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Symphony No 4 in C sharp minor, Op 21
1913; first performed, disastrously, by the Union des Femmes Professeurs et Compositeurs de Musique

'Magnard: The Four Symphonies' (CDD22068)
Magnard: The Four Symphonies
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Movement 1: Modéré
Track 5 on CDD22068 CD2 [10'44] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1)
Movement 2: Vif
Track 6 on CDD22068 CD2 [4'48] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1)
Movement 3: Sans lenteur et nuancé
Track 7 on CDD22068 CD2 [12'21] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1)
Movement 4: Animé
Track 8 on CDD22068 CD2 [7'47] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1)

Symphony No 4 in C sharp minor, Op 21
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.

from notes by Francis Pott © 1998

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Details for CDA67040 track 8
Recording date
17 December 1997
Recording venue
Caird Hall, Dundee, Scotland
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Mike Clements
Hyperion usage
  1. Magnard: Symphonies Nos 3 & 4 (CDA67040)
    Disc 1 Track 8
    Release date: September 1998
    Deletion date: July 2007
    Superseded by CDD22068
  2. Magnard: The Four Symphonies (CDD22068)
    Disc 2 Track 8
    Release date: January 2009
    2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1)
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