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Though musically precocious, César Franck (1822-1890) never became the money-making piano prodigy his father desired. After moving out of his parents’ house in Paris (where the family had moved from Liège in 1835), Franck supported himself by teaching and playing the organ. He became organist at the newly built church of St. Clotilde in 1858, and slowly acquired fame for his organ improvisations. Composition remained intermittent, however, and mostly focused on monumental, labor-intensive oratorios and operas, until a blossoming of creative energy in the late 1870s that continued until his death. This produced several symphonic poems, distinctive chamber music, important piano and organ pieces, and the Symphony in D minor, all displaying Franck’s characteristic tonal architecture, cyclical thematic transformations, and intensely chromatic harmony.
Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor was composed in the winter of 1878-1879, a time during which some biographers suggest he was infatuated with one of his students. An ultra-expressive work – Nadia Boulanger said it contains more ppp and fff markings than any other chamber piece – it may have been inspired by this passion, which might also account for the disgust Franck’s wife registered publically for it.
The architecture is in many ways classical: a surging sonata allegro with slow introduction for the big first movement, another sonata form for the slow movement, and a fiery finale with a coda variation. The second theme of the fast part of the first movement, a very plastic rotation of intervals, becomes the cyclical tie that binds, turning up in the other two movements as well.
This structure is also supported by Franck’s tonal architecture and its flexible chromatic harmony. Franck heard the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in 1874, and that famous touchstone for slithery chromatic voice-leading was certainly influential. But Franck made something very personal of it, treating harmony like color, as something subtly variable across a broad spectrum. His students – who included Henri Duparc, Vincent d’Indy, and Guillaume Lekeu, among many other “Franckists” – said that his most common instruction was always to modulate. In the case of the Quintet, the urgent romanticism expressed through constant harmonic movement found quick public enthusiasm, but something much less from at least one professional. The dedicatee of the work and the pianist at the premiere in January 1880, Camille Saint-Saëns hated the unceasing modulations so much that he stalked off the stage, ignoring both the audience applause and the composer’s offer of the manuscript in thanks for a magnificent performance.
— John Henken