Music as a Window Into History and Character
I believe that the victory of certain ideas is well worth the suppression of our tranquility and even our lives. —Albéric Magnard Some people regard music as a form of pleasure, a diversion from the practical stuff of life. Others see it on a more exalted plane as a reflection of eternal beauty and the… The post Music as a Window Into History and Character appeared first on VoegelinView.




I believe that the victory of certain ideas is well worth the suppression of our tranquility and even our lives.
—Albéric Magnard
Some people regard music as a form of pleasure, a diversion from the practical stuff of life. Others see it on a more exalted plane as a reflection of eternal beauty and the harmony of creation. But what if music, in addition to being “art for art’s sake,” is a reflection of the philosophical, religious, and political currents of its time, and of the character of the people who created it? Can music appreciation be an adjunct to the study of history?
I believe it can, and that this aspect of music is too often overlooked. Palestrina’s polyphony illuminates the aspirations of the Counter-Reformation. Beethoven’s symphonies reflect the revolutionary era and the birth of Romantic sentiment. There are any number of examples. But the one I would like to highlight here is of a composer that even many serious classical music fans have never heard of: Albéric Magnard (1865-1914).
Our standard repertoire of classical music is heavily weighted toward the Austro-German tradition of the 19th century: Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, and on through Mahler and Strauss. France has a comparable tradition that is rarely given anything but token appreciation. A few famous names are heard from, especially Debussy and Ravel. To listeners who tend to equate classical music with German music, it would be a surprise to discover the richness of French repertoire during what has become known as the belle époque.
France’s defeat on the battlefield in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) had an echo in the concert hall, as French composers sought to assert their national identity in the face of German musical dominance. French music experienced a golden age, paralleling the renovation of Paris that gave the city its now-familiar look. The political tension between France and Germany following the war (and continuing until the outbreak of World War I) was reflected in the era’s music. “German” and “French” were seen as aesthetic opposites. German music was heavy, noble, and idealistic, morally uplifting and self-consciously profound. French music was lighter in tone, more concerned with formal craftsmanship and with qualities such as charm and elegance. Richness and density were German qualities; clarity and transparency French ones.
Yet French composers had to come to terms with an overwhelming German influence: Richard Wagner. Wagner’s ideas about the union of the arts, about the power of primal national myths, and his “music dramas” themselves, with their immense orchestra and “continuous melody” held French audiences spellbound from the 1870s onward. To some, Wagner and his theories were a menace. To others, they were the very future of art and a cure for the frivolity of contemporary French music, dominated by popular ballet and opera composers like Charles Gounod.
Composer and church organist Cesar Franck (1822-1890) had already started the reform by writing music of an earnest piety and religious idealism. Franck pioneered the technique of cyclical form, in which musical themes recur and are transformed throughout an entire composition, a technique comparable to Wagner’s system of leitmotivs. In his teaching and performing Franck exuded serenity and faith, qualities which he inspired in his students at the Paris Conservatory, who nicknamed him Pater Seraphicus.
Franck’s leading pupil, Vincent d’Indy, carried on his teacher’s ideals at the Schola Cantorum, a music conservatory he founded in 1896 in a former Benedictine convent. The location was auspicious, as d’Indy had a religious zeal for continuing musical tradition and unearthing the musical past, including Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony, and applying its lessons to modern composition. D’Indy became a powerful force and influence upon the next generation of French composers. Interestingly, d’Indy saw Wager not as a revolutionary firebrand but as a continuator of the grand classical tradition going back to Bach.
Meanwhile, Wagner’s operas continued to both fascinate and divide French audiences, their increasing harmonic complexity and sheer decibel volume epitomizing what people of the time thought of as “modern music.”
As the pioneer of musical Impressionism—a term he disliked—Claude Debussy led the main reaction to Wagner. Where Wagner’s music was big in every sense of the word, bursting with emotional extravagance, Debussy’s became small-scaled and subtly nuanced.
Debussy’s emblematic work was his 1893 orchestral tone poem Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, a sort of erotically-tinged reverie in sound. Musicologist Martin Cooper says that Faun signaled “the revolt against the discursive intellect, the turning away from reason.” Melodic and harmonic structure, the ratio of musical composition, gives way to pure sense impression, a “succession of decors through which the Faun’s desires and dreams move in the afternoon heat” (Debussy).
The aesthetic lines were now drawn. D’Indy and his disciples combated what they saw as the decadent hedonism and pantheism of the Debussy school with an emphasis on structure, counterpoint, and continuity with the grand tradition—which they considered to have culminated with Wagner. There was a serious moral purpose in d’Indy’s method as well as a serious Catholicism; he even spoke of the theological virtues as necessary prerequisites to composing:
“Before all else the artist must have Faith—faith in God, faith in his art: because it is faith which spurs him on to knowledge and it is by means of this knowledge that he can mount ever higher in the scale of being, to the term of his whole nature, God.”[1]
To d’Indy, the aesthetic of the Debussy school was amoral, based sheerly on pleasure and leading to formlessness. At the same time, many composers felt that Debussy’s technical means—the Impressionist vocabulary of subtle harmony and tone color—had value and could be fruitfully used.
