Paul Dukas, Symphony in C

Paul Dukas, Symphony in C

By Paul Griffiths

Written for the concert Pioneering Influence: César Franck, performed on Jan 7, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Like many in Franck’s circle, Dukas was drawn to the senior composer more as a model and master than as a formal teacher. His training he received at the Conservatoire, chiefly at the hands of Ernest Guiraud, who used to be remembered as the man who added recitatives to Carmen. Debussy was a classmate and remained a friend (as also to Chausson). Always self-critical, Dukas did not make his debut as a composer until 1891, two years after his graduation, when his overture Polyeucte was performed. There was then a gap before he wrote this symphony, in 1895-6, which patently reveals his admiration for Franck while showing that Beethoven, too, was in the scope of his idealism.

As in Chausson’s work just heard, many of the ideas are variants of one another, with the difference that now they are deployed, very effectively, to create an abstract symphonic form. The first group of melodies and motifs, based on the notes of the triad and their chromatic neighbours, powerfully emphasize the two beats of the rhythm. A second subject is properly more relaxed and melodious, and there is a closing idea, rushing up and down, suggestive of an outdoor festivity or, in its most compact form, of a fanfare. Next comes the expected development section, growing out of the first material, and a straightforward recapitulation. But just as the movement seems about to finish in brazen C major, it swerves into a coda, which finds its way back so that the “outdoor-fanfare” music can indeed give the movement a decisive conclusion.

The slow movement, in E minor, follows a line of intimate melody, extended in two broad phases, of which the first comes to a climax as if in peals of bells, while the second reaches toward quietness.

One of the motifs from the first movement’s principal material returns, adjusted to triple time, to lead off the finale–and to carry it for a while, through episodes of galloping and trumpet-blowing that chime with the medievalism in much French literature and painting at the time. This music gives way eventually to what sounds like a popular dance tune, equally characteristic of the period. Then the more urgently progressive motif returns, but, right at the point where the dance theme should come back, the music vanishes into the treble and a melody from the first movement returns. The return also of the “outdoor-fanfare” motif–now indeed as a trumpet fanfare–brings on the conclusion, in which ideas from throughout the movement are grandly piled on top of one another.

Dukas’s orchestration throughout is masterful, his eagerness infectious. Otherwise there is little hint of his next work, composed the year after the symphony was completed: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.