Movement 1: Introduction et Ouverture: Modéré – Vif
Movement 2: Danses: Très vif
Movement 3: Pastorale: Modéré
Movement 4: Final: Vif
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.from notes by Francis Pott © 1998