This week's listening suggestion popped into my mind as I perused the menu board at the French Market on Gay Street and pondered the future of the surrounding Farragut Hotel building. "If only" is the theme here as I enter the realm of "if only" composers--those composers whose career and reputations would have been much different if only fate had dictated another path.
Albéric Magnard was born in Paris in 1865, the son of the editor of Le Figaro. Instead of trading on family connections, he pursued his own goals which first included attending law school and the military. A trip to Bayreuth convinced him to concentrate solely on music, though, and he entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied with, and was encouraged by, Vincent d'Indy.
Magnard often financed his own concerts of his works and published his own music, which kept him separated to some extent from the Parisian musical establishment. During the years of the Dreyfus Affair, Magnard was strongly on the pro-Dreyfus side, even composing "Hymn to Justice" in 1902 as support. In his music notes for the American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein wrote: "For Magnard, writing music was at all times an ethical act. Beauty and justice, in his view, were aligned. Art needed to serve the cause of rectifying social injustice and promoting the truth."
Magnard became something of a hero in the early days of World War I, defending his estate from invading German troops. Magnard died in the episode when the troops set fire to the house; many of his unpublished works were unfortunately destroyed. He was only 49 at the time, so one can only speculate as to what may have been-- if only.
Although Magnard's style is somewhat similar to other late 19th/early 20th Century French composers, listeners are liable to find just as many reminders of Gustav Mahler and other German composers in the delicious orchestral coloration. Listeners will also find his structure and dynamics somewhat reminiscent of Wagner in his layering of thematic material.
The resurrection of Magnard's reputation has only come in the last 40 years and, thankfully, good recordings of most of his works are available. He wrote four symphonies which I certainly recommend to listeners. A cursory glance at YouTube found a couple of these, notably the Symphony No. 1 in C Minor from 1890 and the Symphony No. 3 in B-flat minor.
--Magnard: The Four Symphonies / Ossonce, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Hyperion Dyad # 22068
--Magnard: Symphony No 1 & 3 / Plasson, Capitole De Toulouse Orchestra, EMI Classics # 54015