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Program Notes: Franck's D Minor

Friday, March 22, 2019 at 10:30am

Saturday, March 23, 2019 at 8:00pm

Gilbert Varga, conductor

Daniel Müller-Schott, cello

DUKAS The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

LALO Cello Concerto in D minor

FRANCK Symphony in D minor


Program Notes


Born: October 1, 1865, Paris, France

Died: May 17, 1935, Paris, France

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

If ever a piece of music was victim of its own success, it is surely Paul Dukas’ L’apprenti sorcier. Better known in this country as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (a slightly inaccurate English translation of its title; more precise would be “The Apprentice Sorcerer”), it scored an immediate success and established Dukas, who was not yet 32, as one of France’s important new composers.

Dukas’ inspiration for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was “Der Zauberlehring,” a ballad-like poem written in 1796 by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe’s poem gives a first-person account of the misadventure that befalls a young man who has been taken on as an apprentice to an aged magician.

The apprentice has seen his master turn a piece of wood into a living servant. When the old sorcerer departs the house, the apprentice tries it himself. The charm animates a broom, and the satisfied apprentice orders the broom to fetch water from a pond. This the broom does, then does again — and again and again, for the apprentice has neglected the command for “stop.” As water overflows the basin, the apprentice takes an axe and hacks the broom in half. But both pieces take pails and continue. In the nick of time, the sorcerer returns, intones the formula, and the broomsticks fall to the floor.

The manner in which Dukas evokes this tale through orchestral music bears comparison with the tone poems of Richard Strauss. In the opening measures, embellishment of enigmatic harmonies establishes an air of mystery and supernatural possibilities. Further ambiguity attends the apprentice’s casting of the spell, where unusual chords (quite modern in 1897) imply that magic is afoot.

The vividness of Dukas’ music prompted animators at the Walt Disney studio to select The Sorcerer’s Apprentice for one of the episodes in Fantasia, the 1940 film. As brought to the screen by the Disney artists, the story related by The Sorcerer’s Apprentice featured a famous cartoon mouse in the title role.

Fantasia may have intended to expand the audience for classical music in this country through a fusion with popular culture, but the long-term result for Dukas’ piece was precisely the opposite. Rather than a strikingly imaginative and original composition, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice became for many Americans simply the soundtrack to a clever cartoon. The work deserves a better fate.

Program notes © 2003 by Paul Schiavo

First Performance: May 18, 1897, Paris, Dukas conducting

First SLSO Performance: March 5, 1908, Max Zach conducting

Most Recent SLSO Performance: April 29, 2016, David Robertson conducting

Scoring: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, suspended cymbal, triangle, cymbals, bass drum), harp, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 12 minutes



Born: January 27, 1823, Lille, France

Died: April 22, 1892, Paris, France

Cello Concerto in D minor

Édouard Lalo pursued music as a profession against the wishes of his father, a Napoleonic veteran. Lalo was born and raised in Lille in northernmost France (just across the border from present-day Belgium). There he was allowed to study violin and cello, but, desiring to make music the center of his life rather than a mere hobby, he broke out on his own while still a teenager to forge a career in the musical capital that was Paris. Among his early mentors was François Antoine Habeneck, who played an important role in Parisian musical culture and had the foresight to introduce French audiences to Beethoven’s symphonies. Through his work with the highly regarded string quartet, which he cofounded (he alternately played viola and second violin), Lalo in a sense continued in this direction by advocating for the Beethoven quartets along with other classics of the Austro-German repertoire.

As a composer, Lalo’s career is a testament to the virtue of persistence. He toiled for decades trying to establish his name by writing chamber music, songs, and—the normal route to success for a French composer of that period—opera. Yet his great breakthrough to public acclaim came late, when he was already in his fifties, and it was in orchestral music: the Symphonie espagnole, a de facto violin concerto premiered by the celebrity violinist Pablo de Sarasate in 1875. Lalo’s gifts as an opera composer had to wait even longer to be acknowledged: in 1888 came the belated though successful premiere of Le roi d’Ys (The King of Ys), a major work based on a legend about the mythical city on the coast of Brittany that is swallowed by the sea. (Debussy, an admirer of his compatriot’s ballet Namouna, also turned to this legend for La cathédrale engloutie in the first volume of his piano Préludes.)

Nowadays the Symphonie espagnole tends to overshadow everything else Lalo composed, but his Cello Concerto in D minor—written just a few years after the former, by which time Lalo had enjoyed his first real taste of success—also ranks among his finest achievements. At the time, aside from Schumann’s Cello Concerto and the first of Saint-Saëns’s two concertos for the instrument, there were few contemporary models by major composers. Violinists and pianists had long enjoyed star status as soloists, but the cello was still considered a dubious platform for a solo career. Even Dvořák, whose mature Cello Concerto in B minor (premiered in 1896) would become the cornerstone of this repertoire, harbored doubts about the instrument’s soloistic possibilities. Lalo composed the work for Parisian cellist Adolf Fischer (1847-1891). In general, the Cello Concerto is remarkable for the assuredness with which Lalo keeps the soloist in the foreground as protagonist. The Spanish flavor suggested by aspects of his material—its rhythms and textural treatment—has been widely observed. With the earlier Symphonie espagnole, Lalo, like his contemporary Bizet in the opera Carmen, had already anticipated the vogue for evoking Spanish atmosphere that attracted French composers at the end of the century.

