Alberic Magnard has one of the all-time great deaths in music. After sending his wife and two daughters out of harm’s way, Magnard remained at his estate to guard it from the ever-advancing German army. When they broke into his home, Magnard blasted out of his study chair, rifle in hand, and went at it with the soldiers like Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, killing at least two. Unlike John Wayne, he didn’t survive the part where they fired back and burned his house down with him and his music in it. The only real competition for the most interesting death in music is either Purcell (locked out of his own house after a night out, froze to death on his own doorstep), Webern (shot on his porch during a curfew by an American soldier while trying to smoke a cigar on the sly so as not to wake his grandkids) or Chausson (rode his bike into a brick wall). Two involve the military, but only Magnard’s invokes possible images of Samuel L Jackson, so it probably has to be at the top.
In addition to death in spectacular fashion, Magnard also composed some pretty sweet music, the most notable of which are the four symphonies he composed between 1890 and 1913. Writing in a style that has been referred to as “French Bruckner,” Magnard was one of those French symphonists who wrote with motivic unity and cyclical forms, but unlike many of his contemporaries, he employed traditional four movement structures.
His Third Symphony was composed in 1896, the same year as Bruckner 9, Rachmaninov 1, and Mahler 3. Tough sledding, especially when you didn’t even write the best Symphony no. 3 of 1896 by a composer whose two-syllable surname begins with the “ma” sound. But just because it got lost in the shuffle of two of the thirty greatest things ever written doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy it. 1896 was a big year for Magnard. In addition to his Third, he also got married and got a job teaching counterpoint at the famous Schola Cantorum under d’Indy. Happy times for sure, and what better way to illustrate that positivity than with a symphony in the cheery key of B-flat minor (the same key of other pick-me-ups like the Barber Adagio, Marche Slave, and Shostakovich 13); in this sense (the inability to ever be happy even when things are on a roll), he’s more like Mahler than Bruckner. No matter the circumstances in which it was written, it is an appealing work with some really cool shit in it.
Coolest of all is the chorale upon which the cyclical work is anchored, a mix of mystical Romantic harmonies and gorgeously balanced plainchant that evokes images of things like ancient cathedrals, chivalry, and large fields of dead people killed in the name of the exact same God arguing about stupid details at the end of a giant axe. The movement proper is rigorous and formally tight, hardly surprising for a new teacher, and what it lacks in over-the-top drama it makes up for in atmosphere and cohesion. The movement ends with an austere reprisal of the opening chorale before fading into the ether in a way that would suit Richard Strauss over and over again.
The scherzo is a delight, a musical depiction of everything fun about Medieval Times without the Cornish game hens. The secondary theme achieves the always-difficult-to-pull-off 5/4 time that doesn’t immediately sound like 2+3 or 3+2, and does so with elegance.
The third movement, “Pastorale”, opens with a long English horn solo with stolid string accompaniment, setting the stage for an uneasy duel between the serene (the intense harmonies and subtle string playing) and the menacing (all the interjections from the first movement material) that threatens to rip everything apart. What results is an ultimately satisfying pendulum of tension and release that never really picks one over the other.
The finale is an aggressive and energetic, but the climax is an essentially full statement of the chorale with which the work began with majestic accompaniment. It is really inspired writing, the kind of lush and evocative music that brings forth the chills, the kind of thing you would hear in your head if you just did something really awesome like climb a mountain or have a three-way. The work closes with a flourish, but even it is restrained a bit, not so much exulting as it is swelling with pride.
Give it a listen with this YouTube Playlist: