A forgotten symphony that’s said to have ‘changed the course of musical history’ has been heard for the first time in 200 years, performed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.
Etienne Méhul’s Fourth Symphony overturns the long-held idea that Berlioz invented the cyclic symphony – one that reuses themes across movements – when he composed his Symphonie Fantastique of 1830. But Méhul got there 20 years earlier – just after Beethoven was experimenting with unifying motifs in his Fifth Symphony – when he penned a work using this new technique.
‘This was an astonishing discovery which should rewrite the history books,’ says Professor David Charlton, of the University of London, who first stumbled across the work in 1979. ‘But unfortunately it hasn’t been given the attention it deserves.’
Méhul’s Symphony, which went down well with its first audiences in Paris in 1810, then lapsed into obscurity and was never published. Charlton suggests that the failure of the French composer’s next project, an opera titled The Amazons, discouraged Méhul, who withdrew from Parisian concert life. Charlton found separate orchestral parts for the Symphony while researching a book on choral works in the library of the Orchestra of Paris.
‘As there was no score I had to write it out and I’ll never forget the feeling as it was taking shape under my pen, coming into focus bar by bar, part by part,’ Charlton says in The Times. ‘I nearly hit the roof when I saw the theme of the first movement returning in the finale. I realised then that this was a prototype structure of immense importance.’