On Behalf of Albéric Magnard

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Bérénice, performed on Jan 20, 2011 at Carnegie Hall.

The conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler defended his tendency to play particular works from the past over and over again, stating that as a musician he was not “a curious wanderer” or driven by “a scholarly interest” but rather by a “love” of music; he performed repeatedly those “great works” he “loved” because they consistently awakened in him a sense of “enthusiasm, warmth, sweetness, beauty, and greatness.” The contrast between Furtwängler’s approach and that of the American Symphony Orchestra rests not in any disagreement over the need to love the music one performs or expect that its impact survive repeated performance and hearing. It lies rather in the our conviction that a wide ranging curiosity about the repertoire of the past and scholarly interest both can result in the restoration of music to the stage that is not already well known, music that we can fall in love with and listen to more than once.

Albéric Magnard guided his career as a composer in a manner that seems in retrospect to have intentionally restricted any chance that his works would gain adherents and enter as part of the active repertory. Born to relative wealth and social prominence in 1865, the son of the editor of Le Figaro, Magnard pursued a musical career after training in the law. Following a trip to Bayreuth in 1886, Magnard decided to devote himself exclusively to music. He was determined not to exploit his family’s standing and influence on his own behalf. Although he studied with Massenet and later with Vincent d’Indy, he did little to cultivate the support of fellow composers or the leading performers of the day.

He spent his time quite apart, composing, except for some teaching at d’Indy’s Schola Cantorum, the rival institution to the Paris Conservatoire. Periodically, Magnard would self-finance a concert of his own music. In this manner, Magnard maintained a principled distance from all of the rival factions and byzantine politics within the Parisian musical establishment. He published his own music with a small radical socialist publishing house and he had his last symphony, No. 4 (1913), performed not by a major institution but by a nearly all-women’s orchestra (unfortunately with disastrous results). Magnard’s politics were profoundly idealistic and he stood steadfast on the side of Dreyfus, writing a powerful “Hymn to Justice” in 1902 for the cause. That alone set him apart from d’Indy and many colleagues who sought to remain distant from the controversy that divided and obsessed French society for generations. For Magnard, writing music was at all times an ethical act. Beauty and justice, in his view, were aligned. Art needed to serve the cause of rectifying social injustice and promoting the truth.

Magnard struggled not only with a sense of inferiority vis-à-vis his contemporaries (largely because of his late start and the unfair accusation that he was little more than a dilettante, despite his exemplary record as a student of harmony and counterpoint) and the residual guilt of having been born to wealth and privilege, making him an object of envy. He also battled deafness. As a result, Magnard was aloof and became somewhat of a recluse whose manner was marked by an ascetic sense of moral superiority and disdain for public opinion. He is perhaps remembered most for his startling death in 1914. He defended his rural mansion against the advancing German troops, killing one soldier and causing his home to be burned to ground. Magnard perished in the fire, along with the manuscripts of his last compositions and much of his second opera, Guercoeur (1901).

Magnard, a perfectionist, completed fewer than 30 compositions. Among them are four symphonies, now widely regarded as among the finest examples of late nineteenth-century French symphonic writing. ASO has performed No. 3 (1902), the most famous of the symphonies, as well as the orchestral poem “Hymn to Venus” (1904). Since Magnard’s death, his music has periodically found defenders, including the conductor Ernest Ansermet. Several chamber works have entered the repertory, including the remarkable wind piano quintet from 1894 and the string quartet from 1903. The most recent biography and reconsideration of his life and work appeared in 2001, written by an avid Magnard enthusiast, the French cardiologist Simon-Pierre Perret, and the distinguished French music critic and scholar Harry Halbreich. Nonetheless, when I located the vocal score to Bérénice in the Harvard University Music library in 2003, I think I may have been the first person to check it out.

Bérénice, Magnard’s third and last opera, completed in 1909 and premiered in 1911, has long been regarded as his finest and most characteristic work. Its musical qualities complement the idealism of the libretto in which feminine love triumphs over male political ambition and power. It is Bérénice and not the Roman Emperor Titus who is Magnard’s protagonist and is vindicated in the opera. It is she who delivers Magnard’s message of truth. As the composer wrote in the preface to the score in 1909, Titus, who died young, cried at the end of his life, asking why he deserved such a cruel fate. After all, he had only one action in his life for which he needed to repent. That single act was, for Magnard, the decision, without an absolutely firm reason, to turn away from a sacred moment, from an “adorable” lover and from her genuine love for him. Magnard’s preference for the character of the feminine was explicit. In the preface to Bérénice, he confessed “I understand better with every passing day how much superior a woman is to any man.”

