Albéric Magnard: unveiling the passion and tragedy of France's forgotten composer
A combination of bad timing, unfortunate circumstance and his own bloody-mindedness condemned Magnard’s music to obscurity. It was, says Roger Nichols, an unjust fate
If your immediate reaction on seeing this title was ‘Albéric Magnard who?’, you may be forgiven. The fault, if fault it be, can be attributed to no one more reasonably than to the composer himself.
On the lines of the rebuke aimed by the Soviet authorities at Prokofiev, that ‘he trod on the throat of his own song’, one may say that Magnard trod on the toes of his own career, and did so with a truly remarkable persistence and ingenuity. Most composers demonstrate some affinity at least between their own characters and those of their music, but in Magnard’s case the link is unusually clear: the message runs ‘music is a vocation: there is no room for compromise.’ So it was in his life.
When was Magnard born?
Albéric Magnard was born in Paris in 1865, the son of Francis Magnard, an author and future editor of Le Figaro.
One doesn’t need to be a trained psychologist to trace such determination to his early years. His world was turned upside down in April 1869 when his mother, in a fit of depression, jumped out of an upper window and died a few days later.
His father, Francis, was on his way up the ladder to being eventually editor of the prestigious journal Le Figaro, but was himself given to taking a gloomy view of the human race and, like many a modern tabloid journalist, was becoming feared for his ability to prick bubbles and nose out scandals. His watchword was ‘truth’ – ‘la vérité’ – the personification of which was to figure years later in Albéric’s opera Guercœur.
The young boy found solace in reading, in nature and in his piano lessons with Charles de Savignac, a pupil of composer Fromental Halévy. But like so many fathers in musical history, Francis insisted his son had a conventional education and should then train as a lawyer.
Where did he study?
The only sign of anything unusual in Albéric was his enjoyment of his mandatory military service, in which he rose to the rank of sub-lieutenant.
But, as for many French musicians of his time, Wagner was waiting round the corner: the impact of performances of Parsifal and Tristan and Isolde at Bayreuth in 1886 could not be gainsaid, and that autumn, to Papa’s fury, Magnard joined Théodore Dubois’s Conservatoire class as an ‘auditeur’.
From here he moved on to classes with Massenet, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, and finally the tutelage of Vincent d’Indy, who from 1888 was to remain his guiding star. Many years later, Varèse was to stigmatise d’Indy’s teaching as ‘bigoted’, but Magnard found in him the assurance he needed, and also an emphasis on fugal writing that was to bear vigorous fruit.
Though d’Indy was proving a useful counterweight to Papa, Francis could by no means be ignored. For one thing, now editor of Le Figaro, he was commissioning his son to write articles on music, among them three on the complete performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens in Karlsruhe under Felix Mottl – a treat Paris audiences didn’t enjoy until 1921, and then in an arrangement by Saint-Saëns.
Albéric also had warm words for the Chanteurs de Saint Gervais and their promotion of Renaissance polyphony, and an article on Rameau in March 1894, pointing out the shameful fact that there was no reliable edition of the composer’s music, found an immediate response from the publishers Durand.
What did Magnard compose?
Meanwhile, Magnard was composing: an orchestral suite ‘in the ancient style’, some songs, an opera Yolande (all of two performances in Brussels), and two symphonies in which one can still hear the wheels going round, rather creakily in spots, as well as a set of piano pieces inspired by his walks with Julia Creton, whom he was to marry in 1896: in the last piece, Rambouillet, the fanfares are a reminder of those that accompanied the switching off of the lights in the park of the castle, after which the courting couple are left haplessly (and syncopatedly) searching for an exit.
Although Magnard was determined to follow his own musical path, he was not deaf to the world around him and in 1894 tapped into the rise of interest in wind instruments, sparked off by Paul Taffanel’s founding in 1878 of the Société de chambre pour instruments à vent. His Quintet for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and piano already displays some of the composer’s characteristic gestures: a fugue in the development of the first movement, a modal, folky tune for the oboe in the third, and in the finale a plethora of dotted rhythms, duly soothed by a more flowing second idea. This was his last score before the defining event on 18 November 1894 of his father’s death.
Why was Magnard's music rejected by the musical world?
It had certainly been a difficult relationship, but now Magnard, to his surprise, felt bereft. An answer was also supplied to the question of whether Papa’s influence had eased Albéric’s way in the musical world – the very possibility of which the son had always resented.
