Symphony No. 3, Op. 11 (1896)

By Adrian Corleonis

Written for the concert Against the Grain: The German Influence in French Music at the Turn of the Century, performed on April 13, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

On March 9 1828 the newly formed Societé des Concerts du Conservatoire, at its initial performance, offered Parisians a first hearing of Beethoven’s Eroica, which proved a revelation to the young Berlioz as it provoked a furor among musicians and the public. It was, no doubt, Inescapable that so colossal a master should become all things to all men. Berlioz responded readily to Beethoven’s dramatic conception of the symphony and to his pictorialism, Though his superficial use of thematic recall, after the manner of the final movement of the Ninth, prompted d’Indy to ask, “did [Berlioz] really understand him?” Franck seems to have found the use of the fugue, variation, and the achievement of formal unity by thematic recall and transformation in Beethoven’s last works happily suggestive–matters which d’Indy read out of Beethoven through Franck into the heavy-handed dogma of cyclic form and a general emphasis on “musical science” which looks forward to the modern preoccupation with technique.

Magnard studied privately with d’Indy between l888 and 1892, and, from 1896, taught counterpart at d’Indy’s Schola Cantorum. Accordingly, He saw the way Beethoven’s technical resourcefulness and formal perfection parallel an expressive inevitability an ideal, or Platonic, realization which he attempted to emulate, with varying degrees of success. While Magnard’s saturnine exaltation is his own, the tension between Classical means and exalted ends makes for a peculiar intensity which the critic Paul Landormy characterized as “violent meditation,” while the composer himself acknowledged a “pessimistic enthusiasm.” An obvious instance is the d’Indyist employment of a chorale (often of Gregorian provenance) to resolve conflict and pronounce a final benediction, which misfired badly in the finale of Magnard’s Fourth Symphony by seeming to be tacked on, though it succeeds splendidly in the Third, from its mysterious opening through its potent recall at the end of the first movement to, above all, its triumphant momentum in the last movement which draws the work together in a magnificent and compelling affirmation.

In matching manner to matter, the Third Symphony and the opera Bérénice (1905-1909) are among Magnard’s most balanced and noblest works. In the Symphony, a habitual repertoire of gestures resorted to from work to work in almost ritual fashion-the oft-remarked brusquerie, the slowly, ecstatically swaying syncopations, an obsession with fugal writing, manic evocations of rustic dance (harking back equally to Beethoven and Berlioz) set off by somber lamentations, among others-attain their most telling point. how reactionary this Beethovenian inheritance must have seemed may be gauged by the fact that during the years in which Magnard composed his Third Symphony, the mid-1890s, Debussy completed his Prélude à L’Après-midi d’un faune and began work on the Nocturnes. But, then, as Busoni remarked- Busoni who, at his own expense, gave Debussy’s Prélude its Berlin premiere in November 1903 and Magnard’s Third its first performance in Germany in January 1905–”At all times there were-must have been-artists who clung to the last tradition and others who sought to free themselves from it. This twilight condition seems to me to be the stable one…” What counts, finally, is expressive power, which the Third Symphony possesses to an intense degree. Magnard’s “classicism,” in fact, masks a highly original temperament which may well leave the listener with an ambiguous tang of new wine in old bottles.