In the late summer of 1914, Alberic Magnard was working in his study in his large country house north-east of Paris, when a German cavalry party entered his estate. Magnard shot dead two soldiers from an upstairs window, whereupon the Germans set fire to the house, and Magnard perished, together with all the copies of his opera Yolande and other manuscripts. He was one of the shadowy, peripheral figures of Cesar Franck's circle, a pupil of Franck's most energetic disciple Vincent d'Indy.
According to the New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians, Magnard was "a taciturn, humourless man who did not suffer fools gladly". It takes one to know one, and that's a discouraging assessment which is ripe for revision. During the final weeks of its existence, Radio 3's Sacred and Profane (Sunday mornings at 7am) is broadcasting all four of Magnard's symphonies, played by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jean-Yves Ossance. You'll wait a long time to hear even one of them played in a concert, and there are no CDs currently available here, although the BBC recordings will in due course be released commercially. Only No 1 remains to be broadcast, on 22 March.
Magnard wrote his Second Symphony, heard last Sunday morning, in 1893. To put it in context, that was three years after Chausson completed his only symphony, and five years after Cesar Franck's. Magnard's work shares something of Chausson's dusky Wagnerian atmosphere and violet-hued orchestral palette, which the eerily resonant BBC recording enhanced rather too much. But, harmonically, Magnard is more challenging than Chausson, and the work opens with such a swift ellipsis that a few minutes of music seem to have been compressed into one. The "theme", though almost too sophisticated for its function as primary material, is just about recognisable at the recapitulation.
According to Grove, Magnard was to spend the rest of his short life (he was 39 when he died) pursuing perfection of form. His Second Symphony sounds much more searching, even experimental, than that suggests. Yet, with its brisk string writing and sense of ironic perversity, it anticipates Prokofiev's Classical symphony of 1917 and, more pertinently, the Third and Fourth Symphonies of another pupil of D'Indy, Albert Roussel (see record review, right).
Not that prophetic qualities guarantee musical interest. Besides, the 19th-century notion that artistic and technical progress go hand in hand - even the notion of "progress" at all - no longer seems tenable. The fallacy was vividly exposed, by chance, in a quotation from Schumann's marriage diary in Composer of the Week on Monday. Schumann considered writing an article on Shakespeare's relationship to music, and noted: "Nothing more beautiful and pertinent has ever been said about music than by Shakespeare, and this at a time when it was still in its infancy." Alas, poor Schumann! He only seemed to go back as far as Bach, in whom interest was just being revived; he doesn't appear to have known anything of Heinrich Schutz, whom we now consider the first of the relatively modern breed of great German composers. Because performing editions have made the riches of Renaissance polyphony widely available only within the past hundred years or so, Schumann was unaware that the 15th and 16th centuries were a Golden Age in music, just as they were in painting.Reuse content