Today we discuss a composer from the turn of the 19th Century whose four symphonies had until relatively recently fallen off the face of the (musical) Earth. During the Revolutionary Period, Étienne Méhul (1763-1817) was regarded as one of France's most popular and innovative composers of opera, labeled a "Romantic" in the rather early year of 1793. He was responsible for a 1790s golden age for opéras-comique with his then-inescapable historico-mythical stage works. In them, one might be struck by stylistic traits not usually found until the much later works of Richard Wagner (or at least Carl Maria von Weber): jolting modulations, a hefty orchestral role, and a thorough use of "reminiscence motifs" -- themes linked with important ideas that recur at various stages in the work. The commanding stature of his serious operas, along with a steady production of patriotic marches and choruses, led to a friendship with Napoleon himself, who commissioned works from Méhul directly. Though the popularity of his stage works waned somewhat with changes in taste after 1800, they were nonetheless highly praised by a generation of later composers, particularly Berlioz.
Seeking to branch out into new sound worlds, Méhul set about writing a cycle of five symphonies during the Imperial Era, which otherwise boasted no significant new such works from any French composer. Orchestral culture in Paris deemed symphonies the proper province of the Germans, so that while Méhul's plunge into the genre would not have been expressly discouraged, he was swimming against the tide. Completed between 1808 and 1811, these five symphonies received quite positive reviews, but it seems that their place in posterity was damned by the barbs hurled by two influential critics, Cherubini and Fétis. The former dismissed the symphonies as musical "ephemera" while the latter sneered that they were "dry and pretentious" attempts at ersatz Haydn. (Quoted in Schwartz, 1987, 92).
Noting a debt to the Germans is indeed warranted, but the negative assessment is not. Cherubini and Fétis's vituperation seems to have been the determining factor against the dissemination of Méhul's symphonies, overcoming the sporadic revivals of his music in the 19th Century. (Schumann, after Mendelssohn performed the First Symphony, was guardedly impressed). "Stick to opera!", it seems, was the judgment history placed on Méhul. Correspondingly, the idea that there was an influential French symphonist before Berlioz sputtered and languished until very recently.(1)In 1979, while researching Berlioz, musicologist David Charlton discovered to his astonishment the orchestral part manuscripts for the 3rd and 4th symphonies of Méhul, whose full scores had long gone missing (the 5th remains incomplete, possibly never finished). His editorial reconstructions were published in 1982 in a full volume of Méhul symphonies, and a CD recording from Nimbus Records came out seven years later with all four performed by Michel Swierczweski and the Orchestra of the Gulbenkian Foundation. Now, we seem to be witnessing an upswing in the reception of this composer, as tonight (Nov 9, 2010), the world will witness the first British performance ever of Méhul's Fourth Symphony in E Major (1810)! The work will "premier" at a concert with the Orchestra of the Enlightenment, alongside other music of Parisian vintage from Cherubini, Berlioz, and Mozart (Symphony No. 31). An article in the Telegraph by Richard Savill boldly announces to the world the importance of this event: "Lost Étienne Méhul symphony set for London premiere."
While articles trumpeting the arrival of "new" or "discovered" Classical works often are guilty of some sensationalist imprecision, Savill's article rightly points out some of the remarkable features of the Fourth Symphony. Foremost of these is the allegedly prescient use of "cyclic form," usually defined as the integration of thematic ideas across multiple movements. Journalists and musicologists alike salivate at the prospect of locating a "precedent" for some later widespread practice, and Méhul, that consummate weaver of reminiscence motifs, seems like a prime candidate for such. (and, it should be said, attendant reevaluation in history textbooks, all of which I surveyed bear scant or no mention of Méhul at all). Remarkably, the cyclical principle did not become widespread practice until quite far into the 19th Century; symphonic movements even after Berlioz's generally held their movements at arms length, thematically speaking. What has always seemed to me an obvious idea -- perhaps being raised on Dvorak's 9th will do that to you -- took an exceedingly long time to become stylistic norm.(2)
The cyclic linkage in Méhul's Fourth occurs between the 1st Movement's slow introduction and a leg of the 4th spasmodic Allegro theme. Beginning the 1st is a stately harmonic progression that sculpts out E-major in no big hurry.
In the 4th movement, we hear that progression and its melodic outline sped up and decorated by a swift bum-bada-bum-bum rhythm (at the very end of the clip) that courses through the entire movement -- easily the best of the four in my estimation
Certainly a clever incorporation, but not exactly the overthrowing of all symphonic shackles Savill's article makes it out to be. Frankly, I find the more compelling "cyclical" element to be the reuse of an adventurous sequence (for which Méhul had a decided knack) from 1st Movement's first subject. In the 4th movement, it comes fast on the heels of the example above, adding yet more nervous energy. It's a more abstract kind of connection than we're used to in thematic recollections, and it suggests tighter formal control than I think Méhul's critics were willing to grant him. For convenience's sake, I've merged the two instances of the sequence into one example.
There are smaller hints of recall between the two outer movements, but I feel like this connection above all "makes" the boundlessly energetic 4th movement, as if we were hearing 1st on speed. The inner movements don't participate in this game, but have remarkable components as well. The 3rd movement, totally rewritten after some critiques of the original (apparently over-contrapuntal) is a Haydnesque minuet, managing even in its stripped-down veneer to sound arch, even a bit tipsy at moments. The 2nd movement Andante is, to my ears, without precedent in terms of symphonic orchestration, consisting for 58 measures of nothing but an intensely lyrical (aria-like?) cello melody supported by bass pizzicato. And yes, that's the NPR motif appearing briefly in its second sentence (around :52).
One of the greatest pleasures of this symphony is hearing how that initially spare type of orchestration is fleshed out as the movement progresses, as you can begin to hear at the end of the above clip. It is clear why Berlioz would cite Méhul again and again in his instrumentation treatise as a surpassingly sensitive and experimental worker of the orchestra.(3)
We await the U.K. premier of the Fourth -- ultimately it is up to the public to judge whether Méhul's symphonic oeuvre is, like Charlton says, a seismic jolt of unheard masterpieces or just another historical curiosity. To those willing to probe a little beyond the headlines, however, one will discover a wily and resourceful composer, having absorbed everything Haydn through Beethoven could teach at that moment and pushing his own limits as a composer of opera.
2. Early precedents of course exist (Matt brings up Haydn's Symphony No. 31 "Horn Signal" as one of the first, and of course we have Beethoven's 5th, written a little earlier than Méhul's 4th but basically unheard in France for several more decades)
3. Examples culled, of course, from his operas -- I found no evidence that Berlioz ever heard any of Méhul's symphonies.