Albéric Magnard, Hymn to Venus, Op. 17
By Fred Kirshnit
Written for the concert Pioneering Influence: César Franck, performed on Jan 7, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
Most of us are remembered, if at all, for the way that we lived, but there are those who are memorialized because of how they died. Alban Berg was killed by blood poisoning that developed after he was bitten by a wasp. Jean-Baptiste Lully stuck a conducting pole through his foot. Charles Valentin Alkan was struck in the temple by a book—some say that it was his Talmud—that fell from the top of his library shelf. Enrique Granados, in an effort to save his wife, gave up his seat in a lifeboat and drowned after his passenger ship was sunk during The Great War.
Unfortunately, Granados was not the only composer killed in that conflagration. One month to the day after Germany declared war on France, Albéric Magnard was shot either in his garden or his home in Baron in the South of France on September 3, 1914. His house was razed and many of his manuscripts, including two acts of his opera Guercouer, were destroyed. Magnard was himself a frequent burner of his own compositions, his self criticism keeping his output small.
Magnard was, if you will, a grandchild of Franck, since he learned his craft from the Belgian master’s devotee Vincent d’Indy. Certainly there are passages in his four symphonies—particularly in the Second—that sound like organ transplants. I suppose that when you name your child Albéric, you have to expect that he will become a Wagnerian, but there is no doubt that Francois Magnard, one of the heads of the influential publication Le Figaro, expected great things from his son—and also his daughter, who grew to be the painter Ondine Magnard.
Magnard was a man of high integrity and lofty principles. His two symphonic poems, the Hymn to Justice and the Hymn to Venus, carry forward his legacy of moral rectitude and certitude. Not surprisingly from one of the very first Dreyfusards, the piece exalting justice was written first, completed in 1902. Soon thereafter, he began composition of the work we hear today.
The composer had the deepest respect for women. He was madly in love with his wife Julia and apotheosized his mother, who had committed suicide when Magnard was only four. In his strict sense of social order, he elevated fidelity in marriage to the most exalted of heights. He was ultimately less an Alberich and more a Fricka.
Musically, the piece begins pastorally, with angelic harp and flute filigree. The sumptuous main theme is developed expansively in an unhurried manner. After a tempestuous section, Berliozian in character, sensual threads of flute, horn, oboe and cello lead to an expression of unbridled passion. Beyond this physical pleasure, love grows and flowers in a spiritual manner, reinforced by chorale passages. Finally, triumphant appreciation of that most magical of human bonds ends with a glorious processional conclusion (it is a hymn after all). How sad that a couple so deeply devoted to one another was robbed of their opportunity to grow old together.