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Hyperion Records

CDD22068 - Magnard: The Four Symphonies
Autumn Evening by Louis Cabat (1812-1893)
(Originally issued on CDA67030, CDA67040)
Recording details: Various dates
Caird Hall, Dundee, Scotland, United Kingdom
Produced by Various producers
Engineered by Mike Clements
Release date: January 2009
Total duration: 140 minutes 24 seconds

'C'est magnifique. Pick of the Month' (BBC Music Magazine)

'An absorbing musical encounter that should spawn its fair share of Magnard converts' (The Independent)

'Superb performances by Ossonce and his Scottish players' (American Record Guide)

'The works are insinuating. I keep wanting to come back for more. Another Hyperion success' (Classic CD)

'These albums compel the highest recommendation' (Fanfare, USA)

'A set of performances which brings this music alive in a way that it can rarely have enjoyed since its composition. Something of a discovery then, which will hopefully lead to a further interest in an endlessly fascinating composer' (Hi-Fi News)

The Four Symphonies
Strepitoso  [10'03]
Presto  [3'37]
Molto energico  [8'23]
Danses: Vif  [5'26]
Final: Vif  [10'41]
Modéré  [10'44]
Vif  [4'48]
Animé  [7'47]

Albéric Magnard really is the great so-far-undiscovered master of French music. Born in 1865 (the same year as Sibelius, Nielsen and Glazunov), the son of the managing editor of Le Figaro, his reticent personality prevented him from courting fame or even performances of his music. But he wrote two operas, chamber music, and four wonderful symphonies unsurpassed by any other French composer of his time. His end was tragic: in 1914, defending his estate in Normandy, he was shot dead by German soldiers who then burned his house down, destroying many manuscripts (including one of the operas mentioned above which is now lost for ever).

His four-movement symphonies are substantial in length, cyclic in character, serious, attractively scored, slightly melancholic, and well worth getting to know.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Ah! Forgotten men—if, a few generations, indeed, a few years after your death, you were to return to this world, you would hasten back to your graves so as not to see your reputations tarnished, your memories wiped out, your foresight deceived in your friends, your underlings and, worse still, in your heirs!

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), a String Quartet in E minor (1903), a Piano Trio (1904) and a 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.

From the outset of his studies with d’Indy, Magnard showed a natural inclination towards symphonic thought. This in itself suggests Wagner as a problematic influence, since that composer was anything but a symphonist. It is thus not surprising that such a powerful impact was made by Franck, whose immense oratorio Les Béatitudes (1879) has stood comparison with (amongst other things) Wagner’s Parsifal, and whose own celebrated D minor Symphony was being written just as Magnard entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1886.

Magnard inherited from Franck the concept of cyclic form, whereby a work’s themes recur in modified guises throughout its entire sucession of movements, imparting a distinctive unity of design. This notion is much in evidence in Magnard’s Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op 4 (1890). No less striking, however, is an apparent filtering of the Wagnerian influence through Mahler: one is aware of the march-like, processional tread, of a fondness for the rough-edged tone colours of single- and double-reed instruments in unison, and of a powerful rhythmic impulse governing both the restless urgency of the principal theme and its later expansion and development. At first a sort of ‘rival Resurrection Symphony’ is oddly suggested, albeit a more fleet-footed version without its massive introductory paragraph. The illusion is continued in the lyrical second subject. One is then startled to realize that Mahler’s titanic Symphony No 2 cannot have been known to Magnard at this stage, having been completed in July 1894.

The first movement (Strepitoso—‘noisily’!) develops its two contrasted themes with determination and no little ingenuity. It has been remarked that no matter how congested and hyperactive the pages of Mahler’s symphonies, his counterpoint remains essentially a matter of two salient lines, top and bottom. By contrast Magnard’s passion for a discipline still quite newly mastered engenders polyphonic intricacy at many levels. His first symphonic movement arguably suffers from an excess both of alternatives to follow up and of orchestral colours in which to dress them, the latter distracting the listener (though agreeably) from the argument’s continuity. A restrained ending suitably conveys the sense of cyclic business as yet unfinished. There follows a slow movement in the submediant key of A flat, the resulting tonal relationship honouring the precedent of Beethoven’s Symphony No 5. This music is remarkable for its prayer-like, wistful serenity (later to assume more anguished tones) and for its tonally ambiguous opening by a subdued brass ‘choir’. The Wagnerian presence is felt in the progressive prominence of the harp as a source of accompaniment. A climax of elevated restraint arises eventually from the typically academic device of a sustained canonic restatement of the two principal themes. Finally the chordal brass opening is recalled, radiantly transformed by the addition of sustained upper string notes.

