Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Méhul - Symphony No.1 In G Minor

Étienne Méhul was a French composer at the time of the French Revolution and Napoleon. He was well-known in his time as an opera composer, and some have called him the first romantic composer. Méhul offered up his first symphony around 1809 in France. Critics were divided as to its worth, even the composer himself offered up an explanation:

"I understood all the dangers of my enterprise; I foresaw the cautious welcome that the music-lovers would give my symphonies. I plan to write new ones for next winter and shall try to write them... to accustom the public gradually to think that a Frenchman may follow Haydn and Mozart at a distance."

While audiences and critics of his time were mixed towards his symphonies, the audience and critics were impressed with Méhul's 1st Symphony in G minor when it was played by  the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Felix Mendelssohn in 1838.  Robert Schumann was in the audience and was quite taken with the symphony.

The 1st Symphony is in 4 movements :
I. Allegro - The movement begins in G minor with an agitated theme that is reminiscent of Mozart's initial theme in his 40th Symphony. There is a downward movement that occupies this first theme. The theme proceeds and leads to the second theme which is of a calmer nature. The second theme features something of a reversal in feeling as well as direction as the music move upward.   The development section expounds on fragments of the initial theme. The recapitulation begins, followed by a summing up by a coda of the main theme and the music returns to its downward movement as the music ends.

II. Andante -  A set of variations, music that strolls in contrast to the proceeding dramatics of the first movement. Méhul's theme is a French Chants de Noël (Christmas Carol).

III. Menuet : Allegro moderato -  Pizzicato strings play the theme quietly. The trio is louder and has the strings play with the bow. This movement impressed Schumann considerably. After praising the symphony in general, Schumann writes:

"A remarkable feature too, was the similarity of the scherzo (to the scherzo of Beethoven's 5th Symphony), and in such a striking way that there must have been a remembrance on one side or the other; I am not able to determine on which, since I do not know the year of birth of the Méhul."

As both Beethoven's 5th Symphony and Méhul's 1st Symphony were being composed in 1808, there is no possibility that either composer heard each other's work.

IV. Final : Allegro agitato -  A final movement that again reminds Schumann of Beethoven's 5th, this time the first movement. Méhul builds the movement from a short rhythmic motive with a personalized sense of sonata form. The composer goes far afield with key changes in the development section, the symphony continues in its restless and intense manner until the final chord.

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