Movement 1: Ouverture: Assez animé
Movement 2: Danses: Vif
Movement 3: Chant varié: Très nuancé
Movement 4: Final: Vif et gai
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.
from notes by Francis Pott © 1998