Although the occasion for choosing Bérénice as a subject can be linked to Jean Racine’s play, it was a familiar and well-established operatic and theatrical subject. The most famous treatments of the story were a play by Corneille (also from 1670, rivaling Racine) based on the love between Titus and Bérénice, and of course Mozart’s opera La Clemenza di Tito. Magnard wrote his own libretto. By streamlining the story, he only accentuated what he certainly knew was the obvious political symbolism of the subject in 1909. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French artillery officer, had been unjustly convicted of treason for passing military secrets to the Germans, and though in 1906 he had been exonerated, reinstated, and decorated by the government, much of the French public remained unconvinced. In the crucible of 12 years of conflict over the issue, a new racialist, anti-Semitic reactionary French nationalism came into being, led by the newspaper Action Française and key figures to whom Magnard was opposed, such as Charles Maurras, Léon Daudet, and Maurice Barrès. Magnard’s sympathetic foregrounding of a Jewish queen who is hounded away by the mob of Roman citizens—a circumstance in which the political leadership bends to ethnic prejudice and fails to do the right thing (to the detriment of justice and the state, as well as to personal happiness)— was not an accident. The opera is more than a reworking of Racine. The fate of the Jewish (but highly assimilated and acculturated, vis-à-vis Rome—as was Dreyfus to France) daughter of Herod Agrippa, the nominal queen, was turned into a morality play about the symmetry between the happiness of intimacy and love and the pursuit of truth and justice in the public sphere. Magnard’s Bérénice is Captain Dreyfus after 1906. Titus represents France, which is left at its peril by a failure to truly embrace the truth and accept the proven loyalty of Jewish officer (who was framed) as a model of patriotism and what it might mean to be a true Frenchman. In short, Magnard’s Bérénice is more than an intimate love story.

For most of the twentieth century, Magnard was remembered at best as a marginal, respected but conservative figure in French musical history during a pre-World War I period that included Massenet, Saint-Saens, Chausson, Debussy, Dukas (with whom Magnard shared a profound self-critical sensibility and a limited output), Fauré, and d’Indy. After 1918, the French musical scene became dominated by a new generation that included not only Frenchmen such as Ravel and Les Six, but émigrés including Stravinsky and Prokoviev. After 1945, the post-World War II avant-garde was no more interested in rediscovering Magnard that its predecessor after 1918 had been.

However, Magnard’s music ought to encounter a better fate today. It is not imitative of any other composer. It is eclectic, taking inspiration from Wagner, Debussy, and d’Indy, but entirely distinctive, elegant, economical, and accessible. It has an authenticity, directness, color, and intense purpose that are memorable. The eloquence and beauty of Bérénice make it a work, in Furtwängler’s sense, deserving of deep affection, a major achievement and more than the passing result of idle scholarly curiosity.

Albéric Magnard, Bérénice

By Steven Huebner

Written for the concert Bérénice, performed on Jan 20, 2011 at Carnegie Hall.

“Noble melancholy” . . .

Thus did Jean Racine describe the tone he sought to create in Bérénice (1670). In a preface to the play, Racine further explained his aesthetic predilections: uncomplicated plots, heroic characters, roiling passions. A single significant event from history sufficed for tragic genres—as in Bérénice where the plot centers on the reluctant departure of the eponymous Judean queen from Rome that was ordered by her paramour Emperor Titus upon his ascent to the throne (79 CE). As staged by Racine, Titus has already decided to send his mistress away for political reasons before the curtain rises, although he will remain deeply in love with her throughout. The plot itself centers on Bérénice’s slow recognition of her fate, from intuition and suspicion to revelation. A third character, Antiochus, King of Comagene, also loves Bérénice and waits until the end of the play to reveal his feelings to Titus. Although each of Racine’s characters threatens suicide at one point or another, most unusually for a tragedy the three principals remain alive at the final curtain and merely agree to separate from one another bearing the full weight of their anguish. For Racine, the real test of powers of invention lay in forging a play with elevated sentiment and elegance of expression using a minimal amount of material.

