Andrew Deruchie. The French Symphony at the Fin de Siècle: Style, Culture, and the Symphonic Tradition. University of Rochester Press, 2013.

Deruchie studies seven symphonic works, not in order to unveil an essential “Frenchness,” but rather to uncover the individuality and diversity of composers frequently considered aesthetic siblings. He intervenes in the argument by Louise Cuyler, Carl Dalhaus, and Preston Stedman which do not accord French symphonists places alongside Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler. Deruchie proposes that, on the basis of the seven works he considers, one might Mae a case that France momentarily rivaled – or eclipsed – Austria as a center of the symphony (2-3).

He notes how symphonic success relied on an early predecessor, Jules Pasdeloup’s 1852 Société des Jeunes Artistes du Conservatoire and more mature, successful, and active organizations by Édouard Colonne (1873) and Charles Lamaoureux (1881), which premiered d’Indy’s Mountain symphony and Lalo’s.
Deruchie also attributes the rise of the symphony to the enormous cultural capital it produced and to the anxiety of French, following a devastating 1870 loss to the Prussians, to create “more noble and substantial” art (7).

But instead of using politics as the lens through which to view these symphonies, he uses Beethoven: by the 1880s, Beethoven symphonies constituted over 70 percent of symphony programming. Beethoven's “anxiety of influence” influenced fin-de-siecle French symphonists to produce works that retained the salient features that had defined the genre in the music of their forebears [i.e. Beethoven], while somehow satisfying imperatives of progress and making the symphony a vehicle pertinent to their era” (10).

Deruchie argues that they achieved this all by 1) using cyclical form, which is less a unitary compositional procedure and more a marker of stylistic difference and individuality and by 2) responding to a basic narrative design inherited from Beethoven (the ‘Heroic style, or the per aspera ad astra) which began in incipient, unstable, or troubled states and restlessly progress to endings that are emphatically stable and unequivocally affirmative (such as ‘Eroica,’ Fifth, and Ninth). This style had influenced a significant proportion of high-profile nineteenth century symphonies, including Schumann’s Second, Brahms’s Second and Third while symphonies which begin in the minor mode, like Mahler’s Second, Third, Fifth, and Seventh, conclude triumphantly in the major (12). “Republicans" such as Romain Rolland and Julien Tiersot equated this design with “truly revolutionary music . . . in the name of liberté” (13).

Camille Saint-Seans, Third Symphony

Deruchie gives Saint-Saens another “anxiety of influence”: Wagner. After d’Indy and his Wagnerian disciples ceased control of the Société nationale in 1886 and passed a resolution to include foreign music in their repertoire (i.e. Wagner), Saint-Saêns’s fear of Wagnerian hegemony became real. But what better a way to cut the ground from under his adversaries than by pursuing, and perhaps inaugurating a French renaissance of the very genre that, according to Wagner and at least some of his French advocates, had mandated the music drama after exhausting itself with Beethoven?

One way he did this was by transposing his original B-minor draft (which later created comparisons to Schubert’s Unifinished) to C minor and by including cynical thematic design, triumphant major-mode finales, and seamlessly linked movements (it’s actually two movements, officially), which would invite comparison to Beethoven’s Fifth. Saint-Saens derives his symphony’s melodic materials from the 12th measure (the Schubertian sounding measure). Saent-Saens pairs this cyclically thematic design with modern instrumentation (i.e. the organ) as well as a formal structure which he cops from Lizst’s symphonic poems where entire movements come to function as sections of a larger form (i.e. the ’’scherzo’ is really the ‘development’ if you viewed the entire symphony as a single movement). Saint-Saens had employed this technique before, in his Fourth Piano Concerto and his First Violin Sonata, but both lacked the harmonic intrigue of the Third Symphony. Deruchie convincingly compares the Third Symphony to the ad astra model, but argues that Saint-Saens employs “charm” in the finale. Focusing on the soft dynamics written, Deruchie considers measure 340 of the final movement and mm. 336 of the second movement “trompe l’oreille” when the Organ takes over to conjure a new timbre from an eminently familiar one in the double basses.

