Classic 107 - Winnipeg's classical and jazz radio station.

Born on June 9, 1865, he wrote exactly five pieces of chamber music. Host Chris Wolf will feature a different one each day at once o'clock. Tune in!

Albéric Magnard,  was killed on September 3rd, 1914 in tragic circumstances, a month after the outbreak of the First World War.
Alone in his house in Baron (in the Oise département), he saw it invaded by a detachment of uhlans. Hidden behind shutters, he opened fire, killing several Germans. The enemy retaliated and set fire to the house, and we do not know whether Magnard was killed by enemy or perished in the blaze. Numerous documents and manuscripts went up in smoke, including the score of his opera Guercoeur, which his friend Guy Ropartz re-orchestrated from memory.
The news of this drama was painfully felt in this beginning of wartime and was spread by the press. The nation subsequently granted Magnard the status of ‘died for France’.

In 2014 Timpani released the recording of the complete chamber music. Harry Halbreich is the co-authour of of a reference work on Magnard. Here is part of Timpani's Stéphane Topakian's interview with Halbreich.

•1• Stéphane Topakian: Harry Halbreich, when and how did you become attached to Magnard and his work?

Harry Halbreich: Well, that goes way back. Whilst still a young student at the Conservatoire, where I completed my studies in 1958, I came across books that, even then, you could no longer find except used: the two books on French music of the 20th century by Paul Landormy, and also the one by Gustave Samazeuilh. They mentioned a mysterious composer who had completely disappeared, totally forgotten, whose name was Albéric Magnard. These authors mentioned a great many other composers, equally forgotten, but Magnard immediately interested me because that described a character. Ah, this is a man who has a temperament, a personality unlike everyone else. What kind of music might he have written? I tried to get information: nothing! Not a recording; not a score for sale; in short: total darkness! He was forgotten.
And then came the decisive turning point in 1960. That year I was beginning my career as a critic at Armand Panigel’s now-defunct Revue du disque. One day I showed up at Armand Panigel’s office, which at that time was on Rue Lafayette, at the corner of Rue de Châteaudun, and coming into his office, I spotted a whole pile of scores on the floor. ‘What’s all that?’ ‘Oh, that. We emptied a flat... that’s all going in the dustbin.’ ‘May I have a look?’ I fell upon some fifteen scores by Albéric Magnard, with dedications to Paul Dukas, Paul Poujaud and others... Well, finally! ‘May I take them?’ ‘With pleasure! Get rid of them for us!’ That very evening, back in my small student room, I set about sight reading this music; I spent the whole night and the next day on it. A fascinating discovery! That’s how I discovered Magnard: by the greatest chance of an attic that was being emptied!


ST: Fantastic!
HH: So I told myself: something must be done. At the time, no one knew, and it was thanks to those scores that were no longer to be found for sale that I was able to know his music. During the first years that followed, I was able to speak about him, and that was all. Then there was the centenary of his birth in 1865, a year after that of his friend Guy Ropartz. In 1965 I was able to do a first thing: I recorded a disc for a small Belgian label called Alpha.


ST: Which work?
HH: The Sonata for Violin and Piano, coupled with what one might guess: Ropartz’s Third Sonata. Two world premieres on the disc! That was the first kick-off. Three years later, in 1968, Ernest Ansermet recorded his last disc—he died the following year. It was the Third Symphony, which he had conducted regularly throughout his career; he was one of the very few. And that disc was released by Decca. That is pre-history because, for a very long time, those were the two sole Magnard discs to be found on the market.
If that was pre-history, history began in 1984. That year, the first element of the complete symphonies, the first, by Michel Plasson and the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse, on La Voix de son Maître-EMI. It wasthe Fourth Symphony. Between 1984 and 1987 Michel Plasson completed the symphonic cycle, and, at the same time, my late friend Samuel Muller was making the first complete chamber music recording for Accord.


ST: One complete recording every 25 years isn’t exactly overdoing it!
HH: Of course it’s not too much! Two or three years later, at the end of... it must have been in ‘89 or ‘90, I believe, a new international prize was awarded by IRCA for the first complete recording of Guercoeur. In short, every time a new Magnard was released it created a sensation; and with the complete recording of Guercoeur, we had the first quasi-complete recording of Magnard’s music. Only one work was missing: Bérénice, which is still missing to the present day. It is the sole work by Magnard of which there is still no recording on the market; I wonder what they’re waiting for...


•2• ST: What place does Magnard occupy in today’s music? But I’ll also ask the question: What was his place in the musical landscape — I don’t mean international, but French — of the time?
HH: Before the 1960s, nothing...


ST: No, no: during his lifetime?
HH: Ah, during his lifetime? During his lifetime, he had a limited, but real, reputation: he was appreciated by his colleagues and friends, but not by the general public because he was not played very much.


ST: Can he be considered as belonging, to a greater or lesser degree, to ‘Franck’s gang’?
HH: No, not really. Collateral! He was a student of d’Indy’s, not Franck’s. At the time, in the late 1880s, he could have chosen César Franck but he preferred d’Indy, because d’Indy — it’s strange to say this today —, d’Indy was more modern than Franck.


