Movement 1: Modéré
Movement 2: Vif
Movement 3: Sans lenteur et nuancé
Movement 4: Animé
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.
from notes by Francis Pott © 1998