Cesar Franck Symphony in d Minor

In Paris, between 1900 and 1914, Franck’s symphony was performed at least forty-five times, the second most being Saint-Saens Third (22 times). Deruchie asks what made Franck’s Symphony such an extraordinary crowd pleaser? He responds that unlike his, F-Minor Quintet, or even the more complex d’Indy’s Second and Lalo G-minor, Franck’s Symphony in D Minor employs a whole array of generically conventional gestures and formal markers which make the first movement eminently navigable to modestly experienced listeners despite some schematically unusual features” (58). One of the ways Franck’s symphony is particularly easy to navigate (and one of its criticisms) is due to its excessively square phrasing. However, Deruchie argues that Franck diversifies rhythm, like in the development of the first movement, by varying the grouping structure from phrase to phrase, in other words, by creating staggered entrances and elisions between four-measure groupings.

Deruchie also intervenes in Susan McClary’s assessment of symphonic telos. He argues that McClary’s “reductive scheme to Franck’s Symphony” contains problems. The first theme “hardly expresses idealized heroism,” at least before the finale and cites James Heopokoski’s response that some Nineteenth-century minor-mode symphonic pieces articulate other sorts of stories and Deruchie argues that, in the Franck, the subordinate theme works as a “faith theme,” (i.e. a ‘helper’) and not necessarily as a other and feminence-encoded subordinate theme. He focuses on how Franck treats F and F#, the third scale degree of both D major and minor, and concludes that the subordinate theme often stresses F# to “fix” any syntactic error (such as the main theme assimilating F# in the “wrong key” as Gb). Deruchie concludes that If Saint-Saens employed “charm,” Franck employed “mysticism,” because victory and struggle come off as inappropriate metaphors to describe Franck’s Symphony.

Édouard Lalo, Symphony in G Minor

Deruchie looks at how Lalo borrows material from his unfinished opera, Fiesque, but intervenes in the assumption that his Symphony is not a toss-off it is sometimes made out to be. Like his contemporaries, Lalo employed cyclic procedures (like Steven Huebner noticed he employed in his opera, Le Roi d’Ys) and cultivated a piquant harmonic vocabulary replete with pungent dissonances that would hate struck contemporary French ears as progressive. He composed a relatively short symphony (about 24 minutes) by eschewing normative cadences which meant he could avoid the lengthy postcadential passages that he employed in his opera Le Roi. Likewise, Nineteenth-century development sections tended to comprise a number of discrete formal segments (thematic statements, sequences, contrapuntal passages, lyrical episodes, etc..) of which Lalo incorporated three events in his opening movement. In doing this, he distanced his symphony from the grand scale of Beethoven’s Third, Fifth, and Ninth and by concluding tragically in the minor.

Deruchie attributes this brevity and eschewing of minor-to-major tonal traction as “hackneyed,” but also cleverly attributes it to Lalo’s committed republicanism. In rejecting an ad astra narrative, Lalo provided an alternate narrative structure possibly embraced by Republicanisms and one that was more pessimistic. The popularity of General Georges Boulanger, the reactionary French minister of war (whom Lalo called ‘bug’) had also begun the ominous surge that would nearly lead to a coup d’état in 1889. Deruchie speculates and asks if Lalo’s deformation of Beethoven’s archetypal heroic plot therefore stand in as a cautionary tale or an expression of idealism exhausted, an actualization in musical narrative of Beethoven’s legendary destruction of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony’s dedication, an episode that was as much a part of music-historical lore at the fin-de-siècle as in our day? (118).

Ernest Chausson, Symphony in B-Flat Major

Deruchie argues that Chausson drew upon an extensively franckiste compositional toolbox and saw little need to experiment with the genre’s gross schematic layout. His symphony nevertheless struck a radically new course by incorporating an aesthetic ambience that set it apart from most others. Deruchie calls these ambiances “tristesse” and “resignation” which arise thanks to Chausson’s treatment of the per aspera ad astra narrative, which engages in the compositional produces that underpin the paradigm only to deform them (in James Hepokoski’s sense of the term), which culminates in disengagement and ambivalence instead of tumultuous victory, redemption, and the like. Like Lalo’s “tragic plot” in his G minor symphony, Deruchie speculates that Chausson’s symphony assumes a starkly skeptical posture and suggests a recasting of subjectivity in an age fraught with anxieties over individual autonomy.

The piece begins in a minor mode, suggesting that it may embark upon a Franck- or Beethoven-like pursuit of redemption or victory into major (à la Franck’s Symphony or Beethoven’s Fifth). However, Chausson incorporates a sharp rupture between the recapitulation and the code (1st movement), an abrupt reduction in dynamics, rhythmic activity, tempo, and texture, as well as a non resolution of mixture in order to suggest a disengagement and withdraw from struggle, rather than conquest or victory.