Mahler comes to mind again in the scherzo, which attempts to hold up a distorting mirror to the first movement, with engaging but mixed and rather elusive results. It might be argued that a return to the overall tonic key is a miscalculation, or indeed that this movement is not wholly necessary to the symphonic design, since the subsequent finale seeks to bring together all the work’s material in a definitive display of contrapuntal mastery, yet must continue in a key by now divested of conflict by its premature sovereignty. In addition, the principal ‘cyclic’ idea seems insufficiently protean in dramatic and rhythmic substance to adapt itself subtly to varied surroundings, instead threatening at times to disrupt the flow of other ideas by gratuitous interruption. Nonetheless, this is arresting music, big-boned, easy in its adventurous modulations and remarkably confident in feeling, even where one suspects misjudgement. The principal theme of the slow movement, embodying a transiently striking similarity to the composer Geoffrey Burgon’s television music some years ago for Brideshead Revisited, bids fair to win Magnard much posthumous ‘consolation’ for public indifference in his lifetime.

Symphony No 2 in E major, Op 6 (1893), marks a considerable advance in the short time separating it from its predecessor. The composer’s no-nonsense temperament is reflected in the work’s absolute avoidance of any preamble. Instead we are confronted immediately by a restlessly rhythmic and melodically errant inspiration, initially suggestive of the label ‘humoresque’. This soon proves amenable to ‘ostinato’ use as a running accompaniment to more lyrically sustained ideas, a device which henceforward becomes a noticeable habit, especially in the opening stages of outer movements, and which is naturally related to cyclic thought. A much more free-wheeling rhetorical and compositional resource can be sensed, especially in the splendid second subject (located unexpectedly in A flat). Having disproved Mahler as a central influence, one suspects here that of Richard Strauss in the early tone poems, which do narrowly predate Magnard’s symphonic debut. Second-subject paragraphs now become something of a speciality, being immediately expanded into lyrical ‘sub-climaxes’ of such spacious grandeur as to make one wonder how this music can possibly have suffered neglect: a question likely to be prompted repeatedly by the remainder of this work and, especially, by its successor.

The first movement’s main theme becomes an energetic unifying agent in the development, the composer’s academic credentials coming to the fore as it is declaimed in augmentation (doubled note lengths) before a brief but striking unaccompanied oboe solo heralds the recapitulation. This is mercurially restless music, busily discursive in manner but resourcefully unified and of a generally sunny disposition. The scherzo (Danses) follows it with a bucolic melody in A major which soon succumbs to the imprint of weightier matter. Again, fleet-footed thematic material becomes the backdrop to sostenuto secondary ideas. A sense of insufficient overall contrast with the first movement threatens to become a stumbling block, but the intermittent rusticisms save the day. A bracingly optimistic climax is generated before the movement ends with Magnard’s nearest approach yet to true lightness of touch. The final gesture, something like Copland in a wing collar, is quaintly endearing—a quality of some significance when one considers Magnard’s reputation: increasingly one suspects that ‘by their works shall ye know them’ has been ignored, and it is the misleading public face of the man himself that first caused his true voice to be lost.

The slow third movement (Chant varié) builds a chord of G from a solitary bassoon note before subsiding into F sharp major. Here one is conscious less of the variation principle (resourcefully applied) than of the more immediate continuity and tone of the music, which soon rises to an elevated passage extraordinary in similarity of mood (and, momentarily, content) for its kinship to the ‘Dulcinea’ melody in the tone poem Don Quixote by Richard Strauss. Again one must pinch oneself: Magnard has here raced Strauss by five years. Thereafter the music begins increasingly to explore a kind of mock-medieval atmosphere (the description sells it short) evocative of the troubadour or trouvère traditions. Even a hint of middle-eastern inflection finds its way in, perhaps loosely suggestive of the early westward migration of Mohammedan musical culture through the Crusades. This yields (with bizarrely convincing effect!) to an eventual return of Straussian Europe and a climax of splendid opulence.

The Final displays the cyclic principle in its resumption of the rhythmic character of the first movement, though now this is infused with certain quasi-medievalisms from the intervening ones. Use of the main theme as a rhythmic ‘motor’ behind other material is again evident. Magnard’s counterpoint is as assured as ever, but one is conscious that it is all worn more lightly, with less anxiety to make an impression. D’Indy’s friend and colleague Chabrier had died in 1894, during Magnard’s apprenticeship, and occasionally here one even glimpses the possibility of some of his rumbustious charm, which could well have filtered through the teaching of Magnard’s mentor. More notable, however, is the sheer eclecticism of the music—if that can be the mot juste for a manner which is as often prophetic of others as reliant upon them. Hints of Glazunov can be detected alongside more extravagant moments evocative of such as Novák, Suk and the early, teutonically inspired Respighi. If the composer’s supposed academic sobriety is anywhere apparent, then perhaps one may point to his endings, which regularly seem to stop just short of the point one has somehow been persuaded to expect, much as if concerned at the last minute with guarding some personal propriety.

