Albéric Magnard: Symphony no. 1 in Cm, op. 4

performed by the Malmö Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Sanderling, or below with the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse under Michel Plasson

(cover image by Anton Repponen)

Lucien Denis Gabriel Albéric Magnard was born on June 9, 1865 in Paris. His father François was a bestselling author and editor of Le Figaro. His family was wealthy, but young Alberic himself refused to be come ‘fils du Figaro,’ the son of of his father’s privilege rather than someone in his own right. He decided to make a career free of nepotism or any advantage from his family.

He completed his military service and graduated law school before entering the Paris Conservatoire. He studied counterpoint with Théodore Dubois, as well as studying with d’Indy, under whom he wrote his first two symphonies. The first, which we’re discussing today, is in fact dedicated to d’Indy.

In 1896, Magnard married Julie Creton, a teacher at d’Indy’s Schola Cantorum. In total, Magnard had a small output of only 22 works, among them four symphonies, mostly published at his own expense. Unfortunately, during World War I, Magnard became “a national hero” for an incident involving German soldiers, as Wikipedia describes:

In 1914, at the beginning of World War I, Magnard sent his wife and two daughters to a safe hiding place while he stayed behind to guard the estate of “Manoir de Fontaines” at Baron, Oise. When German soldiers trespassed, he fired at them, killing one of them, and they fired back and set the house on fire. It is believed that Magnard died in the fire, but his body could not be identified in the remains.

Unsurprisingly, his unpublished scores were lost in this fire. Of his work overall, Wiki says:

Magnard’s musical style is typical of contemporary French composers, but occasionally, as in the four completed symphonies, certain passages foreshadow the music of Gustav Mahler. His use of fugue, incorporation of chorale, together with the grandeur of expression in his mature orchestral works, have caused him to be called a “French Bruckner”.

That ‘French Bruckner’ business could set some of us up for disappointment, so I think it should be taken with a generous grain of salt, but his symphonies are indeed very much worth a listen. In total, he wrote four of them, as well as three operas, a string quartet, a violin sonata, a cello sonata, a piano trio, and more.

Lionel Salter says at Gramophone of his Magnard’s music that:

… [it] is not for the casual listener who looks for facile attractiveness, but in a somewhat Teutonic way is rewarding for the serious-minded in its skilfully crafted and thoughtfully lyrical character.

His first symphony is a remarkably mature, solid work for such a young composer. He was about 25 years old at the time, in 1890. The work is in four movements, as follows, with a playing time (in Sanderling’s recording) of about 35 minutes (a whole five minutes, give or take, faster than Plasson or others).

  1. Strepitoso – andante – allegro marcato – andante
  2. Religioso [largo] – andante – largo
  3. Presto
  4. Molto energico – meno mosso – premier tempo – largo

The first movement’s ‘strepitoso’ marking means ‘resounding,’ as best I could find (Francis Pott at Hyperion says it means “noisily”), and it’s more the initial figuration, the heartbeat, that resounds, rather than any big crash or anything. It cuts through the empty space like a bow through rough seas, quite heroic. In comparison to that, we have a subject in E-flat major that brings on a dreamy, soft spirit in contrast with the chugging nature of the first subject. These two subjects, while very compelling, make for a contrast so stark that it barely holds together, and the development, while captivating, is a bit episodic. There are flute bits, fanfare bits, and it all amounts to a very interesting exploration of this almost fairy-tale-esque world the young Magnard creates. This opening (and longest) movement reaches its climactic crest in the form of a broad, Brucknerian passage, with glimmering brass, followed by dramatic pauses and supple answers from strings. In contrast with this incredibly effective grandeur, however, the first movement ends quietly.

This is in keeping, apparently, with the overall narrative, as the second movement, marked first ‘religioso,’ begins with a church-like organ sound. It’s solemn, to say the least, reminiscent of a hymn, with beautiful writing for the horn at key moments, and overall spectacular orchestral writing, just breathtaking. Salter says that the composer “shows the unmistakable influence of Wagner (who at that time had a hypnotic power over the French) in the religioso slow movement,” and that’s not at all a bad thing. This movement, with its solemnity but also its softness, lends a warmer air to contrast with the brooding nature of the first movement.

The third movement is the scherzo, by far the shortest of the symphony, and is quite light when you consider the emotional weight of the first two movements. It’s very colorful, more French, in my opinion, even if it is wearing some German clothing. It’s a bit of a break, or else… a bit of a disturbance in the journey. Pott says that the return to the tonic key of C minor for this movement may be “a miscalculation,” since it preempts and in some ways detracts from what the finale should accomplish. Maybe so.

This finale, then, as Pott continues, “seeks to bring together all the work’s material in a definitive display of contrapuntal mastery, yet must continue in a key by now divested of conflict by its premature sovereignty.” Maybe that means nothing to you, but if so, you can certainly still enjoy the final chapter of this work. There seems to be an almost Baroque nature to the clear orchestral writing and magical, colorful fairytale landscape of the opening movement.

But I’m not just saying that. The ‘strepitoso’ opening theme does return, so maybe you’ve missed the whole tonic key business, and you’d be forgiven if you did, but this memorable theme unifies our entire journey; it feels like coming home, and the slow, grand climb to the final climax is nothing short of magnificent.

Pott gives some reasonable criticism, saying that “the principal ‘cyclic’ idea seems insufficiently protean in dramatic and rhythmic substance to adapt itself subtly to varied surroundings, instead threatening at times to disrupt the flow of other ideas by gratuitous interruption.” That being said, he praises the piece, saying:

…this is arresting music, big-boned, easy in its adventurous modulations and remarkably confident in feeling, even where one suspects misjudgement.

And I couldn’t agree more. For all the weak points in the work, things the average listener may not even notice, the music is remarkably, excitingly convincing. What perhaps is even more exciting is that in the composer’s short life span, before his heroic act of patriotism, managed to write three more symphonies. This is only a first effort, so we can excuse it for being a bit green.

We will take a step back in time a decade or so for the chamber pieces this weekend, and return to this exact year, 1890, for our next symphony on Monday, so stay tuned and thank you very much for reading.

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