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The Symphony in D minor is the most famous orchestral work and the only mature symphony written by the 19th-century naturalised French composer César Franck. After two years of work, the symphony was completed 22 August 1888. It was premiered at the Paris Conservatory on 17 February 1889 under the direction of Jules Garcin. Franck dedicated it to his pupil Henri Duparc.
César Franck's fame and reputation rest largely upon a small number of compositions, most of them composed toward the end of his life. Of these, the Symphony in D minor was one of his last works. It was first performed only a year before Franck died.
The fact that Franck finally chose to write a symphony is itself unusual, given the rarity of the form in 19th-century France, which considered the symphony a mainstay of German music. It is likely that the genesis of the Symphony in D minor followed upon the success of his influential Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra composed in 1885.
Additionally, the success of several works by other French composers had nudged the symphonic form back into favour with the French concert-going public, beginning with the 1857 Symphony for piano by Franck's friend Charles-Valentin Alkan, with whom Franck had shared concerts in Paris in the late 1830s and to whom Franck dedicated his Grande Pièce Symphonique. The Third (Organ) Symphony by Camille Saint-Saëns and (although a work for piano and orchestra) the Symphony on a French Mountain Air by Vincent d'Indy, both written in 1886 and popularly received, had further helped to revive the symphony as a concert piece, almost dormant since the appearance of Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique in 1830. (An earlier piece, the Symphonie espagnole (1875) by Édouard Lalo is a violin concerto.) Both these works, however, sought to create compositional distance from the symphonic form and sound of the German romantic idiom (exemplified by Brahms and Wagner) through several "French" innovations, including integrating piano (and in the case of Saint-Saëns, the organ) into the orchestra, and using a cyclic thematic style.
Like the earlier works of Saint-Saëns and Berlioz, as with his own compositions, Franck also made use of a cyclic structure in the composition of his symphony. Indeed, the Symphony in D minor remains the most outstanding example of cyclic symphonic writing in the Romantic tradition. However, Franck also used a typically "Germanic" sound, eschewing both the novelties of orchestration (with one notable exception) or nationalist thematic inspiration that Saint-Saëns and d'Indy had used to differentiate their own symphonic works. As a result, Franck's Symphony in D minor can be seen as the union of two largely distinct national forms: the French cyclic form with the German romantic symphonic form, with clear Wagnerian and Lisztian influences.
Due in part to this unexpected fusion, the piece was poorly received upon its first performance. More importantly, however, the reception of Franck's symphony was greatly affected by the politicised world of French music following the split in the Société Nationale de Musique, which had been founded by Saint-Saëns in 1871 in the anti-German spirit aroused by the Franco-Prussian War, to promote a French style of music. The 1886 split was driven by the Société's decision to accept "foreign" (i.e. principally German) music and an admiration for the music of Richard Wagner by some of its younger members (notably Franck himself and D'Indy). This unacceptable betrayal of French music led several conservative members of the Société, led by Saint-Saëns, to resign; Franck himself thereon assumed the presidency. The resulting environment was poisonous. The controversy permeated the Conservatoire de Paris and made it very difficult for Franck to get his symphony premiered. His score rejected by the leading conductor Charles Lamoureux, Franck resorted to the conservatory orchestra which was obliged to play faculty works. Even then, rehearsals were desultory and reaction negative.
Sitting in on a rehearsal under the baton of Jules Garcin, where the players were resistant and uncooperative, Conservatoire director Ambroise Thomas is supposed to have remarked in reaction to the second movement (and quoted by Vincent d'Indy, in his biography of Franck) "name a single symphony by Haydn or Beethoven that uses the English horn!" (This may well be apocryphal and used by d'Indy - who was firmly in the Franck camp - to mock the conservative Thomas, since Haydn had very famously used English horns in his own Symphony No. 22, "The Philosopher".)[original research?]
Politics continued to determine the popular reaction to the symphony's first performance. Critics saw the work as a clumsy attempt at orchestral writing that departed too stridently from the classical symphonic form and harmonic rules of Haydn and Beethoven. Contemporaries, mostly allied with the conservative faction of the Société Nationale de Musique, were unsparing. The noted music critic, a close friend and voluminous correspondent of Camille Saint-Saëns, Camille Bellaigue (1858-1930) dismissed it is as "arid and drab music, without ... grace or charm," and derided the principal four-bar theme upon which the symphony expands throughout as "hardly above the level of those given to Conservatoire students." It is derived from the 'Muss es sein?' fragment from Beethoven's final String Quartet op. 135. The review Le Ménestrel called it "morose.... [Franck] had very little to say here, but he proclaims it with the conviction of the pontiff defining dogma." And Charles Gounod, also making implicit reference to the idea of a dogmatic German style, wrote of it: "incompetence pushed to dogmatic lengths."
Regardless, within several years of its composition, the symphony was regularly being programmed across Europe and in the United States. It received its American premiere in Boston on 16 January 1899 under the baton of Wilhelm Gericke.
In a departure from typical late-romantic symphonic structure, the Symphony in D minor is in three movements, each of which makes reference to the initial four-bar theme introduced at the beginning of the piece. The omission of the standard Scherzo movement is in part compensated for with a scherzo-like treatment in the second movement.
Of the following recordings, the ones by Charles Dutoit and Sir John Barbirolli are recommended by David Dubal in his Essential Canon of Classical Music (North Point Press, New York, 2001) while the Pierre Monteux version is considered the "reference" recording by ClassicsToday :