performed by the Orchestre Symphonique et Lyrique de Nancy under Sebastian Lang-Lessing
(cover image by Annette Beetge)
There is with Ropartz a science of folklore and its proper use, which one admires; but more often than the direct use of popular motifs it is an inspiration drawn from the same soil which nourishes the work, like sap in trees.
René Dumesnil, Le Monde
Joseph Guy Marie Ropartz was born on June 15, 1864 in Guingamp, Côtes-d’Armor, Brittany. He entered the Paris Conservatory in 1885, and studied under Dubois, and Massenet, and later under Franck.
He was director of the Nancy Conservatory (then associated with the Paris Conservatory) from 1894 to 1919. He was also friends with Albéric Magnard, and reconstructed one of his operas from memory after the composer’s death. From 1919 to 1929, Ropartz was the director of the Strasbourg Conservatory, as well as the Philharmonic Orchestra of Strasbourg.
In total, Ropartz wrote five symphonies and six string quartets. We will begin our discussion not with his first but the second of the five symphonies, dating from 1900.
The work is in four movements, as below, and has a playing time of approximately 37 minutes:
- Adagio molto – Allegro
- Molto vivace
- Allegro molto
Blair Anderson, writing at AllMusic, speaks in a review of this recording of Ropartz’s second and fifth symphonies of the composer’s connection to Franck. He says that “both of these symphonies reflect the chromatic modulations, counterpoint, and developmental ideas that were characteristic of that composer.” He continues to speak positively of both works, saying that they are:
warm and lush in orchestration, memorable for their passionate melodies, and highly expressive of the kind of yearning and nostalgia typical of the fin de siècle, though never so emotionally inflated as to obscure their forms.
The first movement is the longest of the work, with a duration of almost 14 minutes, and it begins with a dark, handsome adagio. It makes for quite a lengthy foreword, like an extremely long, ornate entryway, or an imposing cathedral you must walk all the way down to arrive at whatever is at the other end. In our case, after these four minutes, we reach the allegro, suddenly bursting with charisma and command, then offering a second subject that embodies the same kind of power, but soft, like two sides of the same person.
Perhaps we should have discussed Franck’s own symphony before addressing these works from composers so indebted to him. In any case, the arrival at the development is exciting, moving again into another ‘space’ so to speak, away from the intro and expositional material, the way a view changes as you move away from it. Textures and colors here are like a kaleidoscope, beautiful and always changing. It’s serious sounding, in F minor after all, but not tragic.
The second movement is a wonderful, buoyant scherzo. It has force behind it, but isn’t heavy. There’s an exciting crispness throughout, fitting for the ‘molto vivace’ marking. There’s some sense of the sternness of the first movement, but in the bubbly triple-meter, it doesn’t have the same seriousness. This is contrasted by a soft, almost pleading trio that shows even greater finesse. It is in this movement that you can hear the ‘folklore’ element referred to in the opening quote. It’s not necessarily rustic, but it’s there.
The third movement adagio is warm and soulful, and makes me wonder what may have been the inspiration, if any, for this plaintive movement. It is perhaps the most compelling thing so far, with more varied colors and intimate textures, a very moving slow movement, something to give us pause.
The finale returns to much the spirit of the first movement, with an unmistakable bite, almost nautical in a way, but contrary to what you may expect from the commanding opening, the music does brighten up. Of all people here, maybe more than, say, Debussy or Wagner or any of the other common composers we’ve been referencing (with the notable exception of Franck, with whose music I’m not familiar enough to comment), this finale, or at least its first subject reminds me more of Carl Nielsen than any French composer.
That changes when another, very supple subject enters, and I do hear a more French sound. This seems like a rondo of some sort, but without the variety of subjects… maybe? In any case, the movement almost seems to drag on, toward the end of one of the longer symphonies we’ve discussed so far (at around 40 minutes) and just when I start to think we might not be getting anywhere, we get a warm bright climax, a breathtaking moment, as if the entire journey comes into view, from the summit. This would be a perfectly suitable peroration, but we get a coda, it seems, that finishes brightly and optimistically, worlds away from any kind of minor key.
This is an exciting work, and I’d say Ropartz clearly has a unique voice, or has the potential to, perhaps more defined in later symphonies, but I’m just not sure that this work has what it requires to join the ranks of a truly great symphony. In fact, I’m almost positive it does not. It is a very good symphony, something worth hearing, especially in the context of the different approaches from French composers, or any composers at this period of time, but I’m just not sure that it can stand without qualifiers as a great symphony. Give it a listen anyway.
We have officially moved into the 20th century, and that’s where we’ll spend the next two weeks (give or take) in the rest of this French series, so please do stay tuned for more, and thanks so much for reading.