* * *
One of the most gifted disciples of the Schola aesthetic was Albéric Magnard, whose music is a happy amalgam of all that was best in Wagner, Franck, and Debussy. Magnard’s music had to wait until the late twentieth century to be widely appreciated, and his name is still rather obscure. Partly this was due to his tragically foreshortened life (more about that later) and the fact that his output is small, amounting to only 22 published works. Nonetheless, what he wrote glows with a unique inner radiance.
A man of broad and humanistic culture, Magnard loved painting and books. Martin Cooper speaks of Magnard’s “passion for light” informing his music. We often speak of light and space in visual art, yet in music also a sense of light and space can be conveyed through texture, through the density of notes and the brightness of instrumental timbres employed by the composer. In this way, Magnard’s symphonies often open up onto breathtaking vistas. He achieves a perfect synthesis of claritas and gravitas—of French Debussyan and Germanic Wagnerian qualities.
Magnard’s life too was characterized by a remarkable moral clarity. His father was the editor of the leading French newspaper Le Figaro, yet Magnard was determined to make it on his own, without the help of family wealth and influence. Although he briefly lived a monastic life at Ramsgate Abbey in England, Magnard appears to have rejected Catholicism in favor of a sort of modern Stoicism. He held to an austere moral code emphasizing integrity and self-abnegation. He never sought fame or self-promotion, and as a result his music never achieved great success although it was admired by connoisseurs. A severely self-critical perfectionist, he published only what he felt conformed to his exacting standards. Shunning the limelight, he retired to a country house called Manoir des Fontaines outside of Paris.
When the First World War broke out, Magnard sent his wife and daughter away to safety while he guarded the house. On September 3, 1914, a group of German cavalry soldiers trespassed on the estate. Magnard fired on them from an open window, killing one; the soldiers responded by setting fire to the house. The 49-year-old composer died in the blaze, and a number of his manuscripts also perished.
One of the pieces that went missing was Guercoeur, an allegorical opera that expressed the composer’s deeply held beliefs about human nature. A fallen medieval statesman who led his country to peace enters Heaven and is given permission to return to Earth. There he discovers that his wife has married his best friend, who has in turn declared himself a dictator of the people, who have found liberty too burdensome. The hero dies a second time and enters Heaven for good, where he is received by the Platonic goddesses of Truth, Goodness, Beauty, and Suffering.
A blend of Christian and enlightened pagan sentiments, the opera balances the corruption of human nature against eternal values. There is great irony in the fact that such a work was unwittingly destroyed by the marauding German soldiers. Happily, enough of the opera existed in sketches that Magnard’s friend Guy Ropartz was able to lovingly reconstruct it and conduct the premiere in 1931. (The first staged performance since then took place in June 2019.)
Magnard’s republican sentiments were outraged by the treatment of Alfred Dreyfuss, the French Jewish soldier falsely accused of treason. His tone poem Hymne a la justice (1902) grew out of this, a musical expression of the blazing triumph of justice over brutality. The companion piece Hymne a Venus (1904) expresses another side of the composer, a tender respect for women and marital love.
The core of Magnard’s oeuvre are the four symphonies that he composed between 1889 (while still a student) and 1913, the year before his death. They have all recently been stunningly recorded on the Naxos label by the Freiburg Philharmonic under conductor Fabrice Bollon.
Magnard has been dubbed the “French Bruckner,” and although somewhat misleading the nickname does provide a helpful entryway into his work. There is a nobility and spaciousness to this music, a luminous glow and spiritual strength, especially in the chorale melodies that often crown his movements. Magnard doesn’t give us obvious “big tunes”; his music is rewarding on a more intellectual and spiritual level. The writing is of extreme subtlety and craft. His scherzos are rustic dances that suggest the French countryside and the joys of rural life. In Wagnerian fashion, the music often creates an impression of “endless melody” and uses chromatic harmonies to suggest fluctuating emotions; yet there is a restraint and a keen sense of proportion that are quite unlike Wagner. The gentle, nostalgic, and somewhat melancholy reminiscence of the past is a key part of his aesthetic and a clear legacy of his Schola Cantorum training. Yet his music is also progressive, looking forward unmistakably to the 20th century.
For defending his property against the Germans at the cost of his life, the magnanimous Magnard became a French national hero. His music suffered quite a different fate. Concert halls and mainstream music histories have mostly ignored the Franck School in favor of a German late Romanticism whose inflated self-importance would have far-reaching and unforeseen consequences, and not just for music. In the 1930s, Nazi ideologues would use Wagner and Bruckner to legitimize the Third Reich as an organic outgrowth of German culture and history.[2] Austro-German music itself, as in the works of Mahler and Strauss, would reach heights of overstatement and luxurious decadence, terminating in the atonality of Schoenberg—ultimately, a dead end for Western music.
The music of Albéric Magnard and his colleagues (such as Albert Roussel and Sorcerer’s Apprentice composer Paul Dukas) shows us a more constructive synthesis—a tonic against megalomania, self-indulgence, and sybaritic sensuality. A true master, Magnard’s works convey moral conviction rooted in the virtues of humility, discipline, and, yes, charm.


[1] Martin Cooper, French Music (London: Oxford University Press, 1951), 74.
[2] Joseph Horowitz, “The Specter of Hitler in the Music of Wagner,” New York Times, 1998.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on July 22, 2020.

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