About this Recording
8.223507 - EMMANUEL: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2
English  French 

Maurice Emmanuel (1862–1938)
Symphony No. 1 in A Major, Op. 18 • Symphony No. 2 in A Major, Op. 25, “Bretonne” • Le poème du Rhóne, Op. 30


Among the reasons for the general ignorance of the work of Maurice Emmanuel as a composer the first to be suggested would probably be the strict view that he took of his own work that led him either to destroy or forbid the performance of more than half of his compositions. The result is that of 73 compositions only thirty are left, little in view of the known fact that the quantity of works facilitates the spread of a wider reputation. It is no surprise to find a Second Quartet in B-flat, Opus 8, dating from 1903, when the first has disappeared. Another reason is that Emmanuel was one of those interested in the use of modal harmony, a factor that no longer occupied the foreground of the musical scene with the triumph of Debussyisme. Finally his interests as a writer, theoretician and historian of music doubtless took precedence over his work as a composer. In any case the public will continue to think of him rather as a scholar than as a creative artist. He was himself aware of this when he wrote: What I fear is that I may be taken as a pedant, when in art I love life, liberty and feeling. In searching for general ideas I have the fear, justified by facts, that I may pass for a repository of information. Fortunately I have no memory: my brain is void of dates and details. But I shudder at being labelled “Monsieur le Professeur”, a rôle that the exigencies of life have obliged me to undertake.

Maurice Emmanuel was born on 2nd May 1862 at 22, rue Saint-Maclou, Bar-sur-Aube, the home town also of the philosopher Gaston Bachelard. On his mother’s side his family came from Champagne and Burgundy and on his father’s from Franc-Comté and Alsace. It is said that as a small child Emmanuel was particularly fascinated by a military band when he was only three years old and followed it to the other side of the town. His grandfather had a printing-press at the bottom of the garden and the regular sound of the Marinoni press was the first rhythm to make an impression on the child. There were also the songs of the vineyard-workers. In 1869 they moved to 39, rue de Lorraine at Beaune, the wine-producing capital of Burgundy. He was seven and remained there for eleven years. It was here that he began the classical studies that led to two baccalauréats, ès-Sciences and ès-Lettres, that he took at Dijon.

Emmanuel then moved to Paris, entering the Conservatoire in 1880 and studying harmony with Théodore Dubois and the history of music with Bourgault-Ducoudray, whom he was later to succeed. All would have been well had he not come into conflict with the academicism of Léo Delibes, his composition professor, who did not understand at all his interest in modal music (Emmanuel had presented in his class a Sonata for cello and piano in the Phrygian mode). This led him discreetly to take a composition course with Ernest Guiraud, in whose class he met Debussy and was influenced by the conversations of the latter with Guiraud.

Maurice Emmanuel was not satisfied only with the study of music and continued his study of literature at the Sorbonne and was deeply interested in the instruction given at the Ecole du Louvre. A brilliant Greek scholar, he wished to learn about the literature, history, music and dance of ancient Greece and later went to Brussels to work with François Gevaert (1828–1908), one of the great modern musicologists with an interest in ancient Greece. Gevaert fathered a work that remains fundamental to this study, The History and Theory of Music in Antiquity (Gand 1875–1881).

It was in 1895 that Emmanuel presented his doctoral thesis, “Essay on Greek Dance”, of which a popular version, Ancient Greek Dance (La danse grecque antique) was published the following year. From 1898 he taught the history of art in girls’ schools and married Anne-Marie Bugeville, who was also able to support her husband’s passion for music. In 1905 he was appointed director of music at the church of Ste. Clotilde in Paris, the church where César Franck and Théodore Dubois had served as organists.

