Our next blog on the famous organists of history is about César Franck, a Beligian born organist and composer with quite the interesting life story. 

Franck was an extremely talented organist who composed many pieces that are still staples in organist repertoires today.

An Intensive Early Life 

Born in Liège, Belgium, on December 10, 1822 (when it was still the United Kingdom of the Netherlands), Franck was introduced to music early. His father, Nicolas-Joseph Frank, was intent on establishing a rich and famous family by fostering the next virtuosic prodigy of the world, and he was convinced that César was that person.

This idea set the path of César’s early life, and at age eight, his father sent him to the Royal Conservatory at Liège to take up his studies in piano, solfège, organ, and harmony. However, in 1834, Nicolas-Joseph figured it was time for young César to begin performing, so he pulled him out of school to play in public recitals. The most notable of these public recitals in Belgium was his performance for Leopold I, the King of Belgium.

That being said, Nicholas-Joseph’s hunger for fame was not satiated, which prompted the family’s move to Paris, France, in 1835. Upon their arrival in Paris, César and his little brother, Joseph, took up private counterpoint and piano lessons with Anton Riecha and Pierre Zimmerman, respectively. 

Eventually, Nicholas-Joseph wanted his boys to attend the Paris Conservatoire, but to his dismay, pupils would only be accepted to the institution if they held French citizenship, and César and Joseph we’re Belgian-born. 

This didn’t stop Nicholas-Joseph’s tenacious desire for family fame, as he worked, and eventually gained in 1837 French citizenship for his boys and himself. With their newly acquired citizenship, César and his brother began attending the Paris Conservatoire, where César continued his piano studies under Zimmerman and took up composition lessons under Aimé Leborn.  

César began to thrive at the Paris Conservatoire, and by the end of his first year, he obtained first prize in piano. He continued to improve his skills at the Conservatoire, and eventually took up organ lessons with François Benoist, studying both improvisation and performance. He caught on quickly, obtaining the organ second prize from the institution in 1841. 

However, in 1842 the Franck boys left the Paris Conservatoire, assumedly at the behest of their father. It’s believed that the boys’ leaving was a decision of Nicholas-Joseph, as once they left the institution, César began performing regularly while teaching music lessons on the side. 

It’s understood that during this time, César’s performances were initially enjoyed and well-reviewed by critics and reporters; however, his father’s profit-driven attitude surrounding his son’s music and event promotion created animosity between music critics and César’s performances. Over time, the reception of the Francks’ music and performing presence was extensively ridiculed, although César’s musical gifts were acknowledged. 

It’s believed that this relationship with the press was an ultimate factor in the family’s moving back to Belgium in 1842. To Nicholas-Joseph’s dismay, his exploits were unrewarding, and after two years, the Francks returned to Paris so César could continue performing and teaching music lessons.

Although, during this time, César is acknowledged to have started writing his first, truly ‘polished’ compositions. Public reception as well as critics’ reviews of his performances and compositions remained negative. This drove César to leave the public eye, relying on his teaching and work as an accompanist to pay the bills. 

This time in Franck’s life was undoubtedly dark and rough, but unbeknownst to him, major changes were soon to come. It was during these years back in Paris that Franck reconnected with Eugénie-Félicité-Caroline Saillot (also known as Félicité Desmousseaux), a friend from his private piano lessons years before. 

César was known to spend a lot of time with Félicité Desmousseaux, often seeking respite from his father at her home. Recognized as a tipping point in César’s life, there was a day where Nicholas-Joseph found a piece of César’s that he had dedicated to Félicité. Upon discovery, he ripped it to shreds in front of César, and berated him, claiming that he would not allow César to marry or be betrothed to his friend. 

At this point, César retreated to Félicité Desmousseaux’s home, re-drafted his composition from memory (dedication to Félicité included), and made a crucial decision. Seeing as his relationship with his father only worsened, César gathered what belongings he could carry from his parents’ home and left, moving in with the Desmousseauxs and beginning a new chapter of his life. 

Fortunately, César had left his toxic home environment, but his father still had some power over him, as his disallowance of betrothal or marriage still affected César. This was because of a French law that allowed parents to keep their children from marrying until the age of 25. That being said, immediately after turning 25, Franck and Desmousseaux married. 

Interestingly enough, they married in the midst of the French Revolution, and famously had to climb over the barricades of the revolutionaries (with their assistance) to enter the church and be wed.

