I have introduced the composer Joseph Guy Ropartz already to you, so we can go straight to the matter. One of the reasons I like Ropartz is the fact that we are both infatuated with la Bretagne, Brittany. Ah, la Bretagne… a very special place. The wind, the dramatic coastline, the emerald colour of the sea, the crèpes – so many things to love about Brittany. And then there is the music, the Celtic heritage and Ropartz’ composition deeply imbued by this tradition.
Today’s pick is Ropartz’ Symphony No. 1 in A Minor “Sur un choral breton”, inspired by and modelled on a choral from Brittany. It has three movements, and the composer wrote it between 1894 and 1895. He dedicated it to his fellow composer Henri Duparc, a founding member of the Société Nationale de Musique. Duparc has been forgotten by now, but during his lifetime a symphonic poem of the name “Léonore” made him a celebrity. The four verses of the choral are introduced in the first movement, the choral as such is the angular piece of the last movement where it emerges “as from the ancient times when the choral was sung in the Armorican churches”, as a reviewer liked to put it.
Paul Dukas recognized the masterful composition as a highlight of French music at the end of the 19th century and commented: “This work of supreme importance and of high musical value is one of the most interesting we have heard; it needs to be highlighted for its intrinsic value and for the fact that it bears the hallmark of the present generation of composers. Ropartz belongs to those who want to master the difficulties of abstract musical language the most decisively.”
Apparently Ropartz was rarely satisfied by his own compositions. After the premiere however the composer noted that he was rather happy: “The work is much more powerful than I had imagined.” While writing it, he had thought about giving it the title “Sinfonietta” as it did not seem to merit the honour of being labeled a full symphony. In the end he came to the conclusion that he had composed a much more substantial work and that it gave him spiritual comfort.
While researching information about Ropartz and his symphonic works, I stumbled over an interesting observation about how France treated the symphonic genre in the 19th century. The scholar Brigitte François-Sappey explains that the symphony had no chance to blossom in France during the Romantic era while at the same time Paris was freaking out about Beethoven. And she goes on quoting Duparc, the dedicatee of Ropartz’ Symphony No. 1, who noted in 1912: “There wasn’t a symphonic art in France and there couldn’t be one. The young [composers] who would have loved to found such an art […] met a hostile environment and suffered in an incredible way of the lack of ways to express themselves.” Hence the necessity to found an institution like the Société Nationale de Musique.
Ropartz’ Symphony in A Minor has been recorded by the Orchestre Symphonique et Lyrique de Nancy.
© Charles Thibo