César Franck

Born - Dec 10, 1822   |   Died - Nov 8, 1890   |   Genres - Drama, Music, Dance, Crime

Share on

Biography by "Blue" Gene Tyranny

This composer's music embraces both Romanticism and Wagnerian chromaticism to engender a unique, subtle style that ranges from the lyrical to the dramatic, a "pure" music beautifully suited to act as emotional atmosphere. However, its characteristic avoidance of iconic, representational gestures (e.g., the thundering storm, the weeping violin, the sultry saxophone, etc.) also limits its use to amplifying the expression of more mature visions. Thus, Cesar Franck's music has been quoted in only about ten feature films.

The earliest of these, and arguably the best in its usage of the music, is director Billy Wilder's 1944 classic Double Indemnity. The primary score was written by veteran film composer Miklos Rozsa, who crafted a dynamic, perfectly film noir-style theme, sub-theme, and nostalgic love motif. Within the score, Rozsa imitated the primary rhythm of the first movement of the Franck Symphony in D Minor (1889) without using the pitches. The only actual quote from the symphony is a simplified version of the B flat minor English horn theme that occurs at the start of the second movement. This uncredited melody is interwoven into Rozsa's score in the form of variations, orchestrated in Franck's manner with brooding timbres of lower string melodies and with the mysterious apprehensions suggested by nervous tremolos.

The takes on the minor theme usually accompany the conspiracy scenes where Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck meet stealthily in a '30s-style grocery store, where, amidst the canned fruit and dewy vegetables (a setting courtesy of the wonderfully droll and ironic humor of director Wilder), they continue to hatch the latest twist in a plot to throw her husband from a train and then file an insurance claim for the double indemnity allowed in case of accidental death.

From subsequent films, Franck's music can be observed to turn up in films that depict situations of complex emotional import. Two decades after the Wilder film, Franck's music occurs throughout Visconti's beautifully paced and photographed drama of the secrets kept within a grand old Tuscan family, Vaghe Stelle dell'Orsa (Sandra of a Thousand Delights, 1965). This was followed by the Quebec-filmed subtle and touching emotional study of a girl, her mother, and an alcoholic uncle, Les Bons Débarras (1980) (aka Good Riddance) in which excerpts from Franck's grand orchestral work Les variations symphoniques are quoted throughout. Later films include Céleste (1981), an intriguing film based on the autobiography of the woman who was writer Marcel Proust's secretary for the last decade of his life, and Hilary and Jackie (1998), the real-life drama of the lives of fledgling musicians Hilary and Jacqueline Du Pre, sisters who respectively went on to become a housewife and a concert cellist, a film filled with gripping music from several composers appearing as background scoring and in "motivated" live concert performance.