Probably no composer lived a more prosaic life than the Belgian-born César Franck. He earned his living by teaching piano and playing the organ in church, two activities which were to occupy him throughout his life. Well-loved by his students, among whom he counted the composers d’Indy, Chausson, and Duparc, and highly regarded as an organist, Franck gained small recognition for his compositions. Only in the last year of his life did he enjoy an unqualified public success.
The day following the fine reception accorded his String Quartet, the composer buoyed the spirits of his students who always smarted at the neglect he suffered. He told them, proudly, and with touching humility, “There, you see, the public is beginning to understand me.” A large, international public did indeed come to understand and admire Franck, but not until after he had died.
The Symphonic Variations were completed in 1885. The work’s design is unique, being a three-part form in which a set of six free-flowing variations is enclosed by an introduction and finale, both based on themes different from the variation melody. Perhaps the most imaginative episode occurs in and following the sixth variation. The cello, after singing the variation theme while the piano murmurs a contemplative countermelody above it, suddenly finds for itself the first piano melody of the introduction. To a flowing piano accompaniment, the cello expands the theme, finally sinks to a high trill. This heralds the finale, which is built mainly on the piano’s very first theme, now transformed into music of lighthearted, Parisian gaiety.
Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute regularly to the Philharmonic program book.