But some traces of Lalo’s understanding of German masters such as Beethoven can also be heard—particularly in the stern rhetorical pose of the slow introduction. After just a few bars of the orchestra’s exhortation, the cello enters with its own lyrical musings, not unlike the search for the “joy” theme at the beginning of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth. The cello is then given the honor of declaring the first theme of the Allegro maestoso, which ranges widely in its impassioned lyricism and is soon decorated with cadenza-like flourishes. The movement’s structure is easy to follow, playing these declamatory and lyrical elements off each other and featuring limpid orchestration (note especially the flutes), with generous solo spotlights for the cello.

The second movement (alternating between G minor and major) unfolds as a dreamy slow interlude in which fast music is nested, that has the air of a Scherzo—a strategy Tchaikovsky likewise uses in the middle of his First Piano Concerto, written shortly before. (The Russian composer was in fact a keen admirer of Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, which was a discovery as fresh as spring water and left its mark on his own Violin Concerto.) Lalo’s Spanish stylings are especially apparent in the dancing mirth of the fast “dream-within-a-dream” passage that occurs twice; the second time, it brings the movement to a sprightly close. Lalo prefaces the finale with a slow introduction as well, this time with an engrossingly eloquent soliloquy for the cello. Its Spanish tinge provides a perfect entrée into the Latin accents and fiery rhythms of the ensuing rondo.

Program notes © Thomas May, originally written for the National Symphony

First Performance: December 9, 1877, Adolphe Fischer as soloist

First SLSO Performance: March 25, 1909, Max Zach conducting with Elsa Ruegger as soloist

Most Recent SLSO Performance: February 15, 1986, Raymond Leppard conducting with Lynn Harrell as soloist

Scoring: solo cello, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 26 minutes



Born: December 10, 1822, Liège, Belgium

Died: November 8, 1890, Paris, France

Symphony in D minor

French music, with its concern for color and balance, stands in sharp contrast to the Austro-Germanic symphonic tradition, which emphasizes musical architecture and captures a heroic or tragic character. Neither Debussy nor Ravel wrote a symphony. Nor, for that matter, did Gabriel Fauré or Emmanuel Chabrier.

Yet the lure of the symphony was strong even in France, and throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th French composers made numerous attempts to transplant the essentially Austro-German form of the symphony to their native musical soil.

Franck’s Symphony in D minor fuses both traditions, combining symphonic architecture with a French concern for color and supple melodic lines. Franck was not French but Belgian by birth, and although he spent most of his career in Paris he was more receptive than most native Frenchmen to influences from outside France.

This piece, Franck’s only work in symphonic form, dates from 1888 and crowns the extraordinary creative metamorphosis of the composer’s maturity. Having caused something of a sensation with his feats as a child prodigy, Franck settled into a rather staid and unremarkable career as a teacher and church organist.

Although his improvisations at the organ were by all accounts phenomenal (Franz Liszt reportedly left one of these performances muttering comparisons between Franck and Bach), his early compositions were anything but that. From about 1870, Franck’s music began to take on a greater boldness, clarity, and depth of expression, and his fame now rests on those works—the Piano Quintet, the oratorio Les Béatitudes, the symphonic poem Psyché, and especially the D-minor Symphony—completed during the last twelve years of his life.

Much has been written about this symphony’s “cyclical construction,” in which certain themes recur in different movements. Although such reappearances constitute an important aspect of the work, it is easy to attach too much significance to them. Each of the symphony’s three movements has its own thematic material and would stand as a satisfying symphonic section even without the melodic cross‑references with which Franck enriches the work.

Adhering to classical precepts of symphonic design, the composer prefaces the opening movement with an introduction in slow tempo. The dark initial motif announced by the low strings during this introductory paragraph is transformed to become the principal theme of the ensuing Allegro, the main body of the movement. A second important subject, one marked by a broad syncopated rhythmic figure, appears only well after the movement is under way.

The Allegretto that follows serves as both slow movement and scherzo. Its opening passage, a memorable English horn melody sung over an accompaniment of harp and string pizzicato, is perhaps the loveliest idea in the symphony, as well as the most famous. Franck develops this theme further in the brisk, scherzo‑like central section. The finale begins and concludes with a robust subject first heard in the cellos and bassoon, but it also contains conspicuous recollections of themes from both of the previous movements.

Program notes © 2009 by Paul Schiavo

First Performance: February 17, 1889, Paris, Jules Garcin conducting

First SLSO Performance: March 3, 1911, Max Zach conducting

Most Recent SLSO Performance: May 2, 2009, Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting

Scoring: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 37 minutes


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