César Franck Biography

(Composer and Pianist Famous for His Works 'Symphonic Variations' and 'Symphony in D Minor')

Birthday: December 10, 1822 (Sagittarius)

Born In: Liège, Belgium

Cesar Franck was a Belgian-French composer, who was also a pianist, organist and a famed music teacher. Born into an affluent Belgian family, Cesar had a knack for drawing and music as a kid. His father insisted that both Cesar and his brother must become musicians. Cesar took music lessons from Liege Conservatory and later from Paris Conservatory. He exhibited exceptional skills as a pianist and an organist while in Paris and ended up winning several awards in competitions. After completing his education in Paris, he returned to Belgium but failed to make a name in music. Consequently, he returned to Paris and became a teacher and an organist. He joined a few churches there and became head organist for them and became well known for being a great improviser. Despite working all his life he only realized his true potential as a composer after 1872 when he joined the Paris Conservatory as a teacher. In the following years, until his death, he made several compositions that stood the test of time. Some of his compositions are Variations symphoniques, Piano Quintet in F Minor, String Quartet in D Major among others.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: César-Auguste Jean-Guillaume Hubert Franck

Died At Age: 67


Spouse/Ex-: Félicité

father: Nicolas-Joseph Franck

mother: Marie-Catherine-Barbe Franck (née Frings)

siblings: Joseph

Born Country: Belgium

Pianists Educators

Died on: November 8, 1890

place of death: Paris, France

Ancestry: German Belgian, Belgian French

Notable Alumni: Conservatoire De Paris, Royal Conservatory Of Liège

Diseases & Disabilities: Pericarditis

Cause of Death: Road Incident

City: Liège, Belgium

More Facts

education: Royal Conservatory Of Liège, Conservatoire De Paris

Childhood & Early Life

Cesar Franck was born César-Auguste Jean-Guillaume Hubert Franck, on December 10, 1822, in Liege, Belgium. It was then a part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. He was born into an affluent family with a father who worked as a bank clerk. His parents were Nicolas-Joseph and Marie Franck.

As a child, Cesar exhibited an equal passion for drawing and making music. However, his father was keener on Cesar becoming a musician. He wanted his son to bring fame and wealth into the family. Cesar was thus enrolled on the Conservatory of Liege, where he learned to play piano, organ and solfege. He participated in several competitions for singing and music and won many awards. He exhibited unusual talent as a young music prodigy and motivated his father to further his musical education.

Cesar was thus sent to Paris along with his younger brother in 1835. He took private lessons from ace musicians such as Anton Reicha and Pierre Zimmerman. Both of them also taught at the famous Paris Conservatory and suggested Nicolas enrol his sons there. However, the Paris Conservatory did not accept foreign students at that time. In 1837, Nicolas took French citizenship and enrolled Cesar into the Conservatory.

In 1841 and 1842, he composed three trios which were extensively successful.

At the Conservatory, Cesar excelled in piano and won several awards participating in multiple competitions. He also studied organ there but for some explained reason, he left the Conservatory in 1842. One of the reasons was said to be the increased pressure on Cesar owing to his father’s expectations of quickly commercializing his skills. Which led his father to have Cesar begin working to earn. Franck was teaching privately and was also performing in concerts. His father’s commercialization of his performances was said to be a big reason for Cesar’s big failure at that time. As a result, critics wrote extensively against his music.

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Following these not-so-ideal experiences in Paris, the family decided to move back to Belgium. The situation was worse there. There were no concerts to be held and no money to be made. The Belgian court was also not supportive.

After 1840, Cesar’s interest had also shifted to organs. His compositions were also more serious now, which was a diversion from what was making money in Belgium at that time. Popular Hungarian composer Franz Liszt was one of his first admirers.

In 1848, Cesar began working on his first non-chamber work that was titled Ruth. Cesar didn’t perform it on-stage live but he decided to show his work to a few masters and get their suggestions. It was seen by Franz and a few other musicians and everybody liked it and told him the ways to make it better. However, in 1845, when it was first performed in front of a public, it was met with heavy criticism. Cesar became hopeless and didn’t perform the piece until a few more decades.

As a result of this big failure, Cesar decided to retire from public life. He began teaching and making small compositions on commissions. At this point, Cesar was extremely confused about his life. He was feeling so burdened by his father’s expectations that he didn’t know what he himself wanted to do. As a result, he slowly drifted away from his family. Around the same time, he also attempted writing an opera titled Le Valet de Ferme, which was a major failure. Cesar himself admitted several years later that it wasn’t worth printing.

In such troubled times, he began working in 1847 at the church Notre-Dame-de-Lorette as an assistant organist. Cesar realized that he always wanted to work as an organist more than a pianist. A few years later, in 1857, he was made the head organist at the Church of Saint-Jean-Saint-François. Cesar was happily working there as he was now able to mix his roman catholic devotion with his love for music.

A year later, he joined Sainte-Clotilde church as the head organist. He was already the choirmaster there and his improvisations made him produce back to back great work that put him on the top as a very talented organist of his time.

He flourished as an organist there. He composed several sacred choral works along with Mass in three voices. He further wrote a Six Pieces for organ in the early 1860s which helped cement his place as the second greatest organist after Sebastian Bach. His work as an organist, however, kept him busy around this time and he was not able to participate in any major composing activity for another decade of his life.

In 1871, he was officially recognized as a composer when he was made a member of  Société Nationale de Musique. Another major turning point in his career came when he became a professor of organ at the Paris Conservatory in 1872. This led to the most productive time of his career when his true potential was finally unleashed.

He went on composing several songs, sacred works on a huge scale, symphonic poems, piano pieces, symphonies, one Violin Sonata and the Variations symphoniques for orchestra and piano. As a composer, the final decade of his life is considered the time when he was at his creative peak. Around this time, he composed Symphony in D Minor, Variations symphoniques, Piano Quintet in F Minor, String Quartet in D Major, Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano.

These, along with several organ songs made him one of the most important European composers in the second half of the 19th century. While some of his earlier works were largely rejected by himself and his contemporaries, he heavily used them in his new compositions in the 1880s and produced some timeless compositions.

Personal Life & Death

Cesar Franck married Eugénie-Félicité-Caroline Saillot in 1848. She was one of his piano students. They knew each other for several years as Cesar often took refuge in her home to get away from his overbearing father. The couple had two children- Georges Frank and Germaine Franck.

In July 1890, he was hit by a horse trolley. But it seemed to have no ill effect on him at that moment. However, the after-effects of that minor accident which had resulted in a head injury were seen in his work.

A few months later, his health worsened after catching a cold. He caught pleurisy, which finally resulted in his death on November 8, 1890.

His music has been used in several films and TV series’, such as Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder.

See the events in life of César Franck in Chronological Order

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