≈ 1 hour and 30 minutes · With intermission
Last updated: April 17, 2023
LOUISE FARRENC Overture No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 24 (7 min)
CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33 (19 min)
Allegro non troppo – Allegretto con moto – Tempo primo
CÉSAR FRANCK Symphony in D minor (41 min)
I. Lento – Allegro non troppo
III. Allegro non troppo
I. Lento – Allegro non troppo
III. Allegro non troppo
In 1871, Camille Saint-Saëns founded the Société Nationale de Musique to support and perform the music of living French composers. In 1886, he reluctantly resigned from it, as the organization became divided on the future aesthetic direction of French music—between the more “conservative” composers who endorsed the classical values of the music of Mozart and Beethoven (and with whom Saint-Saëns sided), and the “progressive” composers, who favoured a more “modern” approach, inspired by Richard Wagner. The latter camp was led by César Franck (1822–90), who, in that same year, began to sketch this symphony, which he completed two years later. Although he had previously written several symphonic poems (single movement orchestral works evoking images or narratives), the Symphony in D minor was his only foray into the “abstract”, multi-movement genre. It was premiered in February 1889, at one of the Paris Conservatoire’s concert series. Although initially criticized by the conservative faction of composers and critics, the piece has since been recognized as one of the key works of the French orchestral repertoire and is regularly performed today.
Franck’s Symphony exhibits several hallmarks of his compositional style, two of which show the strong influence of Wagner. For one, there’s frequent modulation—the main themes and motifs are typically reiterated in many different keys throughout a movement—and much use of chromaticism in the melodic line and in the underlying harmonies of melodies. The result is a kind of restless quality to the music, but also a kaleidoscopic effect in terms of the shifting harmonic colours.
Another Wagnerian-inspired feature is that of thematic transformation, in which the principal themes of the symphony return in various new versions at key points throughout a movement or in later movements, thus creating a sense of organic evolution as the music progresses. In this Symphony’s slow introduction (Lento), the main motifs are presented immediately: first, a series of searching phrases climbing upward in the lower strings, then, in the violins, a smooth falling line that partly winds down chromatically, supported by evocative harmonies. They soon turn fast and forceful in the ensuing Allegro non troppo section, with the falling line energized by assertive dotted rhythms. Later in the first movement, two new themes are presented: a sweetly singing melody, and a euphoric tune. These all undergo further transformation in the other movements: for example, the melancholy English horn solo in the second movement is a subtle variant of the first movement’s opening phrases; in the same movement, the euphoric tune has its angles smoothed out into a warm melody played by the violins; and the finale opens with yet another metamorphosis of the euphoric tune, introduced by the cellos as a straight-up joyful tune, with no chromaticisms to complicate its breezy mood. Also, changes in the character of musical materials are used to dramatic effect, like the new ferocity and intensity of the reprise of the first movement’s themes, or the English horn melody acquiring a new expressive power when boldly blared by trumpets in its last return in the finale.
The second movement deserves special mention for Franck’s organic presentation of several musical elements in turn—the English horn melody, a warm theme in the violins, a “buzzing” meandering line played by muted violins, and a sweeping version of the first movement’s sweet second theme—which are then ingeniously integrated together in their recapitulation. Notably, the “buzzing” line and the melancholy English horn solo combine and venture to new keys, after which the warm and sweeping melodies become intertwined, reaching a luminous climax that gradually melts into the twilight glow of the movement’s serene conclusion.
Finally, Franck’s distinctive orchestration in this work often references the timbres, sonorities, and effects of the organ, the instrument on which he built a considerable reputation as a gifted improviser in his position at the basilica of Sainte Clotilde in Paris’s Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Notably, he considered the organ there, built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, as his “orchestra”. Certain combinations of woodwind instruments sound not unlike using particular stops on the organ, and the massive crescendos evoke the opening up of the instrument’s swell box. The brass chorale in the finale, first introduced quietly and later becoming bold and confident, has undoubtedly an organ-like sonority, as do the radiant conclusions of each of the Symphony’s movements.
Program notes by Hannah Chan-Hartley, PhD
Since its debut in 1969, the National Arts Centre (NAC) Orchestra has been praised for the passion and clarity of its performances, its visionary educational programs, and its prominent role in nurturing Canadian creativity. Under the leadership of Music Director Alexander Shelley, the NAC Orchestra reflects the fabric and values of Canada, reaching and representing the diverse communities we live in with daring programming, powerful storytelling, inspiring artistry, and innovative partnerships.
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