Étienne-Nicolas Méhul: Symphony no. 1 in Gm

performed by The Orchestra Of The Gulbenkian Foundation under Michel Swierczewski

[Méhul] was convinced that musical expressiveness is a lovely flower, delicate and rare, of exquisite fragrance, which does not bloom without culture, and which a breath can wither; that it does not dwell in melody alone, but that everything concurs either to create or destroy it – melody, harmony, modulation, rhythm, instrumentation, the choice of deep or high registers for the voices or instruments, a quick or slow tempo, and the several degrees of volume in the sound emitted.

Hector Berlioz

(cover image by Brandon Morgan)

Étienne-Nicolas Méhul was born on June 22, 1763 at Givet in Ardennes to Jean-François, a wine merchant, and Marie-Cécile (née Keuly). Wikipedia tells us that:

His first music lessons came from a blind local organist, but he had innate aptitude and was sent to study with a German musician and organist, Wilhelm Hanser, at the monastery of Lavaldieu, a few miles from Givet.

He went to Paris in 1778 or ’79, still in his teens, and studied with one Jean-Frederic Edelmann, about whom the most exciting detail is his execution by guillotine after being arrested for leading the local Jacobin faction. Oops.

Méhul was recognized early on as having exceptional musical talent, but due to a number of circumstances, including for whatever reason what seemed to be a Gallic resistance to the symphony, he became most well known as a composer of opera, indeed, as Wiki says “the most important opera composer in France during the Revolution,” citing Bartlet. He was also, ostensibly, the first composer to be called a ‘Romantic,’ although I’m not sure with what accuracy that can be stated. What can be clearly seen, though, is that this opera composer knew his way around the symphony, too.

Méhul was friends (or at least on speaking terms) with Napoleon himself, as well as fellow opera composer Luigi Cherubini, but that didn’t keep him from dying of tuberculosis in his mid-fifties. He wrote, in total, four completed symphonies and fragments of a fifth, more than 30 operas, three ballets, and a bit of vocal and chamber music.

Today, we’ll be discussing his first symphony. In fact, the four finished symphonies (excluding the incomplete fifth and an early incomplete effort) all come from 1809-10. The first is in four movements, and has a duration of about 25 minutes, with YouTube links to the individual movements in the video above:

  1. Allegro
  2. Andante (7:52)
  3. Menuet: Allegro moderato (16:07)
  4. Allegro agitato (19:27)

Keep in mind, as we listen to this work, two other magnificent towering successes in the symphonic form: Beethoven’s fifth and Mozart’s 40th, also in Gm, specifically the opening of the first movement (and another famous melody you may recognize, but it dates from after this work).

Keith Anderson, writing for Naxos, says that the first movement “opens in fine French style with splendidly dramatic contrast between first and second subjects.” This contrast is as easy to hear as any in any music ever, I’d say, but I’m not sure necessarily what makes it ‘French.’ The first movement has punch and fire; there’s that sense, similar to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, of the composer putting the pedal to the metal, just all out with color and rhythm and drive. The second subject, though, is in great contrast to this, yet equally as effective.

It’s a broader, sunnier affair, proving really in an instant that Méhul’s skill for music lies in more than just his flair for a stormy passage. That is what prevails in the development, however, which feels like a true deconstruction of the two themes, even if the first subject takes precedence. We hear them in bits and pieces, like Dorothy looking at the snippets of her life as they fly past her in the gusts of the tornado. The development begins with a quote of the opening gesture, but quickly deviates, as if to tell us the journey has begun, and what a wonderful one it is! It makes for a fantastic musical argument, a satisfying progression and return to the themes we heard earlier.

The second movement, as Anderson says, is in a “free variation form,” which is a wonderfully satisfying choice for this exciting work. Rather than just a ternary ABA form with two slow themes, or even a good dirge-like slow movement, we have something that carries the listener away, enchants, but this time on a calm raft or gondola rather than a stormy sea. It’s a little more ambitious than a plain old slow movement, too, and it isn’t always slow. Theme-and-variations movements always call Beethoven to mind, but Méhul shows he knows what he’s doing.

Plucked strings feature in the minuet and trio, yet another way the composer is showing his imagination and skill in creating color and texture and a vibrant musical work. Anderson says that this movement, by whom I’m not sure “has been compared to a German Laendler.” It certainly does have twinges of Mahler’s mountainous melodies, doesn’t it? There’s something pastoral and fresh about it. It’s not pizzicato throughout, but maintains the buoyancy that that opening provided.

The closing movement is an exciting finale “in which Schumann detected similarities with the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony,” again says Anderson. Parallels to the fifth can be made in a number of places, but the works came onto the musical scene at almost exactly the same time, so I’m willing to believe that great minds think alike instead of claim plagiarism. But you do hear how this finale may remind one of Mozart’s 40th, don’t you? And this little passage came to mind as well, but it came a few years after Méhul’s symphony:

Even Mendelssohn may have been influenced by this work. He is said to have admired it, and even conducted it twice in Germany, which is twice as many times as the work had been performed in France during the composer’s lifetime. What a shame.

As exciting and cohesive a work as this is, its four movements separately as well as together, like rooms of a house, it’s a shame it hasn’t gotten even half the attention of something from Beethoven’s pen. That seems an audacious thing to say, adoring Beethoven as I do, but I see the works as comparable, which is not to say one is derivative. It’s yet another fantastic example of how posterity didn’t always get it right, that the ‘standard repertoire’ is far from all that’s out there worth enjoying, and it’s series like this that at least I, and hopefully both of my readers, get a chance to come across some new stuff. I certainly find it enjoyable.

We’re done with symphonies for the week, but do stay tuned for some chamber music this weekend, and some really fantastic stuff next week. Thanks so much for reading.

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