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From the sunny Violin Sonata in A to the intricate Variations Symphoniques for piano and orchestra, any journey through Franck’s music is deeply rewarding. And yet, he’s far and away remembered for this one piece of music, Panis Angelicus, which has been recorded hundreds of times and is still performed frequently the world over.

The melodic line is sung by a solo tenor, accompanied by a relatively reserved organ and sedate string chords. Although known primarily as a stand-alone piece, Panis Angelicus was also included by Franck within his Mass for Three Voices. However, Panis Angelicus was completed in 1872 – twelve years after the Mass – so its inclusion was a rather belated affair.

Like his fellow French composer Gabriel Fauré, César Franck was a precociously talented child, adept not just at composition but also as a concert pianist. His particularly demanding father placed considerable pressure on the young composer, urging him to teach alongside his studies. Despite the pressure from his father, the young César wasn’t dissuaded from following a musical path in later life. And for that, we can be truly thankful.

Recommended Recording

Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge; Andrew Nethsingha (conductor). Chandos: CHSA 5085. 

Franck’s earlier piano music was designed for his own virtuoso performance. Two later works remain in general repertoire: the Prélude, choral et fugue of 1884 and the Prélude, aria et final, completed in 1887.

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The first was an almost complete disruption of relations with his parents. The proximate cause was his friendship and later love for one of his private piano pupils, Eugénie-Félicité-Caroline Saillot (1824–1918), whose parents were members of the Comédie-Française company under the stage name of Desmousseaux. He had known her from his years at the Conservatoire, and for young Franck Félicité Desmousseaux's family home had become something of a refuge from his overbearing father. When in 1846 Nicolas-Joseph found a composition dedicated to "Mlle. F. Desmousseaux, in pleasant memories" among César-Auguste's papers, he tore it up in the latter's presence. César-Auguste went directly to the Desmousseauxs', wrote out the piece from memory, and presented it to Félicité with a dedicatory line. Relations with his father worsened, who forbade any thought of betrothal and marriage (which French law permitted of a father for a son younger than 25), accusing him of distressing his mother and shouting at him about a then notorious husband-wife poisoning case as the most likely outcome of any match by his son. His mother's role in the dispute is unclear: she was either mildly supportive of her son or stayed completely out of the conflict. [16] On a Sunday in July, César-Auguste walked out of his parents' house for the last time with nothing but what he could carry, and moved to the Desmousseauxs', where he was welcomed. From that time on, young Franck termed himself and signed his papers and works as César Franck or plain C. Franck . "It was his intention to make a clean break with his father and to let it be known he had done so . . He was determined to become a new person, as different as possible from the other." [17]

César Franck was born in Liège, Belgium. His father had ambitions for him to become a concert pianist, and he studied at the conservatoire in Liège before going to the Paris Conservatoire in 1837. Upon leaving in 1842 he briefly returned… read more

He was born at Liège, in what is now Belgium (though at the time of his birth it was under the Netherlands' control). In that city he gave his first concerts in 1834. He studied privately in Paris from 1835, where his teachers included Anton Reicha. After a brief return to Belgium, and a disastrous reception to an early oratorio Ruth, he moved to Paris, where he married and embarked on a career as teacher and organist. He gained a reputation as a formidable improviser, and travelled widely in France to demonstrate new instruments built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. In 1858 he became organist at Sainte-Clotilde, a position he retained for the rest of his life. He became professor at the Paris Conservatoire in 1872; he took French nationality, a requirement of the appointment. His pupils included Vincent d'Indy, Ernest Chausson, Louis Vierne, Charles Tournemire, Guillaume Lekeu, and Henri Duparc. After acquiring the professorship Franck wrote several pieces that have entered the standard classical repertoire, including symphonic, chamber, and keyboard works.

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