Symphony No 3 in B flat minor, Op 11, was written in 1895/6, received further attention from its composer in 1902 (when, perhaps significantly, d’Indy was working on his own Symphony No 2, also in B flat), and was not heard until November 1904 when it was performed in Paris under Camille Chevillard. Thanks to the support of Ferruccio Busoni it received a further performance in the 1905/6 Berlin season. A recording of the work by Ernest Ansermet and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande was issued by Decca some thirty years ago, and by the modest standards of Magnard’s other works this symphony may be said to have achieved unusual success. Particularly arresting is the coolly luminous sonority of open fifths with which the work opens, seemingly announcing a deepening preoccupation with archaic models embracing ‘organum’, the ancient system whereby plainchant was harmonized exclusively through parallel movement of the fifth and octave. The first movement is curiously designated ‘Introduction and Overture’ (Modéré), and No 3 is the only one of Magnard’s symphonies to permit this degree of preamble. After a series of portentous string replies to woodwind and brass chords the main part of the movement launches itself with great energy. Here, paradoxically, we encounter Magnard at his most austerely conservative: the development section is founded largely upon fugato technique and there is a consistent sense that the more unbridled passions of the second symphony are here under the iron control of formal academicism (despite another splendid second-subject expansion). The paradox in this, of course, is that it is precisely these latter qualities that have been continually cited by commentators attempting to explain Magnard’s lack of mass appeal—and yet the third symphony is not only his most successful work to date, it is also his most approachable, indeed amiable symphony, and thus likely to consolidate its position among new listeners.

The first movement ends quietly in a passage of restrained intensity. Strauss, Bruckner, Glazunov, arguably Novák have been evoked en passant, and in the final pages one may even glimpse a startling harmonic suggestion of Nielsen. The second movement, like its counterpart in the previous symphony, is entitled Danses (this time Très vif), and is Magnard’s lightest, truest scherzo achievement. Here mock-medievalry comes hand in hand with some evocative soloing of instruments, sometimes over rustic ‘drone’ bass notes. The compound duple time signature changes without disruption to a 5/4 measure for the secondary theme, which scores one of those pleasurably maddening ‘surely-I’ve-heard-this-somewhere-else?’ successes. It is impossible to see this music as anything but good natured, in much the same way as Dvorák’s Slavonic Dances with their evocation of village music-making. (One music encyclopaedia entry on Magnard claims that after his father’s death in 1894 he ‘… purged himself of all desire to charm his audience’. Listening to this movement with those words in mind will surely prove the injustice of its composer’s fate hitherto.)

The slow third movement (Pastorale: Modéré) is a string-dominated, harmonically intense outpouring which begins in F sharp minor with a melancholy cor anglais solo and whose would-be idyll is continually undermined by menacing hints of the first movement’s turbulence. These are progressively agitated and eventually precipitate a stormy climax before the principal theme returns in the tonic major key. Even at the last there remain some notably rough-edged interjections to cast shadows over the music’s otherwise placid surface. A hint of Lydian modal harmony (featuring the sharpened fourth of the scale) is apparent, as it has been also at other moments in the symphonies so far.

The Final (Vif) takes us to B flat major, and balances the general character of the first movement, following precedent from the first and second symphonies by pressing the main subject into further service as a flute ostinato background to further ideas. Most notable here is the very evident cyclic principle in operation, whereby the first movement’s opening chords (instantly recognizable, thanks to their strongly delineated contrast with all other material) begin to reassert themselves as a sort of incipient chorale during the central passage of the last. This, interspersed by scurrying strings, ultimately migrates upwards from low brass to form a peroration of austere brilliance, offset by the movement’s hectic primary subject. If any further proof were needed of Magnard’s often prophetic eclecticism, listeners might be startled to compare this theme with the climax of the scherzo in William Alwyn’s Symphony No 4, also in B flat major, written in 1959.

