What happened to one of classical music’s most popular pieces?

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Whatever Leopold Stokowski’s thirst for fame was, he was not known for giving in to public pressure. During his long tenure as conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1912 to 1938, Stokowski gave the American premieres of scores as difficult as Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and the “Wozzeck”, with little concern for the box office.

But towards the end of most of his seasons in charge, this great showman pandered to mass taste. Philadelphia subscribers were invited to vote for their favorite works, with the promise that Stokowski would lead the winners on a closing “demand program”.

For years the winner was Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique,” a painful symphony so popular that other orchestras had been, wrote the critic Lawrence Gilman in 1925, “so sure of the outcome of similar voting contests that ‘they sent their programs to print before the date of the election’.

But at the end of the 1923-24 season, a challenger dealt Tchaikovsky a coup de grace: the Symphony in D minor by César Franck.

“Is it puffing up the amiable Belgian’s symphony,” Gilman wonders in the New York Herald Tribune, “to place it above Tchaikovsky’s sorrowful swan song?

Probably, Gilman concluded. But the Franck, which the composer completed in 1888, will not be shot down.

“What’s in the texture of the music itself to explain its popularity?” Gilman reflects, reporting another landslide in 1929, when the Franck beat Beethoven’s Fifth, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth and Sixth, and Brahms’ First. By 1924 Gilman had despised “the more than occasional banality and inferiority of his musical expression”, and although he admitted he had an “unforgettably noble distinction of outline and gesture”, he was only to his opinion not up to the height of the greatest.

Perhaps, writes Gilman, “public taste is itself part of the problem.” Yet, he added, “the interest and the strangeness of the verdict remain”.

Quiet, sincere and more famous during his lifetime as an organist and teacher than as a composer, Franck is celebrating the bicentenary of his birth this year. But American orchestras are unlikely to bring to the celebration the fervor with which they once performed his only symphony. In one of the strangest stories in the history of the canon, the work – which from the 1920s to the 60s was such a success that the New York Philharmonic thought it a solid bet for filling Lewisohn Stadium on a hot summer night – is now almost absent from concert halls.

“There’s a lot of music that at one time was very popular and then disappeared,” bandleader Riccardo Muti said in an interview. Muti recorded the Franck with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1981 and was the last person to conduct it at Carnegie Hall, with his Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in 2012.

“But in the case of this symphony,” Muti continued, “I don’t understand.”

It is difficult today to assess the extent of the success of Franck’s symphony, which was neither immediate nor brief. Part of the coin flurry – including the “Prelude, Chorale and Fugue” for piano, a string Quartet and violin sonataand his farewell “Three Chorales” for organ — from the last decade of its composer’s budding career, it was premiered in Paris in 1889.

Tepidly received then, the symphony waited a decade for its American debut, long after Franck’s death in 1890. Performances by the Boston Symphony in April 1899 also left critics uncertain. The Boston Herald lamented its “weary rehearsal” but noted the “certain bizarre fascination it wields”. The Boston Globe suggested it was “calculated to appeal more to the educated musician than the average concert patron”.

Not enough. While the symphony maintained a steady pace of European performances, it took off in Britain and America, where Franck was celebrated as the musical representative of occupied Belgium during World War I, as his biographer RJ Stove Explain. In the early 1920s, when Franck’s symphonic poem “The Cursed Hunter” and the Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra were also essential, his symphony had built such a reputation that its place in the repertoire was maintained for decades.

The variety of conductors who have performed the Franck suggests that its longevity is due in part to its astonishing ability to withstand a range of interpretations. Set in three movements, it draws heavily on late Beethoven: it borrows from the master’s Ninth Symphony for the colossally abrasive moment of recapitulation in its first movement and in the recall of earlier themes in its third, and its opening motif echoes the finale of the last string quartet, Beethoven’s three notes titled “Muss es sein?” (“Should it be?”).

The improvisational structure of Franck’s symphony and its orchestration have often been described as organ-like – hardly surprising, given that its composer spent more than three decades working in the religious services of Saint -Clotilde and as an organ teacher at the Paris Conservatory after 1872.

