Franck was born in Liège. His father had ambitions for him to become a concert pianist, and he studied at the conservatoire in Liège before going to the Paris Conservatoire in 1837. Upon leaving in 1842 he briefly returned to Belgium, but went back to Paris in 1844 and remained there for the rest of his life.
Franck was a fine pianist, and made concert tours in his early years, but made his living at the organ, becoming organist of Sainte-Clotilde in 1858, where he remained until his death. From 1872 to his death he was organ professor at the Paris Conservatoire. His pupils included Vincent d'Indy, Ernest Chausson and Henri Duparc. As an organist he was particularly noted for his skill in improvisation, and it is on the basis of only twelve major organ works that Franck is by many considered the greatest organ composer after J. S. Bach.
Many of Franck's works employ 'cyclic form' (the use of one theme in more than one movement of a work). His music is often contrapuntally complex, using a harmonic language that is firmly Romantic, showing some influence from Richard Wagner.
Franck's fame rests largely on a small number of compositions written in his later years, particularly his symphony (1886-88), the Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra (1885), the Prelude, Choral and Fugue for piano solo (1884) and a sonata for violin and piano (1886).
Franck's last work (and one of his greatest) is the Choral No. 3, in A minor. Franck died in 1890 and was interred in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.