The Symphonic Variations (Variations Symphoniques), M. 46, is a work for piano and orchestra written in 1885 by César Franck (10 December 1822 – 8 November 1890). It has been described as “one of Franck’s tightest and most finished works”; “a superb blending of piano and orchestra”; and “a flawless work and as near perfection as a human composer can hope to get in a work of this nature.”
It is a fine example of Franck’s use of cyclic unity, with one theme growing into various others. The piano and orchestra share equally in the continuous evolution of ideas. The work is in F-sharp minor (with the last movement in F-sharp major). Duration in performance is about fifteen minutes, and the instrumentation is piano solo and orchestra: pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons; four horns; two trumpets; timpani; and strings.
The work was dedicated to Louis Diémer, who on 15 March 1885 had premiered “Les Djinns” (a symphonic poem for piano and orchestra that brought Franck one of his rare critical successes). He promised to reward Diémer with ‘a little something’, and the similarly scored Symphonic Variations was the result.
Franck started work in the summer of 1885, and completed the piece on 12 December. The premiere on 1 May 1886, at the annual orchestral concert of the Société Nationale de Musique, went almost unnoticed. The soloist was Diémer, and the composer conducted. The second performance was not until 30 January 1887, at a concert devoted entirely to Franck under the conductor Jules Pasdeloup, with Diémer again as soloist. It still failed to impress. Before and after Franck’s death, however, his works were championed by his students, including Vincent d’Indy, Henri Duparc, Paul Dukas, and Ernest Chausson; and the Symphonic Variations soon entered the repertoire of major pianists. It was mainly through the Symphony in D minor and the Symphonic Variations that Franck became posthumously famous. The work is now regularly performed, and has been recorded many times. It was later arranged for two pianos, four hands.
While there is no doubt that it demonstrates Franck’s mastery of variation form, the overall structure of the Symphonic Variations has been a matter of debate. Donald Tovey called it “a finely and freely organised fantasy, with an important episode in variation form.” It has three broad sections, played without a break: Introduction; theme and variations; and finale. These sections resemble the fast–slow–fast layout of a three-movement concerto. The main theme is announced by the piano. The variations follow, and the work ends with a brilliant final section in the parallel major (F-sharp major).
The number of variations is also debated, ranging from six to fifteen. The final section may itself be likened to a compact sonata-form movement, complete with first and second themes, development, and recapitulation. Themes in all three sections are founded on the melody announced by the piano at the very start; but the variations proper occupy only the central third of the work. The introduction has reminded many commentators of the theme of the slow movement of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G.