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  • Robert I. X. Jones

Symphony of the Week IX

Updated: Jun 28

Victorin de Joncie`res (1839-1903)

Symphonie Romantique (1873)

"The history of the symphony in France is quickly told, for there are remarkably few notable symphonies by Frenchmen. This is not altogether surprising when one remembers the strong pull towards pictorial music which nearly all the great French composers have felt. The symphonies of Berlioz are really giant tone-poems, while composers such as Fauré ..., Debussy and Ravel have left us no symphonies. Other French composers who did write symphonies were either too heavily influenced by models from across the Rhine or simply lacked the essential qualities for the task. This certainly applies to Chausson, Dukas, Lalo and Saint-Seans, to the young Bizet and, in a lesser degree, to Franck and D'Indy."

Thus Sir John Manduell at the start of his chapter on Albert Roussel in the two-volume Penguin study, The Symphony (1967). And indeed, Roussel is the only French composer - other than Berlioz - that influential symposium sees fit to consider at length. I, on the other hand, have already enthused about Saint-Saens and the much lesser known Dubois, and can promise a near-future appearance by D'Indy. (I'm still pondering Dukas). Where the aim of Manduell and his distinguished co-authors appears to have been a severe policing of the central symphonic canon, rather along the lines F. R. Leavis had attempted for the English novel in The Great Tradition (1948), mine is a catholic, though I hope discriminating, expansion of a canon that has become static and emaciated. Though I yield to no one in my admiration for Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, and Sibelius, I see no need to banish all traces of the pictorial, the colouristic, the formally unorthodox, operatic or balletic from the symphonic enclosure. Even Leavis himself came to see the absurdity of a literary vetting process so rigidly high-minded it could relegate Charles Dickens to secondary status. As Henry James - ironically central to Leavis' pantheon - memorably stated (if with an uncharacteristic tone of hyperbole), "the house of fiction has...not one window, but a million" . Equally, the house of the symphony. Chausson, Lalo, Bizet and Franck all died in the 19th Century, thereby disqualifying themselves from being subject of my more extended musings. In the case of Bizet, I wish it were otherwise, for the First of his two symphonies (both premiered posthumously and both in C major) is a work of sparkling Mozartian perfection. It is not in the least "influenced by models from across the Rhine", so Sir John presumably thought it "simply lacked essential qualities". To which all I can say is, would more mid-Nineteenth Century symphonies were so woefully deficient.

To be fair, Manduell does have a legitimate point about France's symphonic paucity.

Chausson, Lalo and Franck each left a single acknowledged symphony, all notably flawed, but not in identical ways. Franck's much maligned D minor work of 1888 is a piece about which I have never been able to make up my mind. Although the oft made criticisms of un-idiomatic orchestration, ejaculatory form and uninspiring melodic material seem to me not entirely unjustified, a committed performance can be inspiring . And it presumably says something that, despite the disparagement of Manduell and many others, it has doggedly retained its toehold on the fringes of the repertoire. Possibly inspired by Franck, and certainly betraying a marked Wagnerian influence, Ernst Chausson's Bb minor Symphony of 1890 has always struck me as an engagingly expansive first movement, followed by two others of inexplicable gloominess. Like much of that oddly elusive composer's output it carries within itself a tantalising sense of latency. What might he not have achieved had he survived that fateful bicycle accident?

By comparison, Lalo's G minor work of a couple of years earlier - though staunchly championed by Beecham and others - is disappointing stuff indeed and an astonishingly humourless, overblown and even pompous late effusion to have come from the composer of the effervescent Symphonie Espagnol (in actual fact a synthesis of orchestral suite and violin concerto).

These isolated forays by Lalo, Chausson and Franck are actually all demonstrations that, if there was a French "symphony problem" it lay, not in enslavement to foreign models, nor some national psychological addiction to the pictorial, but in economic reality. In France, secular music for salon or concert hall simply did not pay. The Church, by contrast, could offer a musician - especially one who could play the organ - steady remunerative employment, whilst the Opera House held out the enticing prospect of lavish financial reward for any composer lucky enough to have a hit. Several notable French composers - Gounod, Franck, Saint-Saens, Widor, Dubois... - moved between these two worlds, others cultivated one or the other, but few until the age of International Modernism managed to survive independent of either. The result is that France has a vast, distinctive, and perhaps not terribly exportable, tradition of post-Romantic ecclesiastical music (including many "symphonies" composed for organ), together with a substantial, and highly variable, tradition of post-Romantic opera. And very few orchestral symphonies.

This week's offering (a muted return after an absence of almost half a year, for which I apologise) is hardly a work of a greatness and I'm afraid I can only present it in a faded recording without score. I commend it to you, however, as an entertaining example of the spirited professionalism French composers could sometimes bring to efforts outside their preferred metier.

Victorin de Joncieres (absurdley, my Chromebook keyboard denies him the grave accent above his penultimate e!) was essentially a composer of opera, as well as being a noted journalist. He seems to have been something of a malcontent, existing rather uneasily on the fringes of a French artistic establishment that never fully embraced him (he was turned down for membership of the Academie Francaise) and of which he was in turn fiercely critical. In his teens he had shown talent as a painter. Apparently, his change of medium - also entailing a change of name from Felix-Ludger Rosignol - was rooted in disagreement with his peers over the merits of Wagner, though I suspect this meant the Wagner of the early Paris operas, rather than the Wagner of Tristan and the Ring. Of late, there appears to have been a small revival of interest in him, spearheaded by the former Baroque specialist Herve Niquet, whose recording of the Five Act Dimitri - (a de-facto sequel to Boris Godunov, though derived from an incomplete Schiller play that actually pre-dates Pushkin's tragedy and later attracted the attention of Dvorak) - is complete on Spotify. He has also conducted a recent revival of another opera, Lancelot, and certainly performed this symphony, though not - so far as I can tell - issued a commercial recording of it.

One of very few non-theatrical works, the Symphonie Romantique was premiered in 1875 and promptly sank without trace. At 23 minutes, it is decidedly compressed in scale and strongly weighted towards its latter half, its four movements clearly intended to follow on rapidly from each other. The melancholy minor-key exchanges between strings and wind with which it opens lend the first movement a distinctly operatic air - an atmosphere sustained by the restless Allegro that follows. Joncieres' style has a certain quaint theatricality about it, but also a nervy elegance that is agreeably devoid of bombast. The ensuing slow movement wastes no time in revealing its main theme, with its coy cadential repetitions, and again feels as though it could have strayed from the opera pit. Sentimental it may be, but it serves its purpose as an interlude before the unexpectedly rowdy scherzo, with it's bold repeated chords. The model here is clearly Beethoven's 5th, as it is in the Finale, built around a stirring trombone chorale surrounded by vaguely Wagnerian-sounding string scales and boosted by a prominent - almost soloistic - use of the cymbals. A genuine grandeur is achieved here, touched of by a curious crescendo-decrescendo mini-coda that casts an unexpected visionary light upon what has proceeded.

As you may have gathered, I like this piece, without wanting to overstate my enthusiasm. Much about it is naive and much appealingly direct and unapologetic in expression. At least, I find it so. If you find yourself feeling differently, I won't argue too hard. But it won't take up much of your time, is unexpectedly varied and never dull. So do give it a try, and see what you think.

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