With this ringing endorsement the publishing director of Le Figaro is reported to have favoured his son, upon surfacing from a volume of Bossuet, the seventeenth-century bishop whose own memory rested upon a rare talent for funeral orations.
There is a distinguishable ‘fault line’ between the life and the music of Lucien Denis Gabriel Albéric Magnard. Born in Paris on 9 June 1865, he was an exact contemporary of Sibelius, Nielsen (to the day), Dukas and Glazunov. To the last of these he bears a qualified resemblance through patiently acquired mastery of counterpoint. In other respects the connection is much stronger with his compatriots Dukas, d’Indy, Chausson and Joseph Guy Ropartz.
François Magnard occupied his executive post with Le Figaro from 1879 until his death in 1894. His son Albéric thus grew up in an affluent household where professional success of a particular kind seems to have been paternally taken for granted. This was exacerbated by bereavement: Albéric had been left motherless at the age of four. One can readily imagine the poignant difficulties of a genuine paternal love and concern repressed and distorted by all the stoically regimental instincts keeping widowed grief perpetually at bay. To such an emotional climate one may attribute much in the younger Magnard’s character, both as musical voice and as man (the two are seldom easy to disentangle). Conscious of his father’s necessary financial support but resentful of implicit pressure in particular career directions, Albéric railed inwardly at the ‘fils du Figaro’ tag with which others saddled him. A sardonic determination to be recognized only on his own merits was to dominate the rest of his life. His father’s Bossuet-provoked outburst may be read as an expression of the baffled exasperation, part humorous, part despairing, which only closest kith and kin can awaken.
Albéric passed his baccalaureate in 1882 and was then sent for six months to the improbable surroundings of the Benedictine abbey at Ramsgate: an ostensibly misguided move, given his father’s hope that (in Martin Cooper’s words) ‘contact with the tough regardlessness of British youth would be beneficial’. After military service came law school, from which Albéric duly graduated in 1887. At this point he began to manifest rather more tough regardlessness than his father might have bargained for. Having hitherto shown relatively little musical talent, and despite the beckoning of an easy professional ride through the ready-made paternal empire, he renounced all comfortable options. Some sources report that he entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1886 (before graduating in law), others 1887. How long he had harboured this scheme must remain uncertain. However, his friend Savard had recently won the Prix de Rome. Much more momentously, perhaps, Magnard himself had already travelled extensively (no doubt suffering with dignity his condition of financial dependency). He had thus been present at a Bayreuth performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in 1886. In this he was far from alone among French musicians of his day: Debussy’s initial passion for Wagner is well known; Chausson was at Bayreuth in 1882; and Fauré and Messager pursued Wagner performances to England in 1882, finally attending Bayreuth two years later than Magnard. (‘If one has not heard Wagner at Bayreuth, one has heard nothing!’, wrote Fauré to his friend Mme Baugnies afterwards.)
The extent of Wagner’s impact is frequently exaggerated in relation to Fauré’s compositions themselves, and it would be similarly easy to overstate the case with Magnard (on account of his neglect few have had occasion to do so). At the Conservatoire Magnard studied counterpoint with Théodore Dubois and attended the classes of Massenet. He evidently saw both as a means to an end and made no attempt to court the friendship of his mentors, though his graduation in 1888 with the premier prix in harmony suggests that he must have been regarded with favour. Massenet’s personal charm was legendary, but Magnard’s family background had already stamped him with that abiding hatred of even the suspicion of nepotism. In any case, the formative encounter of his artistic life was yet to come. Clearly not an easy man to befriend, like others of his type he evinced an unshakeable loyalty to those whose understanding and acceptance of his personality had allowed them into his small inner circle. His fellow Conservatoire pupil Ropartz was one such. A year older than Magnard, like him he had graduated in law. More significantly, he had done so in memorial tribute to his father, having been orphaned during adolescence. The close bond which developed between Magnard and Ropartz led the latter to introduce Magnard to the circle of César Franck, which included the crucial figure of Vincent d’Indy, whom Magnard met at the salon of the poet Robert de Bonnières and with whom he completed his musical studies between 1888 and 1892. D’Indy was yet another lawyer manqué, and by double coincidence his mother had not survived his birth. Under the guidance of this kindred spirit (despite their many differences of worldly outlook) Magnard willingly threw himself into rigorous study of fugue and orchestration. The fruits of both can be seen in his symphonies, the first two of which were composed while still under d’Indy’s direct supervision.
