreseen, to say nothing of Matthew Arnold or Charles O'Connell—played its part as well both in discrediting the idea of redemptive culture and in undermining the authority of its adherents. The literary critic George Steiner, one such adherent, after a lifetime devoted (in his words) to “the worship—the word is hardly exaggerated—of the classic,”28 and to the propagation of the faith, found himself baffled by the example of the culture-loving Germans of the mid-twentieth century, “who sang Schubert in the evening and tortured in the morning.” “I'm going to the end of my life,” he confessed unhappily, “haunted more and more by the question, ‘Why did the humanities not humanize?’ I don't have an answer.” But that is because the question—being the product of Arnoldian art religion—turned out to be wrong. It is all too obvious by now that teaching people that their love of Schubert makes them better people teaches them little more than self-regard. There are better reasons to cherish art.


(19) Edward Burlingame Hill, Modern French Music (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1924), p. 35.

(20) Ibid., p. 38.

(21) Ibid., p. 36.

(22) Ibid., p. 35.

(23) Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, p. 283.

(24) Quoted in Brian Rees, Camille Saint-Saëns: A Life (London: Chatto and Windus, 1999), p. 161.

(25) See Vincent D'Indy, César Franck, trans. Rosa Newmarch (London: John Lane, 1910), pp. 91, 171.

(26) Charles O'Connell, The Victor Book of the Symphony (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1941), p. 235.

(27) Deems Taylor, Of Men and Music (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1937), p. xviii.

(28) Peter Applebome, “A Humanist and Elitist? Perhaps,” New York Times, 18 April 1998, p. A15.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-014005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-014005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-014005.xml