Emmanuel’s interest in ancient music did not diminish. In 1911 he published “Ancient Greek Music” (La musique grecque antique) and in 1913 “Harmony according to Aristotle” (Le corps de l’harmonie d’après Aristote), but his more general works are also marked by this extensive knowledge of Greek music, notably his “History of Musical Language” (L’Histoire de la langue musicale, 1911), which brought him a considerable international reputation, “Treatise on the Modal Accompaniment of Psalms” (Traité de l’accompagnement modal des psaumes, 1913) and “Polymodality” (La polymodie, 1928). In addition to this Maurice Emmanuel wrote several biographies, of Berlioz (1919), of César Franck (1930) and of Anton Reicha (1936). In 1924 he published “The Masters of Beethoven” (Les maîtres de Beethoven) and “The Orchestra of Beethoven” (L’orchestre de Beethoven). Two years before the publication of his “History of Musical Language” he was appointed professor of the history of music at the Conservatoire, a position he retained thirty years, his pupils including Olivier Messiaen.

Maurice Emmanuel was not a member of any school of composition, but remained independent, even isolated, a position that considerably limited his reputation. He did not go all out for originality, but this did not prevent him from a certain boldness of expression, for example in the Six Sonatines (1893–1926). In his Thirty Burgundian Songs from Beaune (Trente Chanson bourguignonnes du pays de Beaune, 1913), which impressed Messiaen, he makes natural use of the ancient modes and he continued to make very intelligent use of the musical resources of the land of France, of which the “Bretonne” Symphony is a good example, as is his very original Sonata for cornet (or bugle) and piano, Opus 29, of 1936.

Naturally opera, with its ancient Greek roots, could not be neglected. Maurice Emmanuel himself wrote the libretto of his lyric tragedy “Prometheus Bound” (Prométhée enchaîné), based on Aeschylus. He was equally perfectionist in his Amphitryon, a comedy of Plautus, but his theatrical masterpiece is Salamine, a work based on the Persians of Aeschylus, translated by Théodore Reinach. Salamine won an important success in 1929, establishing the position of Emmanuel as a composer, but unfortunately the two principal singers became ill and the performances were discontinued.

Always eager to learn, Emmanuel followed a course in geology at the Ecole des mines at the age of 64. In 1936 he left the Conservatoire and his professorship. Two years later he set to work on a new symphony, his last, since he died on 18th December 1938 before the work could be completed.

The First Symphony of Emmanuel was completed in 1919 and performed by the Orchestre Colonne at the Societé des concerts. It was composed in memory of an airman and evokes the passage from calm to combat and death. This is not, however, descriptive music. Very modern in conception, it employs rhythms and melodies that are perfectly combined, with instrumental structure that follows the subtle use of the orchestra in fashion in France at the beginning of the century. As in his other compositions, Emmanuel does not exaggerate, but seeks rather to paint a water colour. Flute, violin and harp take the lead in this delicate orchestral texture.

The Second Symphony was completed in 1931, inspired by the legend of Ys, the submerged city. In four tableaux Emmanuel paints the drama of King Grallon, who is commemorated in a window in the church of Rumengol, a village of Finistère near Daoulas. It was during a walk at Rumengol that Emmanuel took note of a lament sung by a blind man. In this symphony he gave the theme to the oboe, and if this composition is to be regarded as Breton, then it must be principally because of this melody, included in the score of the first and last movements. In this symphony Emmanuel does not give way to facile exoticism, as the country of Armor might well have suggested to him.

The first movement represents the waters reaching the city of Ys and the flight of the king. With him he takes his guilty daughter, Dahut. In the second movement she is transformed into a siren and sings (represented by the flute). The king reaches the forest of Kranou, where the image of his daughter follows and consoles him. In the last movement Emmanuel uses again his “Evening of Pardon for Rumengol” (Soir de Pardon à Rumengol), written for a vast Symphonic Suite in seven parts that he destroyed about the year 1900.

Le poème du Rhóne, Emmanuel’s last work, was written in 1938 on a text by Mistral, copied and orchestrated by his pupil Marguerite Béclard d’Harcourt. The composition is surprising in its mixture of youth and maturity. The calm expressed by the composer in the fourth movement is most effective. In the second movement he makes use, among other things, of popular sources, country dances. The last movement has beautifully expansive moments and the work as a whole is rich notably in its use of rhythms and modes, while preserving in its elaborate character the scents of Provence. Certain forms of orientalism are found in the work of Emmanuel, and it is therefore not surprising to learn that this master of the music of antiquity was also interested in the music of India.

Frederik Reitz
Translated by Keith Anderson

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