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César Franck, French composer (born in Belgium)

A few months ago, David Allen, one of New York Times’s music critics, wrote an article questioning – and answering – “What Happened to One of Classical Music’s Most Popular Pieces?” The work in question is César Franck’s Symphony in D minor.

Allen justifies his arguments with some statistics: from 35 performances in the 1930’s with the New York Philharmonic to 5 performances from 2010 to 2015.

Allen mentions some of the great conductors who conducted (and recorded) the symphony, arguing that it was in the United Kingdom and the United States that the work truly achieved exceptional fame as one of the most widely performed symphonies of the 20th century up to the 1960s.

As is often the case with English-speaking commentators, Latin America doesn’t matter much in the overall data, nor do other Central European countries (don’t even think about Asia). It would have been interesting, for example, to have statistics on the evolution of his interpretations in France, Belgium and Netherlands.

The great Cuban writer and musicologist Alejo Carpentier commented in an article on the balance of the music programmed during a 1954-1955 season in Buenos Aires, Argentina: César Franck’s symphony only had one performance programmed throughout the season (in contrast with Schoenberg with 15 programmed works or Ginastera with 8). On this regard, he commented; “Public in large capitals have heard “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (Dukas) or the Symphony in d minor so many times that the announcement of the performance of these works no longer arouses the slightest curiosity. It is also possible that the record has contributed to their saturation”. This illustrates that the concert repertoire has been changing for years. It surprises me that Allen chooses not to pay much attention to some of the statistics he presents in his writing: the Chicago Symphony has had an increase in performances of Franck’s symphony since the 1980s and 1990s (more than 5 performances from 2010 to 2015), the Boston Symphony in all decades has had a record of performances of the work up to the present, although never reaching the numbers of the 1960’s in which it had 25 performances in a period of 5 years.

That the work is performed 2 or 3 times in a period of 5 years I would not necessarily consider it as a disappearance.  Allen talks about how the success of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by the Boston Symphony, “corresponds with the decline (of Franck’s symphony).” Is this a decline or a modification-extension of the orchestral repertoire? Is there a correlation between Franck’s symphony and Bartok’s Concerto for orchestra? Who today would like to hear – for example – Beethoven’s 5th Symphony 25 times in a period of 5 years with the orchestra of their city? This is not a matter of greatness, is a matter of balance and diversity.

Allen’s other arguments do not convince me either: Riccardo Muti, one of the defenders of this magnificent symphony in our times, in an interview with Allen regarding the work, talks about how he felt that the musicians preferred other compositions. Allen tries to justify along the lines “(the) relative simplicity for an orchestra, which might be perceived as a shortcoming in an era that has placed ever more stock in musical complexity and virtuosity”. But then the works of the early classical or romantic repertoire would not be played on these grounds; many of which are much simpler and easier to play than Franck’s symphony.

I am more convinced by Muti’s opinion: “It was often played in a very superficial way, so I think that at a certain point, the public had had enough.” Even so, this would seem to imply that the public is the one who decides the programming of an orchestra and at least in these latitudes of North Latin America this is not the case. Everything would seem to indicate that the programming of César Franck’s sole symphony is related to the taste of the principal orchestra directors and, perhaps, of the councils or managers of the orchestra. Today there are some works played in orchestras that leave the public cold: an example? “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” by Manuel de Falla (and let’s not talk about some contemporary works).

Franck’s Symphony in D minor is far from being a museum work, already buried by time. The UANL Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra from my adopted city of Monterrey, has played Franck’s symphony two or three times in a span of less than 10 years. This means that the work is in the repertoire; one of the great works of French symphonism deserves its appearance in concert seasons. Its popularity in the past is perhaps due to a process of assimilation that is now more than overcome: today Franck’s Symphony can make its appearance in concert and make the public enjoy the work as a repertoire work but not necessarily with the sense of discovery of its beginnings: its music has already gone through a popularization that includes cartoons (Does anyone remember the music of the Smurfs?). People are prepared to encounter it at concerts and usually the reception is fine. Steady programming (in contrast to overprogramming) is not related to lack of appraisal.

Allen closes his article with the following thoughts: “Facts like that convey the lasting conservatism of much of the orchestra world, and they make it hard to argue too strenuously that the Franck should be resurrected. The righteous call now is to diversify what ensembles play, in all senses of the verb. Inevitably, some works will rise to prominence in the process, and some will drift away. And if that’s the moral of the tale, it’s all right. The rise and fall of Franck’s symphony shows that the canon can change — that the canon can be changed.”

An ambiguous conclusion: Did he use the story of Franck’s Symphony as a metaphor for the canon? Certainly a defense of the work is not what he intended because although he tries to contrast with the opinion of Muti and that of Francois-Xavier Roth, he also quotes some authors of a prejudiced-conservative sort such as Lawrence Gilman, kindly mentioned: “the inferiority of his musical expression”. Allen’s last paragraph seems to indicate that he agrees with those who disapprove of the symphony.

But Allen never answers several basic questions: Where did Franck’s symphony disappear from the canon? What does it take for a work to be canon? Is there one canon or several canons? Is the same canon heard in Guadalajara, Monterrey, Philadelphia, London, Bournemouth, Toulouse? How many executions in a span of five years must canon works have?

Probably the 25 performances that Franck’s Symphony had with the Boston Symphony in a span of 5 years are too many; no lover of this symphony (myself included) would agree to listen to it with such frequency. But to say that the work has left the repertoire is something else. This brings me to one last point: before we think in absolutes, we should consider what happens with that symphony in other parts of the world; not just in three major orchestras in the United States.

Franck’s symphony is alive, Franck’s bicentennial produced several records dedicated to the composer, including the symphony. Perhaps not in the amounts of olden days but today the canon is very large; that Franck has a place in it speaks more than satisfactorily of his place in history. Perhaps our questions should go towards the lack of taste or knowledge of some of today’s conductors who decided to ignore an important date for music, both for France and for other countries where the Franckian language had an influence, including United States and Mexico.