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  • Robert I. X. Jones

Symphony of the Week VII

Updated: Nov 22, 2023

Théodore Dubois (1837-1924) - Symphony No. 1 (Symphonie Française)


Clément François Théodore Dubois was one of the great also-rans of French music. Read the biography of just about any notable French composer of the late Nineteenth Century - Franck, Massanet, Fauré, Debussy - and his name is likely to pop up, though probably not in a flattering context. A rather hilarious photograph - (licensing restrictions prevent me from reproducing it here) - shows him, in top hat and frock coat, escorting a bowler-hatted Saint-Saens from his train, the pair of them looking the very picture of mightily-bearded Second Empire propriety. For quarter of a century he was a highly respected teacher of harmony and composition at the Paris Conservatoire though, unfortunately, he is best known to posterity for his tumultuous tenure as Director of that institution from 1896 until his enforced early retirement in 1905 over allegations that the prestigious Prix de Rome competition had been repeatedly rigged against the most obviously talented competitor - Maurice Ravel.

The extent to which Dubois himself was involved in this scandal is not clear but from the start his appointment had been controversial. Staunchly resisting pressures to modernize, he restricted the Conservatoire curriculum to the study of music within a narrow temporal band. Interest in Wagner was strongly discouraged, as was any delving into early music aside from Bach. In 1902, he made ludicrous attempts to bar his students from attending the debut performances of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. Ravel was one of those who gleefully ignored him.

Curiously, there appears to have been a disconnect between Dubois, the cultivated artist who actually loved Wagner and Debussy, and Dubois the hidebound pedagogue who considered them a corrupting influence upon the young. Personally he was liberal, institutionally reactionary to an extent where the French government felt compelled to intervene, insisting that his successor as Director, Gabriel Fauré, introduce urgent reforms.

As for his own music, few have ever thrilled to it. His sacred choral works still have some small currency in France, but the bulk of his output languishes largely unperformed. In his book The Great Composers (1988) Harold C. Schonberg dismisses him as "a hack", without citing any specific works in support of this judgement. I approached his three symphonies expecting something pretty uninspiring.

And, I must say, was agreeably surprised.

The symphonies are late works, coming in the wake of Dubois' Conservatoire years and after he had finally conceded defeat in his protracted attempt to succeed as a composer of opera. Though their idiom is not in any way exploratory, they are characterised by solid craftsmanship, notable clarity of orchestration (listen out for the dark chocolate tones of the sarrusophone) and - unexpectedly, perhaps - considerable good-humour. All three follow a similar design with, it must be said, a sense of diminishing returns.

The Second (1911), gets off to the most engaging start, with a stentorian bass theme striding out against shrill repeated triplets in the woodwind and answered by bold fanfares from the trumpets. The effect - bordering ever so slightly on the comic - is strongly reminiscent of the opening of Mussorgsky's Night on a Bare Mountain, but the work as a whole, though amiable, finds nothing else to match it. Even the return of the grand opening theme as a linking device in the Finale feels just a little half-hearted and rather exposes the less-inspired nature of the material surrounding it.

The First seems to me the best sustained of the trio - arguably increasing in appeal as it goes on. Subtitled Symphonie Française, the piece very possibly incorporates references to French folk song that I can't identify, together with one reference I certainly can. It seems Dubois wanted to produce a crowd-pleaser, but this ambition doesn't compromise his technique or taste for a moment. In fact, the First Movement, whose slow introduction and restless, impassioned main theme give it something of the feel of an operatic overture, generates considerable force and intensity. After its severity, the winning Slow Movement offers welcome refreshment. The sweetly artless unaccompanied oboe folk melody with which it starts out is subjected, not to variations, so much as varied repetitions, with occasional choral-like interjections from brass and harp. Half way through, a pastoral motif in the woodwind gently interrupts, before being combined with the folk melody. I suspect that some may finds the overall effect a little cutesy - especially the final appearance of the main melody in octaves on celesta with a halo of harmonics in the high strings, but I think I can live with it if I don't subject myself too often.

The Scherzo, which follows on after a brief transition, also makes prominent use of the celesta amidst the fleet 6/8 chatter of the strings and winds and some joyously uninhibited brass outbursts. Patriotic in the cheeriest sense, the Finale cheekily weaves references to The Marseillaise into its animated texture and just about gets away with it. It's high spirits are unforced and the lyrical string interludes have something of the warmth and expansiveness of Elgar.

Dubois may have been boneheaded and perhaps even dishonourable as an administrator, but this shouldn't blind us to his genuine, if limited, gifts as a composer. There are more profound and inventive symphonies out there, but not that many so straightforwardly entertaining.

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