Hard years of deepening disappointment and self-doubt were to elapse before the appearance of Symphony No 4 in C sharp minor, Op 21 (1913). Whether or not this period did indeed permit the mature Mahler to impinge on Magnard’s consciousness, here is a work on a formidably expansive scale—Mahlerian in breadth if not in actual length. At the outset (Modéré) swirling woodwinds awaken a languorously passionate statement from the strings and an arresting reply improbably dominated by the piccolo. The process is repeated before the movement ‘proper’ gets under way (Allegro) in the time signature of 12/8 (four beats to the bar, subdivided in threes). The horn department sweeps all before it in the main theme, and also at many later points where it recurs. This is turbulent music of a splendid orchestral virtuosity, mercurially changing its colours in a manner reminiscent of the more recent ‘concerto for orchestra’ concept developed by Bartók, Lutoslawski and others. The leaping rhythms recede during the restless E major second subject, but return to dominate a highly charged development section. The movement’s central climax (recapitulating the opening string theme) is of a magnificent intensity, seemingly setting the composer a formidable hurdle in the sustaining of later momentum and purpose: a challenge overcome against all logic, much as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar survives its protagonist’s dangerously early demise by then proving to be about many things besides. In due course the reprise of the second subject leads ever upward to an engulfing principal climax where tonic major and minor contend with one another, and which ebbs away with characteristic abruptness. The briefest of coda sections presents the opening piccolo theme one last time, played by the strings. Terse and laconic in stark contrast with all that has preceded it, and ‘crowned’ by an inconclusively brief final chord, this passage is oddly unsettling in its sense of the emotional guard dropped, not in moments of exalted rhetoric but in those furthest from it, as if the man of few emotions fancies himself unobserved and the mask can safely slip.

The scherzo movement (Vif) ostensibly returns to older territory, combining dance-like hints with a more overtly symphonic use of rhythm. However, considerable surprises are in store. Just when it seems that the lightness of the third symphony’s scherzo has been left far behind, rustic medievalisms make an undeniably bizarre appearance. After a singular succession of monotones by instruments of differing timbre, a ‘rogue’ solo violin strikes up a dance punctuated by distinctly oriental wind and brass accents. This emphasizes the Phrygian and Dorian modes (featuring respectively the flattened second and sharpened sixth of the minor scale). To a narrowly pre-Millennial culture collectively inured to the ‘cod’-eastern musical offerings of the curry house, Magnard’s inspiration at this point may well induce distinct feelings of confusion. However, the cyclic procedure is still alive and well in the movement’s basic function, which is to counterpoint incisive new ideas against transformations of principal material from the first movement. The coexistence of would-be ‘humoresque’ elements with an inscrutably heavy-footed energy and the progressively strange insistence of the ‘oriental’ theme conspire to create an impression scarcely less unsettling than the conclusion of the first movement.

The third movement (Sans lenteur et nuancé) is in effect a kind of extended song. The tranquil opening leads directly on from a concluding repetition of the previous movement’s cryptic monotones, and is an extension of primary material from the opening of the symphony. This passage has about it something of the same spell as the famous Adagietto of Mahler’s Symphony No 5, but achieves also a certain understated eloquence which is almost Elgarian in quality. However, this is swept aside by an eruptive and anguished climax. Thereafter the music becomes characterized by swirling, Straussian accompanying figures. A flute cantilena emerges, giving place in due course to an extended string line contending with further swirling accompaniment. Another intense climax reveals the presence of the piccolo theme from the work’s opening, leading to a diverse section which appears to fragment and dissipate much of what has been heard so far, though the slow groundswell of the harmonic bass continues unabated. Soon the melodic line emerges at the bottom of the texture, before being heard from upper woodwinds against an active string accompaniment. Soon after this comes a magnificently spacious E major apotheosis of the piccolo theme, for once allowed to dwindle gradually and unhurriedly away in a radiant coda.

The finale (Animé) sweeps the previous mood aside, plunging straight into frenzied activity, though again it is not long before primary material is relegated to the background to support the unfolding of further themes. After a fugato there is a hectic development in which, though this music could never actually be mistaken for Mahler, there is a powerful suggestion of him in the weight of responsibility placed upon the collective insistence of the woodwind parts. Eventually, this heroic orchestral virtuosity broadens into a chorale-like climax of epic proportions, raising expectations of a thunderous ending. But Magnard has already shown himself a master of surprise in many forms. Via the opening string theme of the work a descent from the summit begins, eventually leading to a final statement of the piccolo theme. We find ourselves back where we were at the end of the first movement, and at least as unsettled. Magnard is known to have admitted that the work was initially conceived ‘in the depths of mental depression’, though it is possible that this refers to creative self-doubts which may have abated as the symphony gained a hold in his imagination. At all events, the result is music seemingly with ‘fewer skins’ than most: its climaxes, never far beneath the surface, erupt and collapse with a ferocious intensity and, though hinted at in scope by the earlier symphonies, suggest a creative aspiration cruelly disappointed in the world: in Shelley’s phrase, these works ‘… learn in suffering what they teach in song’. Not finished with Magnard yet, the world visited upon him a disastrous first performance of the fourth symphony by the Union des Femmes Professeurs et Compositeurs de Musique (an intriguing suggestion, along with the Dreyfus affair, of Magnard’s liberality of outlook in such an age as his). Only in May 1914 did the work achieve real success through a performance mounted by the Société Nationale de Musique. What might have been can only be guessed at; for Magnard, with clouds of war and personal nemesis looming, it was too late, as it may already have been at the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps the previous year.

‘… 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.

Francis Pott © 1998

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