The answer of the musical world was a decisive ‘yes’ and took the form not of antagonism but, more woundingly, of outright rejection and abandon.
Between 1895 and 1902 Magnard’s music was played just twice in public concerts, and for the 1900 International Exhibition was totally ignored. One can perhaps forgive the sidelining of the Chant funèbre, written in memory of his father, and of the Overture in A, both of which are perhaps overlong for their material. But the splendid Third Symphony, completed in 1896, benefits from his declared intention ‘to clean up my style and technique’.
Here he rations the counterpoint which had tended to clutter up textures, and now ideas flow far more easily from one to another. At the same time we are aware of his creed that ‘to create works that last, one has to be in advance of one’s time’, even if there must always be one dominating key round which the others are disposed.
By 1899 he realised that musical oblivion called for a radical response. Taking a leaf out of Berlioz’s book, on 14 May he conducted an orchestral concert entirely of his own music, including the Third Symphony. It was an undoubted success, with the symphony being especially praised, even if the cost equalled the annual budget of a modest bourgeois family.
But then the clouds descended once more… At least he was consoled by a happy marriage (Julia felt his rejections far more keenly than he did) and by a warm relationship with the musical powers in Brussels, most notably with the violinist Eugène Ysaÿe.
While Albert Carré, the director of the Opéra-Comique, was rejecting his opera Guercœur as being too static (true, but it contains some magnificent music), Ysaÿe gave the first performance of Magnard’s Violin Sonata, one of his best works. But the date, at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, was 2 May 1902 – just two days after the premiere of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Result: oblivion once more. And worse still, Ysaÿe, in a huff at the cool reception, would never play it again.
In 1898 Magnard had been one of the first to congratulate Emile Zola on publishing his incendiary letter to the president, ‘J’accuse’, proclaiming the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army captain wrongly imprisoned for espionage.
Four years later, and true to his passion for ‘la vérité’, Magnard composed his Hymne à la Justice, whose structure follows that of André Chénier’s poem of the same title: the violent, dramatic first section depicts the struggles of the oppressed, the second, calm and majestic, glorifies Justice (it was the first orchestral work played in public in Paris at the Liberation in 1944).
The work ends with a Franck-style chorale and with just a hint of Tristan and Isolde in the final plagal cadence. But in general Wagnerian influence is surprisingly scarce. Magnard has a highly individual way of moving from one musical key to another, often at high speed, but without the slithering chromatics which bedevilled so many of his French contemporaries. If tradition weighed too heavily on him in his String Quartet, there’s more light and air in the Piano Trio he finished in 1905, with a few delicate Fauréan touches to the harmony.
More and more, though, Magnard retreated from the world, moving in 1904 to a village, Baron, north of Paris, where he repelled all friendly advances from the locals. He also abandoned publishers, producing his own scores from 1902 onwards, but omitting basic actions such as making sure scores were available for performances.
Increasingly, too, he refers in his letters to his works as ‘mes ordures’ (‘my filth’). Well might Chausson’s wife say that ‘Magnard could be a good friend if only he weren’t so disagreeable.’ On which front, his behaviour over the rehearsals for his opera Bérénice at the Opéra-Comique in December 1911 takes the proverbial biscuit: not liking the soprano lead offered him, he engaged another soprano without consulting anybody, all the time accusing the director’s wife of trying to sabotage the whole enterprise. Sadly, the opera, which Magnard regarded as his best work, has never been recorded commercially, though there may be a tape somewhere in the vaults of French Radio.
When and how did Magnard die?
If Magnard was famous for anything, it was for the manner of his death. When the Germans arrived in the first days of September 1914, he sent his wife and two daughters away to safety and, with his stepson, René, remained in his manoir to await the invaders.
René was returning there just as the Germans arrived, and they promptly tied him to a tree. It seems that Magnard, crouching behind the bathroom shutters with his gun, may have thought they were about to shoot René. At all events, he opened fire, killing one and wounding another. They responded by setting fire to the manoir. Magnard perished in the blaze, together with some of his manuscripts. D’Indy’s response to the news was laconic: ‘C’était bien lui’. Or as we might say, ‘Typical!’
Happily, what does survive from his last years is the magnificent Fourth Symphony, premiered in April 1914. Alternately lyrical and playful, sombre and radiant, it marks the high point of his skill both as structuralist and orchestrator. Together with the Third Symphony, Guercœur and the Violin Sonata, it really ought to supply the primary material for a re-evaluation of this remarkable composer – saving him, if you like, from himself.
Illustration © Risko