Women in music

Week 1: Let's be Franck... by Maire Carroll

Welcome to the beginning of my interactive journey with the fantastic Franck Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra. With exactly ten weeks to go until the big day (June 30th), it feels like the right time to get started. The notes are now under my fingers and the work is very much under way. In the coming weeks, I’d like to contribute a few of my own tips and my unique experience learning this (at times) challenging but thrilling work.  Most importantly, I hope to share my own personal enjoyment of the piece and document the build up to what I am convinced will undoubtedly be an incredible experience performing with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland.

To get started, I’d like to introduce you to the Franck Variations and give you a very brief history of the work and its composer.

César Franck (1822-1890) was a composer and organist. Born in Liège and he studied at the conservatoire in Liège before going to the Paris Conservatoire in 1837. Franck was a very fine pianist, and made concert tours in his early years, but made his living at the organ, becoming organist of Sainte-Clotilde in 1858, where he remained until his death. From 1872 to his death he was organ professor at the Paris Conservatoire. Many of Franck's works employ ‘cyclic form’ (the use of one theme in more than one movement of a work). Some of the most popular of Franck’s works include: Symphony (1886-88), the Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra (1885), the Prelude, Choral and Fugue for piano solo (1884) and the sonata for violin and piano (1886).

Franck's last work (and one of his greatest) is the Choral No. 3, in A minor. He is buried in Cimetiere du Montparnasse in Paris.

The Symphonic Variations is, in effect a piano concerto compressed into a single movement. There are three major sections within the work:

  1. A serious introduction with the beginning juxtaposing two ideas very much opposed in character
  2. A slow middle section of variations worked in a conversational manner between piano and orchestra
  3. An 'Allegro non troppo' (meaning fast but not overly so) dramatic section which concludes with a sparkling coda

    The whole work is knit together by the compelling use of themes we hear at the very opening of the work; A domineering fierce figure in the strings answered by a melancholic, descending melody on the piano.

    Interestingly, l discovered that the origins of the work date back to 1884 when Franck composed a work called ‘Les Djinns’.  This work had a difficult piano part that was performed at its premiere by Louis Diémer. He was an acclaimed musician who was known for his dazzling effects of virtuosity and his deep musicality. At that time Franck has promised to compose ‘’another little something’’ for Diémer. The world premiere of the Franck Symphonic Variations was May 1st, 1886 at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. Franck was the conductor and Louis Diémer, the works dedicatee, was the soloist.

    I am currently listening to Emil Gilels recording of the Variations. (See below)

    Happy listening,