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Composed: 1885
Length: c. 15 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo piano
First LA Phil performance: February 13, 1921, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting, with soloist Winifred Hooke

César Franck doesn’t win any points for madness, tragedy, or plotting homicide. That may make him a less riveting biography subject, but his body of music has slowly, increasingly compelled respect. Perhaps the career church organist and piano teacher was just too straightlaced for his own good. His father was certainly disappointed when Franck abandoned his youthful trajectory of becoming a star concert pianist. His compositions have often been ignored or derided (Virgil Thomson once wrote that his “position as a major composer in any medium is doubtful”) although he has always had fans.

Franck stopped writing for the piano in his youth, and only took it up again towards the end of his life when, after years of teaching and earning marks for his improvisation chops on the organ, he had a surge of compositional creativity. In 1885 he experienced a rare hit with his symphonic poem for piano and orchestra, Les Djinns (based on the Victor Hugo poem), which premiered in March with pianist Louis Diémer. Franck was impressed with Diémer’s performance, and told him: “To reward you, I’ll write... a little something which I’ll dedicate to you.” The composer’s “little something,” which he started working on that summer, turned into a bona fide barnburner for Diémer’s instrument. (Perhaps finally being made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in August – an occasion his supporters decried as long overdue – gave Franck an extra jolt of creative caffeine.) Diémer premiered the Symphonic Variations on May 1, 1886, at the Société Nationale, with Franck conducting. Even his peer Gabriel Fauré, who wasn’t normally fond of Franck’s music, said he liked this work “without reserve.”

Symphonic Variations is like a mini piano concerto, whose difficulty and dexterity can be attributed to Franck’s intimate familiarity with the instrument and his gigantic hands (which could swallow twelve white keys in one gulp). The piece made use of his characteristic “cyclic unity,” and owes some inspiration to his homeland with the melodic and rhythmic fingerprints of a Belgian folk dance called the cramignon. No one can agree on how many variations there actually are (somewhere between six and fifteen), but no matter what, Franck gets a lot of mileage out of his theme in a mere unbroken 15 minutes. It begins in a gently virtuosic passage for piano, floating down against a current of agitated gusts from the orchestra. The pair gets cozier, slipping into reflective streams. A regal, almost martial escalation relaxes into sparkling piano arpeggios that glint with sympathetic string chords, darkening and lightening in tone. Hypnotic mystery begins to swirl like a whirlpool, falling in a shimmering cascade reminiscent of Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals (which would premiere two years later). The final movement slips into a friendly chase – the orchestra pouncing on the scampering keys – before easing into a graceful, if somewhat cheeky, finale.

Tim Greiving is a film music journalist in Los Angeles. Find him at timgreiving.com.