The Piano Quintet, one of the earliest masterpieces of Franck, marked his return to chamber music after more than 35 years. The work was dedicated to Saint-Saëns who, although he played the piano part in the premiere, so strongly disapproved of the musical language of the composer that he rejected the dedication.
The first movement opens with a dramatic introduction, Molto moderato quasi lento, by the bowed strings. The piano replies in a gentle manner. The strings restate their opening. The piano turns even more gentle. The dialogue continues along similar lines until the piano suddenly launches into the Allegro. The second subject is characterized by a wistful inflection to minor. The development reaches a stormy climax. A passage mirrors the introduction. The reprise is very intense, but it concludes fading away. The second movement, Lento, con molto sentimento, is also in sonata form. It opens with a motive with a falling figure on the first violin, with a background of repeated chords of the piano. The atmosphere gradually turns more tragic. Then, a gentle melody in the lower strings is accompanied by piano in the high register. In the central section, the piano brings back the second subject of the opening Allegro. The reprise is again highly dramatic. The finale, Allegro non troppo ma con fuoco, is characterized by a relentless rhythmic drive. It opens with a repeated soft motive in the strings from which the first subject emerges. The second subject begins with a piano theme accompanied by the strings. The agitation continues throughout. Near the ending, the second subject of the Allegro reappears. But the rhythmic urgency resumes and brings the work to an intense conclusion.