ST: At the time, d’Indy was considered the leader in new music. In particular, Le Chant de la cloche was considered by all the young musicians of the time as the emblem...
HH: And d’Indy had an asset that Franck didn’t have: he was a great master of the orchestra, and Albéric Magnard was keen on learning orchestral writing. That, Franck could not have brought him. Franck was a hopeless orchestrator: it simply wasn’t his speciality. Moreover, there’s hardly any relation between Magnard’s musical style and Franck’s.


ST: No, but can he nonetheless be compared, somehow, to a Ropartz?
HH: A bit... Personally, I’d say for me, Magnard is an important link... When you listen to his symphonies, it’s midway between Ernest Chausson’s sole symphony and the future symphonies of Albert Roussel. And Roussel who also, indirectly, stems from the Franckist school. He, too, was with d’Indy and even taught at the Schola [Cantorum]. And Magnard’s last works suggest that, had he lived, he would have evolved a bit like Roussel. There are things in his music that anticipate the Roussel of the Thirties. In particular, what differentiates him totally from the Franckists is a verve, a rhythmic energy. There’s a certain roughness, a certain harshness. He wasn’t afraid of dissonance.


ST: Were all of Magnard’s works at that time badly off in the same way in relation to the public?
HH: Oh, not at all. There were two that imposed themselves during his lifetime and were frequently played. One is the Violin Sonata, dedicated to Eugène Ysaÿe, who gave the first performance and who, strangely, never played it again... But it was taken up by others. And then the famous Third Symphony, which was played not only in France but elsewhere. Magnard conducted it himself in Berlin, at Busoni’s invitation, in 1906. On the other hand, works like the String Quartet had a great deal of trouble, and it is still difficult today for performers. You can imagine that it was completely beyond the capacities of musicians of the time. The String Quartet was played once or twice, and we can’t imagine in what conditions. Even today, it is so difficult, but... it’s a work that has taken time to impose itself. Even now it is somewhat frightening...


ST: Precisely, what is Magnard’s place in history today, in musical advancement?
HH: Well, it’s fairly curious, because Magnard shares the fate of a whole host of composers, French in particular, who are now fairly well represented on disc, and we wish concerts reflected the recording situation, which is not the case. We now find three complete recordings of the symphonies. The most recorded work is perhaps the Sonata for Cello and Piano, maybe because it’s shorter than the others, and then it’s more direct, more accessible, and, in any case, it is very beautiful. It’s his last chamber work, his next-to-last work before the Fourth Symphony... But, on the other hand, in concert, it remains rare. And I know other composers who are in this same situation: every time that, by chance, we have the good fortune to hear a work in concert, people say: ‘Ah, how good it is! How is it that it is never played?’ And the next day it’s forgotten until the next temporary resurrection.

•3• ST: We have talked at length about Magnard’s music in general. There is something surprising when you look at his catalogue, it’s not that I would say it’s limited, but it is clearly delimited, i.e., there are not lots of little, inconsequential pieces such as are to be found in other composers of the period, whether it be Ropartz, Pierné or others...
HH: There are very few...


ST: There are things quite delimited...
HH: Four large symphonies, five large chamber works, three operas... It’s limited.


ST: It’s delimited and limited...
HH: He knew what he wanted.


ST: Let’s talk specifically about his chamber music...
HH: Moreover, when you look at his evolution, the unfolding of his career as a composer, it is of an extraordinary regularity. I calculated the statistic: how much time did he spend writing a symphony or a large chamber work? It was always, give or take a week, the same duration; and even the operas: the two major operas took him the same amount of time. And so he knew very well what he was doing. It was a schedule — if we might say so — totally concerted. Moreover, the big chamber works, there are five of them... Strangely, it is the genre that he tackled last. When he wrote his String Quartet, at the height of his maturity, his correspondence with his friend
Ropartz reveals that he was scared stiff! Whereas when, at 25, he threw himself flat out into a first symphony, that didn’t frighten him at all.
Magnard approached chamber music a bit tangentially, with a quintet for piano and winds. There, it wasn’t a violin sonata, it wasn’t a piano trio, it wasn’t a quartet; he wasn’t afraid of Beethoven’s
shade. Because music for winds was... First of all, it was rare in the 19th century; it was more frequent in the 18th, and in the 19th century, it was rather secondary, a genre verging on the divertissement... It is his Opus 8, this first chamber work, which, of his chamber music is the only one that can still be described as a youthful work; it was the end. He had written two symphonies and an opera in particular before tackling chamber music, and the real breakthrough in Magnard’s chamber music is the Violin Sonata, a work from 1901, when he was 36. In the interval, he still had another symphony and the immense opera Guercoeur, which was followed directly by the Violin Sonata. It was around this time that he began to regularly write chamber music, generally in alternation with orchestral works. In the same way that the Violin Sonata followed Guercoeur, so did the Cello Sonata follow Bérénice: each time a chamber work after a grand opera. And, writing to Ropartz upon the completion of Guercoeur, he said ‘Phew! Finished with Guercoeur, I was fed up to the back teeth with it. Now I’m going to cross swords with a sonata for violin and piano.’