But the audience at the premiere of the Symphonic Variations were probably confused by what they actually heard. Far from a classic set of variations on a theme, Franck wrote a different and subtle type of work. The actual variations are small in number and there is much that goes on before and after.
The work is in three distinct sections played without break. The first section is in the key of F-sharp minor and begins with severe and dramatic octaves in the strings, to which the piano answers in a gentle manner. This beginning is similar to the beginning of Beethoven's slow movement of his Piano Concerto No. 4, and whether Franck intended it as a homage to Beethoven or it is a mere coincidence, the piano soon becomes an equal with the orchestra and after some dialog between them the piano introduces the theme that is the object of the variations.
There are six (some say more) variations that are seamlessly woven together with piano and orchestra. Everything moves so smoothly, that the variations are almost over before the listener knows it, and the piano enters into a trance of gentle music with the orchestra quietly commenting. The piano and orchestra end up in a sleep-walking dialog, until the piano throws off some sparkling trills that lead the music to the key of F-sharp major. With the change in key comes a change in mood as the piano scampers in a graceful dance with the orchestra. As the orchestra and piano remind each other of the beginning with snippets of the opening theme in major mode, the music ends.
The Symphonic Variations is a piece that is one of the most perfect ever written for piano and orchestra. It is short, but there is so much happening that it should take longer than the average time of 15 minutes to play it. It is not possible to think about it being for any other combination of instruments (although there is a version for two pianos, it was probably made for rehearsal use or to allow performance when no orchestra is available). The piano writing is for a virtuoso, but never at the expense of the musical content. Franck has written a piece where virtuosity is for the good of the whole, not an end in itself.