Franck’s What You Hear on the Mountain

Notes by TŌN bassist Amy Nickler

One of the First Symphonic Poems
Composed in 1845–47, César Franck’s What You Hear on the Mountain is considered to be one of the first symphonic poems ever created, even though there is no record of the piece being premiered until 1987. Franck derived his piece from Victor Hugo‘s poem Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne. Historians argue that Franz Liszt had worked independently in creating his own first large and generalized “orchestral meditation” on the exact same poem, but since his work was premiered before Franck’s, Liszt is given credit as the first composer to create a symphonic poem. Franck was inspired by his former pupil and true love, Blanche Saillot Desmousseaux, to create a large orchestral meditation in her honor using the poet’s verse from Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne. Hugo’s poem dwells on the loneliness of man confronted with nature, a loneliness reflected in his voice when opposed to the voices of natural phenomena. This symphonic poem portrays Hugo’s poem with the opposing voices of nature and humanity, and begins with a significant summoning of the natural world’s immensity. 

The Music
The piece opens with the double basses pedaling a low E, the lowest note on the instrument without the additive extension, in a pianissimo marking. The cellos then augment the drone, and it is finalized with the violins entering on the E major chord, thus setting the key and the expansion of the world, with glistening harmonics. As this continues for the next 24 bars of the piece, this affect creates an orchestral colour with a variety of registers on the same tonic triad that many later composers have borrowed and implemented in their own pieces, such as Wagner’s opening of creatio ex nihilo in Das Rheingold. Franck’s symphonic poem is a unique piece that gives a sense of the world at large, thus showing humanity the realization of how insignificant our worries can be in this vast world.