When one considers César Franck's works, The Beatitudes close a period, indeed they mark a break. Naturally, there is all that was written before and after this magnificent vocal and symphonic fresco, which was composed over a period of more than ten years (1869 -1879) and seems to tower up like a mountain and form a dividing line in the musician's production.
Before 1869, Franck remains, in spite of his efforts to become famous, an unheard of composer. Neither the numerous concerts that his father organized during his twentieth year, nor the trios that Franck composed (variations on popular opera airs) succeeded in making the required breakthrough... He was married in 1848 and, under the influence of his wife and family-in-law, tried to make a name for himself on stage. During these years he was obliged to give private piano lessons for 4 francs an hour. The organs of Saint Jean - Saint François of the Marais in 1853 and that of Sainte Clotilde in 1859 were all that gave him pleasure during this dim period. Nothing of any great value came from this fairly productive period apart from two oratorios: Ruth, that Liszt remarqued in 1845 and the tower of Babel twenty years later, and also the Masses, several melodies and motets which became famous later on thanks to the famous Panis Angelicus... In fact, one essentially remembers him as an organist, an occupation which moreover influenced his six works of art: Opus 16 to 21 in the 1860 collection...
The defeat at. Sedan was a gong that woke France up from the long slumber of the Second Empire. The artists took hold of themselves and the famous “Société Nationale de Musique” (the “S.N.M.”) was born with the proud and patriotic motto: “Ars Gallica” and was designed to promote, encourage and play French music. Franck was one of the founder members with Bussine, Castillon, Duparc and Saint-Saëns. Such varied composers as D'Indy, Chausson, Chabrier, Bréville and many others soon joined them...
Now that, he is able to play his own compositions surrounded by a group of his young pupils from the Conservatoire (Franck's band), where he was appointed in 1872, Franck finds new strength and harbours many audacious projects. His art becomes more diverse, more intense. In this period or ripening talent, The Beatitudes appear, even then, as the prelude to the great works that are born almost every year after 1879. He works during the school holidays, the only free moments he can obtain away from his teaching. The admirable Quintette of 1878, preceded by the Redemption (1875) and Eolides (1876 - 1877) was soon followed by a group of chefs d'oeuvre that range from Rebecca (1881) to the last three Chorals for the organ in 1890, and include works such as: Le Chasseur maudit (1882), Les Djinns or Prelude, Choral and Fugue (1884 -1885) the grandiose Variations Symphoniques of 1885 which were published a few months before the superb Sonata for piano and violin, Psyche., the Symphony in D minor as well as a new triptych for the piano, Prelude, Aria and Finale finally the wonderful String quartet that captures the lyrical and methodical power of the musician.
Franck took ten years to finish The Beatitudes. The long span of time itself perhaps explains certain weaknesses that can be found but they are essentially due to the dullness and verbosity of Madame Colomb's booklet which today makes us smile. It does however reflect well the spirit of that period. The structure of the work itself is perhaps also to blame: each Beatitude is composed in the same manner. One voice or the choir expresses the profane conception of the world, then Christ replies to the ungodly with holy words taken from the scriptures. The choir of the Just or the voice of Angels sing the conclusion. This effect alone is too predictable and is repeated eight times.
However, this rhetorical technique does not only have disadvantages. By accentuating contrasts and antitheses, it corresponds well with one of Franck's deepest tendencies that was expressed in his first oratorio (Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne), written when he was twenty four and also in the Redemption, composed when he was forty nine. In many pages of pure music, one finds two themes two tonalities, two rhythms, that are highly individual but which observe one another, converse and assail each other. In The Beatitudes, the antithesis is erected as a system. But how can one distinguish, in a purely musical sense, Mercy, the thirst for justice or the desire for peace? It is here that Franck's extremely deep and strong faith plays its role: it discovers strong accents and kneels down to pray with all its heart: the Beatitudes are the expression of his prayer made music. It is precisely this faith which gives all its value and greatness to this vast composition, which is extremely personal, ardent and committed.
From the very beginning of the Prologue, an admirable plastic sonority, symbol of Christ, the center of the word and Giver of charity, love and consolation, sings to the cellos and bassoons. It is this “cyclic motif” that assures the unity of the work by reappearing in each of the Beatitudes. They pick up and develop the famous “Sermon on the mountain”, that sweep one away to let stylised allegories join high reflexions and cosmic visions. Less apologetic than really deep and living, the partition develops a sort of metaphysical fear that the composer may have experienced and work takes full advantage of his imaginative power. For if Christ necessarily wins the battle, he must fight a formidable enemy, whose name is Satan. Thus, through their exchange, it is the whole of an ageless manking that talks, that cries the depths of its despair and hopes for peace, justice and happiness. In this respect the fourth, seventh and eighth sermons reach pathetical accents that are of an exceptional plenitude, summits that immediately class The Beatitudes alongside the great works of art that have remained neglected for too long.
As fate would have it, Franck never heard the complete work. The only integral version, but with piano playing the role of the orchestra, took place at his home, 95 Boulevard Saint Michel in Paris, on the 20th of February 1879. Some of his friends had organized this concert and had invited the minister in order to promote the musician and for him to receive the Legion d'Honneur. In vain... it was only on the 15th, 16th and 18th of June 1891 at Dijon and on the 12th of March 1893 in Paris that justice was finally rendered to the work. Alas, at that time, Franck had been dead since the 8th of November 1.890... What a frustration!