After four years of study Magnard decided that he was ready to pursue his career alone. Soon after this he was devastated by the death of his father. In the face of many worries (and, doubtless, disappointments) over his son, François Magnard had remained his staunchest ally. Fatherly loyalty had been evident in his willingness to support the Franckian musical circle with newspaper publicity, sometimes at his own expense, and he had been a generous parent earlier, even if a weight of professional expectation had merely been emphasized thereby. His son now experienced all the conflicting emotions of resentment, guilt, regret, gratitude and isolation (he was not to meet Julia Creton, his future wife, for another two years). The result of this experience was the orchestral Chant Funèbre, Op 9. In 1896, the year of his Third Symphony and of his marriage, Magnard became a counterpoint tutor at the Schola Cantorum in Paris, newly instituted under d’Indy’s leadership. Three years later a concert of Magnard’s works elicited generally favourable reviews and created a small but devoted circle of admirers. His first (single-act) attempt at opera, Yolande, had been completed in 1892. To this were added Guercœur, a three-act tragédie en musique, in 1900, and Bérénice (with the same designation) in 1909. Other significant works included a Violin Sonata (1901), String Quartet in E minor (1903), Piano Trio (1904) and Cello Sonata (1910), as well as the notable Hymne à la Justice (1902), an orchestral expression of Magnard’s dismay at the notorious Dreyfus trial. (It is interesting both that this reaction was diametrically opposed to that of the anti-Semitically inclined Catholic d’Indy, and that the bond between the two composers was in no way diminished.) The Fourth Symphony did not appear until 1913. By that time its composer had weathered many years of difficulties in the promotion of his compositional career. Averse to strident publicity, Magnard published the works listed as Opp 8 to 20 at his own expense. Bérénice was performed in 1911 but made little impact. A character such as his bore at its heart a capacity for bitter disillusionment; what one biographer aptly termed ‘une franchise sans nuances’ (a brutal, ‘black-and-white’ honesty) was all too easily turned in upon itself. The closing pages of the Fourth Symphony have the unsettlingly confessional air of turning wearily back from an intended grand peroration, as if recognizing that its triumph could only be hollow; and by the time the work stood complete, Paris was resounding to the scandalized reception of Le Sacre du Printemps, the work of a modernist Russian enfant terrible named Stravinsky. Magnard was in danger of being left behind in the footnotes of history, and may have known it.
In 1904 Magnard had moved with his wife and two daughters to the Manoir des Fontaines at Baron, twenty miles to the north of Paris. In September 1914 he remained at his home as the German advance gathered pace. He had sent his wife and daughters away to safety, a fact whose poignancy is usually lost in the telling (there is no reason to suppose that his marriage was other than happy, and one surviving painting of him, presumably in token of affection, is by his daughter Ondine). He had evidently undertaken that he would conduct himself becomingly in any dealings with the German forces provided that they did the same.
Accounts differ as to the precise details of what followed. It seems that on 3 September a party of German cavalry entered Magnard’s estate, and that, taking this as an infringement of the agreement somehow already made, the composer fired on them from an upper window, killing one soldier and possibly two. Return of fire was inevitable. Not content with this, the German detachment then torched the house, whose solitary occupant perished unseen within. The symbolic temptations of this violent but somehow characteristically enigmatic end have tended to blind commentators to the tragic loss in the flames of much of Magnard’s actual work: the fire destroyed all existing copies of Yolande, a freshly completed cycle of a dozen songs, and the full score of two whole acts from Guercœur, to name only those things which are known to have existed. Joseph Guy Ropartz, Magnard’s old friend and ally, who had mounted a production of the third act of Guercœur in 1908, later achieved the extraordinarily devoted feat of reconstructing what had been lost of the work, which was first performed in its entirety in 1931. (Ropartz, himself a composer of six symphonies, died in 1955 at the age of ninety-one.) Magnard’s reputation, however, awaits its own ‘hymne à la justice’. That his actual consignment to oblivion should have been for decades his most widely remembered detail is an irony which would hardly have been lost upon such an unfulfilled and self-lacerating personality.
‘… At times ironically gay, at times deeply reflective. By nature he was upright, proud and unsociable, with something dour in him manifest in his accent and his abrupt form of speech.’ Thus Magnard was recalled by Pierre Lalo, music critic and son of the composer Édouard. It is easy to see how the child was father to the man, and how he had all the makings of his own worst enemy where self-advertisement and recognition were concerned (he was deeply suspicious of expressions of admiration unless he received them from within his small inner circle). More damagingly, he is remembered not least for having exclaimed:
L’artiste qui ne puise pas sa force dans l’abnégation est ou près de sa mort ou près du déshonneur.
The artist who does not find strength in self-denial is close either to death or to dishonour.
It is perfectly possible that this was uttered in semi-humorous mock despair, like his father’s outburst quoted above (sadly prophetic of Albéric’s future). Equally, self-denial may have referred more to life than to art itself. But cold print has done Magnard no favours, and one is left marvelling at the disparity between these luxuriant scores and the misconceptions which have led commentators unquestioningly to embrace an unreliable received wisdom: ‘orchestration plain and unsubtle’ (!) … ‘sober, intense yet rather severe’ … ‘dramatically rather dull’ … ‘austere in effect’. So run the dubious accolades to be found in encyclopaedia entries under this composer. As has been suggested, a certain austerity is one of Magnard’s most positive attributes. For the rest, these descriptions tell either only part of the story or another one altogether. Certainly few readers of such words would be prepared for the vivid drama, plangent melancholy and, let it be said, thoroughly hedonistic joy in sheer orchestral colour which characterize these symphonies. In particular they are likely to surprise with their formidable grandeur: overshadowed as he has been by the Everests of his time, Magnard is no mere foothill, and his Symphony No 4 in particular awaits the same sort of fascinated response as that remote Himalayan summit which until recently remained undetected in defiance of all technological probability. Thanks to his diminutive namesake in Der Ring des Nibelungen Albéric may be the unwitting stuff of jokes as the composer ‘dwarfed’ by Wagner. It is also to be hoped, however, that with these recordings the perennial confusion of outward man with inner muse can finally be laid to rest.
from notes by Francis Pott © 1998