Movement 1: Strepitoso
Movement 2: Religioso, Largo – Andante
Movement 3: Presto
Movement 4: Molto energico
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.
from notes by Francis Pott © 1998