The French Symphony

(cover image by Rob Potvin)

In the past few years, I’ve done a number of this type of series, and it seems they spiral out of control as I find more and more outstanding music. In 2016, we saw the Swedish and Danish series, and in ’17 we had English, American and Finnish series.

This year, I anticipate only being able to manage two, one of which is the French series, which I am presenting to you now. There’s a unique problem with this one, though, and I think I’ve found a way to solve it that I’m pretty happy with.

In the past, my series choices weren’t so very mainstream: people don’t know of nearly as many Swedish, Danish or Finnish composers as they do German or French or Russian. The Russian series I did at the end of ’15, that spanned three months (at one piece a week), managed to cover a large swath of the Russian symphonic repertoire, including the famous people like Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, etc., but also Arensky, Kalinnikov, Lyapunov and more.

It shouldn’t surprise you to know that there are oodles of French composers, and in light of this, I’ll be taking a slightly more extreme route than I did even with the English and American symphonies. In those, I did manage to hit the high points of the more famous people in both of those categories.

Here, though, I will conspicuously NOT be including some of the most famous French composers who everybody can name, in the interest of focusing on a few of the more obscure or neglected composers. I apologize in advance for not making this a predictable who’s-who of French composition, but there will undoubtedly be some familiar names.

As usual, we’ve only got about six weeks in this series, and it will be absolutely jam-packed with posts, one with something like eight midweek posts, so do buckle up for that.

One of the main reasons that some of the most famous French composers won’t be included is because they don’t have much to contribute to the form. For example, I’ve already done Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique, so that’s out, and ditto for Debussy’s La Mer, which isn’t even really a symphony. I’ve also already done his string quartet, so that’s out as well.

The French have enormously rich, successful traditions in works for opera and organ (and flute, for some reason), but as we shall see, the specific symphonic repertoire is a bit thinner, especially at the height of the Romantic era. The Germans and Austrians occupied the symphonic corner of the repertoire for a long time, but we shall see that there are fantastic efforts in that form (and plenty of chamber music) to enjoy.

We’ll get through almost three centuries. I hope you’ll read along with me and give an ear to some of the more surprising and less-recognized names in the series, as well as enjoying at least a few of the more mainstream classics. Some of those classics (well, only one, and another you likely haven’t heard of) are only tenuously French, but I’m including them, even if they’re arguably Belgian, because of their great contribution of not only their own music, but as educators to the next generation(s) of French music.

This series will take us right through to July, in which month we always do a specific theme of some kind all month long, so stay tuned for six weeks of very French music, and thanks very much for reading.

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