An Organist Emerges

After his marriage, Franck joined the church where he married, Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, making it his personal parish, additionally becoming the assistant organist in 1847. It’s impressive to note that although César’s skills at organ weren’t quite to the caliber of his piano skills, he persisted, practicing and improving his organ ability until he caught the eye of Abbé Dancel. Dancel worked at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette with Franck, but moved to another church by the name of Saint-Jean-Saint-François-au-Marais in 1851. 

Once Dancel had moved to Saint-Jean-Saint-François-au-Marais, he invited Franck to be the titulaire (main organist). Much to his pleasure, Franck was then equipped with a fabulous Aristide Cavaillé-Coll organ at this new location. He is quoted as saying, “My new organ it’s like an orchestra!” in regard to this new instrument, and from that point forward began making a name for himself as an organist. 

Additionally, he loved the instruments made by Cavaillé-Coll so much that he became, essentially, the face of the brand. He’d often be called upon to demonstrate newly built instruments or perform for inaugural concerts.

Parallel to Franck’s discovery of Cavaillé-Coll instruments, there was a revolution taking place in the world of organ technology. The German pedalboard was becoming a mainstay of organ music, but Franck did not have experience with it, as the French organ which he was acquainted with was not equipped with this technology. 

Thus, Franck set to work, learning the techniques necessary for using the German pedalboard, which equipped him with the skills needed to perform on the organ with clarity, precision, and legato sound. It wasn’t long before he achieved mastery. 

On January 22, 1858, Franck transitioned to the titulaire position he’d hold until his death, at the  Sainte-Clotilde parish. Naturally, after his arrival to the post, the parish installed a Cavaillé-Coll organ. This has been dubbed the defining moment for the rest of César’s music career, as the instrument had such a massive impact on his composing. In fact, it’s noted that Franck said, “If you only knew how I love this instrument… it is so supple beneath my fingers and so obedient to all my thoughts!”

Franck was so dedicated to his new organ that he actually bought a practice German pedalboard in order to further his mastery of the instrument. And it was at this point that he became more revered for his compositions created for the organ as well as other instruments and choirs. It was during this period (1860-1862) that he created what Rollin Smith, the writer of Playing the Organ Works of César  Franck, called “the most important organ music written since Mendelssohn’s,” which was his set of Six Pièces for organ, a work that remains a staple of organ music even today. 

As Franck worked as titulaire for Sainte-Clotilde, his popularity continued to rise. He had a solid reputation as the inaugural/dedicatory organist for Cavaillé-Coll instruments, his compositions became more recognized, and people even started attending Mass at Sainte-Clotilde just to hear his organ improvisations! 

Franck’s Later Life 

In addition to holding the position of titulaire at Sainte-Clotilde, Franck assumed the position of Organ Professor at the Paris Conservatoire upon his old instructor Benoist’s retirement. In fact, Franck was the top choice for the position, and it’s up for dispute as to which influential person made an official recommendation. 

What’s more, is that in order to step into the professor position, Franck had to re-obtain his French citizenship, as the citizenship he obtained in his youth unknowingly timed-out once he reached the age of 21. 

However, this was merely an embarrassing obstacle, which he overcame by re-obtaining French citizenship. In 1873, he was able to teach his lessons to a devoted group of pupils. That being said, he received some backlash from his faculty coworkers regarding his unconventional teaching methods, as well as his beloved reputation among his students who called him Pére, or Father, Franck.  

In terms of his compositions during this time, he received many mixed reviews. Many blame this on the conflicting musical ideas he received from his wife and his students. That being said, he continued to work on and perform his compositions, adding to his long resume of personally composed music. 

Unfortunately, Franck died on November 8, 1890, after a series of health complications. Although historians have a difficult time pinpointing the exact cause of his death, it has been perceived as a combination of the health effects resulting from a vehicular accident he was involved in in May of 1890 and his falling ill with pleurisy in October of that same year. 

Before he died, he was able to finish a series of iconic organ pieces, the Trois Chorals, which have been widely understood as his farewell to the world. 

Keeping the Legacy Alive 

At Viscount Organs, we’re committed to keeping the organ and it’s glorious music relevant in this modern age. Whether you’re in the market for your own organ, or you’re simply interested as to how it has evolved since the days of César Franck, visit Viscount Organs today! We can cover all your organ needs.