Théodore Dubois: Symphonie Française

performed by Les Siècles under François-Xavier Roth, interviewed in the video below, with the piece itself available on Spotify

(cover image by Bruno Abatti)

François-Clément Théodore Dubois was born on August 24, 1837 in Rosnay in Marne. He studied with, among others, Ambrose Thomas at the Paris Conservatoire, and won the Prix de Rome in 1861. In 1868 he became choirmaster of the Church of the Madeleine. In 1871, he took over from César Franck as choirmaster at the Basilica of Sainte-Clotilde, and began teaching at the Paris Conservatoire.

In 1877, he returned to the Church of the Madeleine to take over from Camille Saint-Saëns. He wrote much religious work, but hoped to succeed in opera. We’ve mentioned his name multiple times in previous articles, as he taught many French composers, but as we are organizing this series (as usual) by the chronology of the work rather than the composers’ births, he shows up much later than some of his students, among whom are Dukas, Magnard, Ropartz, Schmitt and more.

In total, Dubois wrote three symphonies, nine operas, two ballets, a piano quartet and smattering of other chamber works, and some vocal music.

As a brief and perhaps slightly obscure introduction to this symphony, the book French Music, Culture and National Identity, edited by Barbara L. Kelly, says on page 139 that:

If d’Indy’s symphony could be said to symbolize the right-wing view of France and Ropartz’s the left, another work spoke for the center… [Dubois] made his intent to write a patriotic piece plain by entitling it Symphonie Française and ending the work with a grand orchestral statement of La Marseillaise, which emerged as a triumphant peroration after a struggle.

We’ve seen before efforts like this quite well received, but overall, it seemed Dubois was not privileged to have such positive feedback in his career. The book continues:

Critics typically responded to his music with indifference or worse, but this time most of them gave at least a correct reception to a work they understood to be a celebration of the nation and symbol of moral victory over Germany.

I’m not entirely sure what that means, as this piece was written in 1908, not 1945 or something. Perhaps it’s just general animosity; perhaps I’m bad at history.

We get a breathtaking dramatic opening, majestic and mysterious, almost. After this warm, round introduction, like the rolling green hills of the countryside shrouded in mist, the first theme appears with a bite. This music may not be anything-earth shattering, but if nothing else, it has theatrics. The intro and the two themes of the first movement are really nothing short of captivating.

Once the longest movement is over, we reach the slow movement, nearly as long, with harp, tremolo strings, brass chorales, contrasting  passages of near guttural-depth. The contrast and shimmer in the melodies is absolutely arresting. The juxtaposition of the low rumbles and the soft, pleasant textures creates a sense of bigness, a large landscape, like mountains overlooking sprawling plains. Even as often as those few themes reappear in this movement, they get me every time.

The third and shortest movement also begins in a melancholy mood, but quickly reveals a brighter side; the ‘scherzando’ telling us that it is like a scherzo while perhaps not actually being one. It is the shortest and by far the lightest of the four in the piece, with a rustic, playful sense, and maintains the characteristic color we’ve seen so far. The trio (if we are to expect a proper one) is more just an aside from the scherzo rather than a section in its own right. We’ve seen the skill that Dubois possesses for color and punch, and the closing here is no different, to the point that.. this rousing final gesture seems almost premature, even disproportionate for a movement that is the shortest and isn’t the last in the piece.

With the finale, we get Le Marseillaise, and a general atmosphere of celebration and triumph. I’ll say that this piece excited me, really, when I listened to it the first few times because it has real thrills. This finale is a suitable ending, and as Charles-Marie Widor expresses in the aforementioned book, gives us a good image of what Dubois is trying to convey:

Symphonie Française seems to evoke all the Frances, from the majesty of the Reims cathedral and great figure of our Joan of Arc to the host of revolutionary sans-culottes marching against the enemy to the strains of the Marseillaise.

Some of the other comments I found were less positive, but by no means critical. Says Andrew Clement at the Guardian:

Unsurprisingly, given Dubois’s pedigree, it is all well made. Occasionally it can be striking,… but much… is conservative and unremarkable.

Geoffrey Norns at Gramophone:

No innovator, perhaps, but Dubois is a pleasure to listen to.

Dubois clearly possesses skill, as his presentation and handling of the orchestra are fine indeed, but I’d say if there’s a lack of anything, it may be of concept or inspiration rather than skill. The four movements really are wonderful, and it is certainly a fun listen, which is not usually what I look for in music. That’s fine, though. This symphony carries its weight, and with a name like Symphonie Française, how could I not include it in this series?

That’s all for now, but stay tuned tomorrow, Sunday… actually we have at least one post every day through to next Saturday, 12 pieces in a week… you’ll see how that all works out, though. Thanks so much for reading.

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