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The Catholic Standard of Music in the Age of Revolution

Above: the tomb of César Franck in Paris. 

Today is the bicentenary of the birth, which took place in Liège, in eastern Belgium, on December 10, 1822, of a composer and organist who, having lived almost always in Paris, was one of the most significant personalities of the French nineteenth century: César Franck.

We remember him as a great Catholic musician. In this regard, the words of the French writer Lucien Descaves († 1949) in one of his novels are significant:

It will certainly not be among the seekers of success, among the makers of operas and ballets, where we will find the pillars of great religious music; and as for continuing the work of old masters, who would ever feel capable of it today? What individual, animated by a truly Christian spirit, will be able, in these times of commerce and disgrace, to present a spiritual record, not defiled by any infamous inspiration? What pilgrim, tracing, for eternal salvation, the sublime thought and firm faith of Palestrina, Victoria and Bach, would still dare, like the latter, to dedicate his works to the glory of God alone, or like Haydn, to remove from the harpsichord the hands made suddenly mute by inspiration, to ask his rosary for a source of pure emotions? What clear man, finally, by adjusting his existence to the mission assumed, today will push his detachment from the world to the point of reaching that austerity of the organists and directors of music of other times, who, unaware of the pleasures, never accepted invitations to banquets and parties, and spent in recollection and study the hours, which the Church or their professorship left free to them? Unfortunately today I know only one example of so much wisdom and virtue of the same kind: César Franck![1]

Franck for some recalls especially Panis angelicus, the famous piece he originally wrote for voice, cello, harp and organ, and which only later (1872) he inserted in his Messe à trois voix op. 12, composed in 1860 when he was organist at the church of Sainte-Clotilde in Paris. But his vast compositional corpus includes numerous symphonic works (various symphonic poems, including Rédemption of 1871; the Variations symphoniques for piano and orchestra of 1885; the Symphony in D Minor of 1888; and two oratorios, Ruth of 1845 and Les Béatitudes of 1879), chamber music (the Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano of 1886 and the String Quartet in D Major of 1890), piano pieces (Prélude, Choral et Fugue of 1884 and Prélude, Aria et Final of 1887) and organ music (Six pièces pour grand orgue of 1862, 3 Pièces of 1878 and Trois chorals of 1890).

A score of great interest, perhaps the zenith of his symphonic art, is the grandiose oratorio for solos, choir and orchestra Les Béatitudes, composed between 1869 and August 10, 1879. It was well known to an eminent music lover such as Pope Pius XII, who mentioned it in a speech by him:

Who has not more intimately tasted the words of the divine Master in the harmony of César Franck’s Les Béatitudes with a humble and pure soul?[2]

This authentic masterpiece of sacred music is made up of a Prologue and eight parts, drawn as for the French text by the writer Joséphine-Blanche Colomb († 1892), following Jesus’ so-called “Sermon on the Mount,” which is contained in chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s Gospel. The eight “Beatitudes” (Mt 5:1-12), which are the program of life of Christ’s disciples and of those who believe in Him, is contrasted by the voice of “man taken from the earth” (1 Cor 15:47), exposed to pain and death, who follows the path of disorder, or even that of despair.

Already from the first sad notes of the orchestra at a tempo of Lento ma non troppo that introduce the Prologue, followed by a celestial choir of serene hope, and then passing through the individual episodes, in which are heard, on the one hand, the voices of hatred, injustice, discord and evil, and on the other hand, the intervention of Christ Who, speaking the words of Beatitude, invites to love, justice, peace and purity, the tragic and glorious history of man, who receives from heaven the announcement of evangelical perfection and the hope of a happiness that is not still known, gradually stands out.

The musical spiritualism of the Belgian-French Romantic composer fits perfectly with Madame Colomb’s libretto. Claude Debussy († 1918) well says that Franck wrote Les Béatitudes

with that candor and confidence which enlist our admiration when he is face to face with music, before which he kneels murmuring the most profoundly human prayer ever uttered by a mortal soul.[3]

This complex oratorio relies on the orchestra; on a mixed chorus, now “terrestrial,” which gives voice to lament or aspirations, despair or prayer, now “celestial,” with angelic calls to forgiveness, interior joy and spiritual elevation; on ten solo voices, who impersonate the antagonists Christ and Satan and symbolic characters (like a grieving mother, a derelict orphan, a mourning husband): L’Épouse (soprano), L’Ange du pardon (soprano), Un Orphelin (mezzo-soprano), Mater dolorosa (mezzo-soprano), Une Mère (alto), Récitant (tenor), Christ (bariton), L’Époux (bass), L’Ange de la mort (bass), Satan (bass).

It is an evocative sonic fresco which, inspired by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, Berlioz and Gounod, in two and a quarters hours of music, passionately and sincerely expresses the conception of man and life, the Catholic faith and the moral aspiration of César Franck.


[1] L. Descaves, Les Emmurés, Parigi 1894, p. 219, our translation.

[2] Pius XII, Address to directors and employees of Italian Broadcasting System, December 3, 1944, our translation.

[3] C. Debussy, Monsieur Croche the Dilettante Hater, Dover, New York 1962/1927, p. 51.

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