“Soaring lyricism, kaleidoscopic modulations and spiritual depth reached unprecedented heights with Franck on the organ bench,” Paul Jacobs, who begins a study of organ parts in New York on March 29, said in an email. “These characteristics carried over to his other works, including the symphony.”

Besides Beethoven, Franck’s clear point of reference in the symphony was Wagner. Many of Franck’s students loved the Wagnerians, but he was conflicted. The conductor François-Xavier Roth, who conducts Franck with the ensemble Les Siècles in Paris in Junesaid in an interview that in the symphony “you have the fight to invent or defend a kind of French music against that of Wagner”.

It was still a fight where Franck borrowed from his opponent. Gilman, the critic for the Tribune, once accused the symphony of “weeping tearful chromatic tears like a helpless Tristan”.

Was it therefore a French work? German? The height of romanticism? The counter-attack of classicism?

The recordings suggest that the conductors answered “all of the above” and that the work emerged unscathed regardless. Furtwängler gave him Wagnerian stakes; Herbert von Karajan and Eugene Ormandy flooded it with sounds; Stokowski and Leonard Bernstein played with it, and the score didn’t particularly care. Monteuxwho heard the premiere of the work as a child and was invited to perform it so often that in 1949 he mentioned he was “tired to death” of it, but did it with the Chicago Symphony in 1961 with his typical, graceful energy, leaving one of the finest records ever made.

Since the emblem of Monteux, there have been more performances and recordings, in particular of francophile conductors, but the symphony never regained its ubiquity. The New York Philharmonic played it in all but two calendar years from 1916 to 1964, but has only offered it 12 years since – and not at all since 2010, when Muti was on the podium.

So where did Franck go?

“It was often played very superficially,” Muti said, “so I think at a certain point the audience had had enough.”

Not just the audience: Muti dryly added that during the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s tour with the piece in 2012, he came to feel that “the musicians preferred something else.”

The deafening routine is part of the answer, as is the work’s relative simplicity for an orchestra, which might be seen as a shortcoming in an era that places increasing emphasis on musical complexity and virtuosity. But neither routine nor straightforwardness harmed the other war horses.

Did he lose when his champions left the stage? This could have been the case in Boston. Charles Munch, a Fiery Franckian, took with him the Francophilia of the Boston Symphony when he left in 1962; Franck’s decline corresponds to it with the ascend of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, a Boston commission that his more recent conductors have touted as the hallmark that Franck had been. But the Franck had not really seemed to depend on a small circle of defenders, and no work replaced it everywhere.

Another common suggestion is that Frank’s spirituality — critic Olin Downes describe the processional slow movement, with its English horn solo, as “a religious meditation unparalleled in music” – became less relevant in more secular times, when the earthly anxieties of Mahler and Shostakovich seemed more appropriate. But that didn’t hurt Bruckner.

Another thought might be that as the canon changed around him, the Franck seemed to have less to say contextually. Frank had his imitators, yes, but his symphony was a bit deadlocked. It is telling that Pierre Boulez, at the New York Philharmonic from 1971 to 1977, was the first musical director since Mahler not to perform the work.

Berlioz aside, Boulez made the influential choice to begin his French repertoire with Debussy – who briefly studied with Franck but went away of the influence of his teacher, grumbling in 1913 that Franck “ignored boredom” – and Ravel, who heard in the symphony “bold harmonies of peculiar richness, but devastatingly poor in form”.

What if the more recent music of Sibelius and Stravinsky put Franck aside – although it was not brand new music, which American orchestras played less over time – the past has also struck back. The Boston Symphony performed Dvorak three times more often in the second half of its history than in the first, according to the orchestra; Mozart’s fortune grew almost as dramatically.

Such facts reflect the enduring conservatism of much of the orchestral world, and they make it difficult to argue too forcefully for the Franck to be resurrected. The right call now is to diversify what ensembles play, in every sense of the verb. Inevitably, some works will gain prominence in the process, and others will recede.

And if that’s the moral of the tale, fine. The rise and fall of Franck’s symphony shows that the canon can change — that the canon can be amended.

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