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.