by Mark McGowan
Some lovers of French symphonic music from 1850 to 1920 appreciate the beauty of well-constructed music composed simply for the listener’s enjoyment.
Others prefer those works that express emotions – or is it politics? – through the music.
Either way, NIU’s Brian Hart knows a book that will help both camps better understand the context of the music, the composers and the times.
Hart, an associate professor in the NIU School of Music and its coordinator of history and literature, is a contributor to “The Symphonic Repertoire: The European Symphony from ca. 1800 to ca. 1930: Great Britain, Russia, and France. Volume III. Part B.”
The Indiana University Press published the book, the latest in a five-volume series that comprehensively covers the entire history of the symphony. Hart will serve as editor of the final volume, which is still in planning and will deal with 20th century and American symphonies.
Main author A. Peter Brown, who died in 2003, was a mentor to Hart who asked his former student to author the chapter on France. Hart worked on the chapter from 1995 to 2002 and tweaked and updated it until the November 2007 printing.
“It’s the first time any scholar, including in France, has written a panoramic history of the symphony in France from 1850 to 1920. That’s not a period studied a whole lot, even by French scholars,” Hart says. “Regarding certain composers, I’m the first to do some analytical writing. It’s an under-mined field with a lot of room left for investigation and study.”
Composers during those years in France were widely regarded as second-tier in comparison to the Germans and Italians, he says, but a closer inspection reveals they were creating great works and playing pivotal roles in the political and cultural climate of their times.
Meanwhile, the composers adjusted with evolving perceptions of music from their countrymen. In the earlier part of the era, Hart says, opera was considered a serious pursuit while symphonies were dismissed as “a waste of time.”
Yet after the French suffered defeat by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, composers were challenged to compete musically with the Germans for the sake of national pride.
Two factions emerged: those who composed symphonies for the pleasure of listening and those who composed symphonies to convey a message.
“Nowadays, people are looking at the music on its own merits,” Hart says. “There were some fine composers, but not always well-known.”
Hart pored through old music journals and devoured day-after-performance newspaper reviews, where he discovered the dry wit and wonderful sarcasm of the French intact and the presumed politics of the music occasionally skewered. His research included determining whether each critic knew their topic and what, if any, were their political biases.
When their reviews paused for questions of what a symphony is, and what a symphony should be, Hart delighted. “The most valuable things I found were when the critics digressed,” he says.
He also listened to numerous CDs and looked at the corresponding scores.
Did the composition follow the typical structures of the time? Was there a distinctive treatment of the melody? How was the melody developed and used? Did the orchestration explore all the possibilities of tonal color available from the musicians?
“The French are famous for that,” he says, mentioning the so-called “Organ Symphony” by Camille Saint-Saëns (among the composers who believed that “hearing the beauty of their music should be satisfying itself”) and Vincent d’Indy’s “Symphony on a French Mountain Air,” where the piano plays and develops the main theme.
On the other hand, Hart says, composer Albéric Magnard was known for using a single color in his works.
Magnard was a follower of César Franck, who intended his compositions to prove “more meaningful than evocative.” So were Guy Ropartz, whose “Symphony in E Major” had a message of love, truth and justice that some saw as socialism, and Charles Tournemire, whose mystical works explored man’s search for God and the composer’s own grief over his wife’s death.
Such a wide variety of concepts is rare among one nation and one era of composers, Hart says, and many of the compositions live on today on CD and in live performance. Only five of the works were unavailable on disc when he began the project and all but two had been recorded by the time he finished.
Among those still well known are Bizet’s “Symphony in C Major,” the “Organ Symphony” by Saint-Saëns, Franck’s “Symphony in D Minor,” Ernest Chausson’s “Symphony in Bb Major” and “Symphony in C Major” by Paul Dukas.
There are current music historians who still regard the French composers of 1850 to 1920 as lesser than their German and Italian counterparts, he says, but that has changed greatly in the last decade.
“Scholarship in French music has really come to be seen as equal to scholarship in German music,” says Hart, who came to NIU in 1996. “It’s a good time for a volume like this to appear.”