Alberic Magnard: The French Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler or something else?

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday, 23 October 2012 | 10:14:00 pm

Magnard, for those that know him (and for some unknown reason that is too few) he has been called all of the above - or in the case of Mahler, a composer who at least "predicted" him. A Frenchman (son of François Magnard, a bestselling author and editor of Le Figaro) who fell in love with Wagner after a visit to Bayreuth (which caused him to give up law to study music). He studied four years with Vincent d'Indy, began to lose his hearing in his latter years and died having been burned to death alone in his house after shooting and killing two German soldiers during WW1. Magnard, a composer of a "Wagnerian" opera that ends not in redemption but failure and the knowledge that humanity can only be "redeemed" as whole - and only once they all truly seek it.

There is so much one might say about Magnard (and the curious reader can find out more by following the links below) But why not listen to some of his music below and decide whether he is worth pursuing? Although, we do include below a review from Gramophone written in 1988 examining his only recorded opera: GUERCOEUR.

Gramophone 1988

MAGNARD. GUERCOEUR. José van Dam (bassbar) Guercoeur; Hildegard Behrens (sop) Truth; Nadine Denize (mez) Giselle; Gary Lakes (ten) Heurtal; Anne Salvan (mez) Goodness; Michéle Lagrange (sop) Beauty; Natha- lie Stutzmann (contr) Suffering; Hélène Joe- soud (mez) Shade of a Woman; Isabelle Manent (sop) Shade of a Girl; Jean-Luc Viala (ten) Shade of a Poet; Orfeón Donostiarra; Toulouse Capitole Orchestra/ Michel Plas- son. EMI (tJ (13 CDS7 49193-8 (three discs, nas: 183 minutes). Notes, text and translation included. Recorded in association with the French Ministry of Culture.

Though it remains true that Magnard is little known even in his native France, let alone here, the present issue should change the situation by bringing out not merely an impressive major work of his, written to his own prose libretto, but one which throws light on the man himself, closely reflecting his personal thoughts and beliefs. He was a withdrawn, austere misanthrope, pitilessly realistic about humanity, which emerges from these pages with little credit. The action—in effect confined to the second of the three acts—takes place in an unspecified town in the Middle Ages, though the parallel with events and attitudes of recent times is striking, all the more so because the opera was written as long ago as 1900. (The orchestral score of the outer acts was destroyed in 1914 when the Germans killed Magnard and set fire to his mansion after he had shot two of their calvary: his friend Guy Ropartz reconstructed the work from the vocal score, and it was finally produced at the Paris Opéra only in 1931.)

The noble hero Guercoeur, who had freed his people from tyranny, has died and is in heaven, but is discontent at having been snatched from life; he pleads with the Supreme Being (a female personification of Truth) to be allowed to return to earth, and on the intercession of Goodness and Beauty she agrees to let him descend to the "world of illusions", with the stipulation that Suffering, which had played no part in his life, should accompany him so that he may be humbled and purified. In Act 2 he finds that his former disciple and friend Heurtal has become the lover of his wife Giselle, who had sworn to be faithful to him alone until death. Heartbroken, he yet forgives her, but is appalled to discover that Heurtal is now cynically bent on seizing power for himself and that the people, unable to make a success of a free society, are clamouring for a return to dictatorship. Guercoeur's appeals to them are in vain: they turn on him and kill him in mob fury. Betrayed both in love and in his faith in humanity, he returns to Heaven penitent (Act 3), with the bitter realization that all is vanity. Truth looks forward to the day when mankind will at last learn reason and love freedom.

All this is couched in a strong and sinewy but richly lyrical idiom which often reveals its roots in Magnard's teacher d'lndy and in Wagner, a hearing of whose Tristan had determined him to give up law for music: he himself wrote, about his only other opera, Bérénice, that it was "written in the Wagnerian style.. .which suits my wholly classical tastes and my completely traditional musical culture". It adopts the leitmotiv principle, yet it is music with its own individuality, extremely well wrought dramatically both for voices and for the orchestra, and at times beautiful—especially in the first half of Act 2 and in the ensemble just before the end of the opera—and despite the work's monumental length there are, thanks to its inventiveness, very few longueurs (though from the structural point of view the extensive symphonic interludes between the scenes of Act 2 may have been a miscalculation). It is perhaps significant, remembering Magnard's low opinion of his fellow-men, that the weakest music (often deliberately banal) is that in the crowd scenes.

For More about Magnard and his Work we suggest the following links:

Albéric Magnard (WIKI)