About this Recording
8.574082 - MAGNARD, A.: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 (Freiburg Philharmonic, Bollon)
English  French 

Albéric Magnard (1865–1914)
Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4


Albéric Magnard was born into an affluent middle-class family in 1865. His father Francis had risen from humble origins to become editor of the daily newspaper Le Figaro. He gave his son the financial security that later enabled him to compose in response to his inner drive rather than in order to earn a living, but the young Albéric also came to admire him for his ‘fine, high-flown intelligence’ and ‘honest, proud and independent character’.

Magnard’s childhood was overshadowed by the tragedy of his mother’s suicide. He was only four when she died, and the solitude of his life in the wake of her death probably explains his tendency to appear rather withdrawn.

At 20, after hearing Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in Bayreuth, Magnard abandoned his law studies to devote himself to composition, which became the sole focus of his energy thereafter. He was constantly in search of perfection, rejecting any form of compromise, despite the fact that this often harmed the chances of his works being more widely disseminated.

In 1904, on the birth of their second daughter, he and his wife decided to leave Paris and move to the countryside, in the Oise department, north of the capital. Devoted to his wife and children, Magnard enjoyed a very happy family life there, but was isolated from the French music scene.

He died in 1914, defending his home against invading German soldiers. Fifteen years earlier he had written, ‘I believe that the victory of certain ideas is well worth the suppression of our tranquillity and even our lives.’ This statement gives an idea of how he saw his responsibilities, both personal and artistic.

Although he wrote a relatively small number of works, Magnard’s catalogue is full of expansive, complex and beautifully crafted music.

When Magnard interrupted his studies at the Paris Conservatoire and chose as his teacher Vincent d’Indy rather than César Franck, it was largely because of the former’s understanding of the orchestra. For Magnard, this was of prime importance, as can be seen from an analysis of his own output: of his 21 published works, nine are for orchestra alone (including four symphonies) – and we should also take into account here his three operas.

A symphonist at heart, Magnard took an early interest in orchestral writing: his first two symphonies are the fourth and sixth works in his catalogue. When commentators attempt to compare him with other composers, it is the names of Mahler and, above all, Bruckner who come to mind – both inextricably linked to their nine official symphonies, as was Beethoven, to whom Magnard often looked as a model.

While his premature death did not allow him to reach this symbolic number, Magnard’s four symphonies nevertheless represent a very significant body of work not only within his own production but as regards French music of the time. The First was written with the guidance of his teacher d’Indy, and includes a few less successful moments. In the Second (which he later revised substantially), Magnard liberated himself from d’Indy’s influence and really came into his own. The Third is a work of full maturity, while the Fourth, his last published work, looks to the future.

Of all Magnard’s compositions, it is the Third Symphony that has contributed most to our understanding of his music. Always his most frequently performed orchestral work, it was for years the only one available on disc, thanks to Ernest Ansermet’s exceptional 1968 recording.

Magnard wrote the symphony at the time of his marriage, and conducted its premiere as part of a concert entirely made up of his own works which he organised in Paris on 14 May 1899. Paul Dukas, who was in the audience, praised its ‘perfect clarity’ which reflected ‘the most vibrant nuances of the composer’s personal creativity, drawing its limpidity from the brightness of their hues alone’, and called it a symphony to be classed ‘in the first rank of contemporary production, among those all too rare creations which ... aim higher than the egotistical expression of a particular artistic sensibility.’

The Third has sometimes been nicknamed the ‘Bucolic’. This hugely reductive title owes nothing to Magnard and should not be used. That said, the work exerts a great deal of charm on the listener and is very characteristic of the composer’s writing.

The opening movement begins with an Introduction, an austere yet fervent chorale. This is followed by a sonataform Ouverture, in which two contrasting themes, one of communicative rhythmic energy, the other tender and ardent, respond to one another. The chorale of the opening brings this lyrical and majestic movement to an end.

The second movement, which acts as a scherzo, is called Danses, and comes straight from the Auvergne, the region in which Magnard was then in the habit of taking holidays, delighting in its ‘strange, sinister landscapes’ and the ‘magnificent views over its central plains’.

The slow movement, Pastorale, features a wonderful, melancholy cantilena for the oboe, in a serene and tranquil atmosphere which is interrupted by more disquieting moments.

In the Final we again encounter two contrasting themes: a joyful, invigorating round, and a poetic, dreamy melody. Here, however, they are set in opposition to one another, and play with each other, before being brought together by the introductory chorale. The symphony ends by recalling previously heard elements, in irresistible high spirits.

Years, later, having spent much of the interim working on his two grand operas, Guercoeur and Bérénice, Magnard wrote his Fourth Symphony. A committed feminist, he once again proved the courage of his convictions by giving the premiere with the Orchestra of the Union of Women Teachers and Composers on 2 April 1914. Their poor rendition was, happily, soon followed by a far more successful second performance at the Société nationale de musique, conducted by Rhené-Bâton.

Magnard spent three painful years writing this luminous symphony: ‘The optimism of the Fourth Symphony is repugnant to me, since no other work has given me so much trouble or been conceived in such depths of despair.’ It is also worth noting that, exceptionally, it was composed straight into orchestral score, without being sketched out at the piano. The difficulties involved in the writing process must have played their part, however, in creating this masterpiece of astonishing modernity, often compared to early Schoenberg.

From the start we are gripped by a dazzling volley of woodwind, which gives rise to a passionate statement from the strings. Then comes the theme – clear, harsh and rhythmical – which will run throughout the entire symphony. After this introduction, marked Modéré, we move on to the main part of the movement, an Allegro. This is built around two contrasting themes: the first virile and triumphant, on the horns, the other lyrical and generous, on the violins. Between the two we hear the sound of an unforgettable trumpet motif.

The scherzo, Vif, features an essentially rhythmical main theme, and a central section in a rustic style.

theme, and a central section in a rustic style. The scherzo gives way to the splendours of the slow movement (Sans lenteur et nuancé). With its lengthy phrases, simultaneously poignant and serene, it has a spacious quality rarely found in French orchestral music of its time.

There are analogies between the opening of the finale and the first movement: the spectacular volley, and the character of the two themes: one rhythmical and leaping, the other broad and songful, almost chorale-like. On this occasion, the bridge between the two has a folklike feel, while the development section consists primarily of a masterful fugue. At the end there is a return to the second-subject chorale. Like its three predecessors – though unusually for Magnard – this movement has a calm, piano ending.

There is no doubt that the Fourth Symphony, his last surviving work, marked the start of a new phase in his production. Sadly, we shall never know what further masterpieces he might have been able to produce had his life not been cut short.

Pierre Carrive

English translation: Susannah Howe

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