In shaping an opera out of Racine’s premise, Albéric Magnard pared the action down even further by eliminating Antiochus. He also adjusted the temporal frame across three acts to create a sequence of an amorous tryst, renunciation, and departure. Bérénice and Titus appear in the blissful harmony of a love duet at the end of the first act, its music redolent of another great operatic couple separated by the call of duty, Berlioz’s Didon and Énée in Les Troyens. Berlioz’s “Nuit d’ivresse” becomes “Nuit de printemps”—both scenes set in lush foliage—and like their forbears, Magnard’s lovers cleave to strict parallel singing, albeit in a more chromatic harmonic idiom. Here, sounds of nature mingle with a tribute to Venus. Newly crowned emperor by the beginning of Act 2, Titus ruminates about the hatred of the populace for the queen from the East to the troubled accompaniment of a fugue. Bérénice, unlike her counterpart in Racine, understands her position instantly. Nonetheless, Magnard retains the emperor’s wavering between professions of love and fulfillment of a political imperative, expressed through the deft alternation of leitmotifs associated with each condition. At the end of the second act, Bérénice extracts a commitment from the emperor for a final meeting. Following the advice of Mucien, an old member of the Praetorian guard, Titus does not honor it, yet even at this late stage he vacillates once again by showing up at the queen’s boat in the third act to demand a final assignation. Bérénice, throughout the stronger figure, refuses to follow, even though her love for him has not diminished. Invoking Venus once again, she shears her long tresses as an offering to the goddess, a gesture to signify her permanent abnegation of sexuality. The act ends pianissimo, like the two previous ones, with a fade out of an orchestral figure that ostensibly represents the gentle lapping of waves against the side of the boat. A series of hushed curtains, once again unusual in the operatic literature, effectively translates the tone of noble melancholy that Racine attributed to his play.

The static quality of the action in Bérénice as well as its long duets and dense network of leitmotifs recalled Wager’s Tristan und Isolde to mind both for critics at the time of the opera’s Opéra Comique premiere in 1911 as well as for more recent writers. Yet the perspective and character of Wagner’s opera is much different, with its great coups de theatre, explicit sexuality, play of memory, and epic dimension almost entirely absent from Bérénice. Magnard’s characters are focused on the here and now, and with a stronger articulation of personal identity, be it the “grandeur ‘d’âme” (generosity of spirit) that Titus sees in Bérénice or the young emperor’s very different concern with Realpolitik. Magnard’s claim in the preface to the score of Bérénice to have written “in the Wagnerian style” certainly refers to the web of leitmotifs in the work but should not be overplayed in critical exegesis: he often creates declaimed vocal lines that are more independent from the leading orchestral melodies than those of the mature Wagner, thereby giving a greater impression of genuine counterpoint between voice and orchestra. If anything, the score has the stylistic character of writing by Vincent d’Indy, with whom Magnard had studied privately as a young man.

The next sentence in Magnard’s preface leaps out today even more: “Without the necessary genius to create a new form of lyric theater, I chose from among existing styles the one best suited to my very classical tastes and my very traditional musical culture.” Magnard thus implicitly identifies the writing of Tristan, perceived as cutting edge in France and elsewhere a mere fifteen years before, as classical and traditional, or at least amenable to a classical and traditional adaptation. The premiere of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902—that is, three years before Magnard began to work on his opera—certainly contributed to this adjustment of the stylistic yardstick, as did d’Indy’s influential grounding of leitmotivic writing in past styles in his teaching at the Schola Cantorum. Undoubtedly taking a cue from Magnard’s preface, the majority of critics at the 1911 premiere described the work as classical in orientation. By this they variously meant the opera’s alleged sobriety, economy of means, intimate orchestration, avoidance of melodramatic effects, prevalence of traditional developmental techniques—or simply the idea of classical theater as manifest in the works of Racine. In a habit of journalistic criticism prevalent at the time, writers extended such assessments of the music to the character and career of the composer himself. By living in a sumptuous residence in the provinces, Magnard had isolated himself from the cultural politics of Paris. Only a single photograph of this publicity-shy composer appears to remain extant. He wrote little—mainly instrumental music—and gained a reputation as distant, aloof, and uncompromising. Some praised Magnard’s reluctance to follow after the latest musical fashion as integrity, others as reactionary obstinacy: classicism not as modern, but as weakly retrospective. Today, however, listeners unencumbered by such polemics can savor a score replete with extraordinary craft, rich in leitmotivic nuance and alert to the psychological condition of the characters.

Steven Huebner

Mr. Huebner is co-editor of Cambridge Opera Journal and is James McGill Professor at McGill University. He is the author of two books: The Operas of Charles Gounod and French Opera at the Fin de Siècle: Wagnerism, Nationalism, and Style.