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Alberic Magnard was born in Paris on the 9th of June 1865, in the same year as Paul Dukas and Sibelius, and on the same day as Carl Nielsen. His father, Francis Magnard, was a journalist and became manager of Le Figaro in 1879, but Alberic always refused to take advantage of his position. After studying law, and taking his degree in 1887, he continued his musical education. He had entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1886, where he met J. Guy Ropartz, later his best friend, in Theodore Dubois's class. After attending Massenet's classe in 1887. he left the Conservatoire the following year and took private lessons with Vincent d'Indy, until 1892. By then Magnard, whose earliest known compositions date from 1887, had already written two Symphonies, a one-act opera entitled Yolande, some piano pieces and some Melodies. From then on he devoted all his time to composing, except for six months in 1897 when he temporarily replaced d'lndy as professor of composition at the Schola Cantorum, where Deodat de Severac was among his students. His private income kept financial worries at bay. On the 15th of February 1896 he married Julia Creton, by whom he had two daughters, Eve and Ondine. Around 1897 he became partly deaf which increased his natural misanthropy. A little later, the Dreyfus case aroused his indignation, and he ostentatiously resigned from the French army. He greeted Zola's J'accuse with enthusiasm, and the case later inspired his rousing Hymne a la Justice for orchestra. In 1904 he bought an old manor house at Baron in the Oise, where he spent the rest of his life, seldom appearing in Paris. His music was known to few and rarely performed, and he contributed to this by refusing to allow it to be published except by himself. A concert of his works, organised and conducted by him in 1899, was a short-lived success. Although his opera Berenice was well-received, it was given only eight performances at the Optra Comique, in 1911. Only his friend Ropartz created all his works, conducting his Nancy orchestra. On the 3rd of September 1914, German soldiers entered his estate. Magnard, who had not been accepted as a volunteer for the army because of his age, died with a gun in his hand, defending his home. His burnt corpse was found in the ruins of the house, which had been set on fire by the invaders. Nearly all his manuscripts were destroyed, and his last work, Douze Poemes en Musique, which had not yet been printed, was lost for ever. Guy Ropartz reconstituted the orchestration of the first and last acts of his opera Guercoeur from memory.
Magnard's orchestral works consist of four Symphonies (op. 4,6,11,21),a Chant Funebre (op. 9), an Overture (op. 10), the Hymne a la Justice (op. 14), the Hymne a Venus (op. 17) and a Suite dans le style ancien (op. 2). He wrote his own librettos for his three operas, Yolande (op. 5), Guercoeur (op. 12) and Berenice (op. 19). For the piano, in addition to the Three Pieces opus I (and the unnumbered pieces) recorded here for the first time, he left the set of Promenades op. 7. He composed two sets of airs or, as he called them, Poemes en Musique (op. 3 and 15), and five important pieces of chamber music - a Quintet for Wind Instruments and Piano op. 8, the Sonata for Violin and Piano op. 13, a String Quartet op. 16. a Piano Trio op. 18 and a Sonata for Cello and Piano op. 20.
Sonata For Violin And Piano
This sonata was composed between March and the end of October 1901 and first performed on the 2nd of May 1902 at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, by Eugene Ysaye, to whom it is dedicated and who played it many times later, and Raoul Pugno. It is a magnificent work and one of Magnard's most perfect successes. He probably wrote nothing else with such ease and spirit, but he was always his own harshest critic, and in a letter to Paul Dukas he said : "the work is still confused. I do not yet have the purity of heart and thought that makes masterpieces''.
This Sonata is exceptionally difficult to play, and the piano part in particular has the abundant richness of a large orchestra. This, together with its unusual scale, is why a masterpiece which deserves to live is so seldom performed. It does not reach the "official" principal key of G major until after a slow and strangely indefinite introduction, and the minor mode also casts its dark shadows over the greater part of the Finale. The first piece (Large-Anime) opens with a kind of dreamy, nostalgic improvisation on the violin, underlined by a few subdued notes on the piano. But all at once the violin bursts into a passionate accelerando, and the piano joins in with a great tempestuous run leading powerfully into the action. The Anime passage starts with a magnificent theme, throbbing with enthusiasm, broad, virile and fervent. The music soon glows with a light that is both dazzling an intimate, like a wood in spring when the sun filters through the young leaves. We understand Magnard's love of colour, which sometimes made him wish he were a painter, and his delight in subtle effects of light. The vast movement develops faultlessly and firmly, according to the rules of the two-theme sonata. A return to the introduction is followed by the conclusion, the impetus and exaltation of which warm the heart.
But we must keep some of our enthusiasm for the Calme movement that follows, one of the summits of French music, and equal to Faure at his greatest. It is a passage of infinite tenderness and ardent passion, revealing the essentially loving nature behind Magnard's apparent surliness. Two broad melodic themes alternate and are developed with great ornamental variations, in the purest tradition of late Beethoven. The serenity is twice broken by a sudden rapid call, a kind of harsh, wild cry, reminiscent of old popular ballads.
The Tres vif movement is a Scherzo of intense rhythmic vitality, perilously brilliant in its instrumental writing. Although it does not actually quote any folk music, it has the appealing earthiness of all the composer's Scherzo. This very brief movement, which brings a moment of welcome relaxation to the listener (though not to be the performers !), leads into the Finale with no break. Here, the colours grow darker, the key changes to G minor for the first time, and the slow introduction (Large) is bathed in a nostalgic autumnal atmosphere. The next movement, Anime, in spite of its original skipping nineeight rhythm, also retains some twilight shades, which clear on the entry of a second motif on the piano alone, in a more alert tempo. The piece is in sonata form, with an extensive fugal development of the main theme. And then comes the sublime conclusion, the climax of the whole work, radiating a very pure, consoling light. Magnard, the "enthusiastic pessimist", achieves peace in a smiling, resigned vision of the possibility of a better world. His indescribably sweet, restful gentleness is like a door opening on to the ideal bliss that humanity wilt know on earth, in some very faroff time.
Three Piano Pieces Opus I
Except perhaps for one or two of the six Poemes en Musique of opus 3, these are Magnards earliest known works. Two austere diptychs enclose a freer, more lyrical piece. The brief Choral in C minor leads into a three-part Fuguette in the same key, the head-motif of which recalls that of the Choral, Feuille d'Album, in A flat major, to be played Tendrement, prefigures the expressive universe of the Promenades, with a brief contrasting central C minor passage, Plus vite (Faster), in a vigorous dotted rhythm. The second diptych, in C major, more fully developed and complete than the first, consists of an allegro Prelude (Vite et gaiement) in the form of a two-part invention and a vigorous four-part Fugue with a clear, confident subject. Guy Ropartz included these pieces by his friend in the programme of the piano competition as soon as he arrived at the Nancy Conservatoire.
En Dieu Mon Esperance Et Mon Espee Pour Ma Defense (My Hope In God And My Sword For My Defence)
This title and subject of this piece, published in the Almanack de l'Escrime (Fencing Almanach) in 1889, reveal the personality of young composer, who was one of the best fencers in Paris in his day.
Certain indications suggest that the work was intended to be orchestrated, though this was never done. It is a sort of brief symphonic poem for solo piano, stilt somewhat clumsy. In fact the composer, always severe with himself, did not consider it worthy of an opus number. His characteristic style can however already be recognised in certain details, and it cannot be omitted from a collection of the complete works.