Additionally, a number of nineteenth-century symphonic works (Beethoven’s Eroica and Dvorak’s Ninth) pursue theological thematic processes that see fragmentation become continuity, disparate motives synthesized, affinities between seemingly dissimilar themes revealed, chromaticism exchanged for diatonicism, the minor changed for the major. However, looking at Chausson’s treatment of his cynical themes, Deruchie concludes that he initiates and develops a process of consolidation, a struggle to arrive at synthesis, only to abandon it at the very moment convention would have it arrive at fruition.

The “lazy chord progressions,” undetermined arrivals, unresolved harmonic tensions, and thematic process which point to unification, but yield fragmentation instead, do not suggest compositional failure or incapacity to conform to the genre’s archetypal per aspera ad astra narrative.

Rather, Deruchie connects this tristesse to Symbolist thought which, as an ideology, felt that the disorienting forces of modernity, industrialization, mass consumption, intensifying urbanization, feminist challenges to traditional definitions of gender, fluid and ambiguous class boundaries, and other factors exerted fragmenting effects which influenced Symbolists to retreat from the world.

Vincent d’Indy Mountain Symphony

Deruchie argues that d’Indy felt that secularism, social equality, individualism, had averaged humanity’s soul and plunged the nation into decadence and military failure. The solution would be for music to undergo grassroots reform and turn to the German symphonic tradition to make it happen. The difficulty, however, was that Beethoven, the representative of the Germanic symphony, had also become closely affiliated with liberal humanism that d’Indy detested, thanks to a number of contemporary biographies such as Julien Tiersot and Romain Rolland. Beethoven never intended to traffic liberal-humanist ideas, d’Indy retorted, but like Symphonies like the Third and Ninth were instead hymns to “God’s glory”

He also reframed Beethoven’s “three creative periods” of which the second was a “transition.” By doing this, he could frame the great heroic works like the Eroica, the Fifth Symphony, and Fidelio as stepping stones to the “third period” of reflection of Missa Solemnis and “pure beauty, faith, and love” as opposed to “Republicanism” and “Revolution.” In sum, d’Indy viewed the prevailing image of Beethoven the impassioned individualist and ‘apostle of the Revolution’ as a travesty of the underlying truth, a bad-faith fabrication of writers hoping to further their own political agendas, although perceptive critics like Scott Burnham and Janet Schmalfeldt have later confirmed that liberal-humanist values do seem woven into the fabric of Beethoven’s music.

D’Indy’s Mountain Symphony, then, stands as a response to Beethoven’s subject-affirming formal procedures. Despite the superlatives he lavished on Beethoven, his own symphony rejects some of their most salient features: in short, it uses cyclical motives like the Eroica (which uses the first movement main theme to construct the Scherzo), however d’Indy’s cyclical motives give the impression that the symphony “grows.” Rather, Deruchie argues that it works more as “Theme and Variations” over three movements (in the same large-scale formal work that Saint-Saens employed in the Organ Symphony by making each movement part of a larger scale form).

D’Indy’s variation-based cyclical form critique the Beethoven symphony because static exposition replaces activity and motion; variation involves iteration and aims to ‘renew’ a theme and deepen its appeal without ever altering its significance or substance while “development,” which Burnham notices in the Eroica’s initially unstable theme, for instance encourages change. Additionally, the beginning of the Mountain Symphony, built off a folk tune from the Cévennes, is neither incipient nor fragmentary and so there’s no “problem” or “negative condition” to overcome.

The folk tune from Southeastern France created a sense of enracinement: d’Indy already viewed the Prix de Rome (for being in Rome) disparagingly and wondered why rural regions of France were not better served by famous French composers and pedagogues. Instead of cosmopolitanism, d’Indy took positions advocated by Maurice Barrès and encouraged composers to look to la Terre et les morts.

One way he pursued enracinement was in his orchestration. In contrast to Saint-Saen's Third, the piano plays an active and important role. This prevalence compelled d’Indy to insist that his work was a symphony and in no way as a piano concerto (although the premiere was dedicated to the pianist, Léontine Bordes-Pène). The heroic virtuoso (of a concerto), now in his Symphony, becomes just another anonymous member of the orchestra. While he’s writing a Symphony based on a “folk tune,” his harmonic treatment also did not echo Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Instead, he insists on modern elements of 1886: harmonizing with dominant 11ths and major and minor 6th chords.

Vincent d’Indy Second Symphony

Although the Second Symphony debuted to a resounding success, it has now fell into obscurity and rarely appears on programs or recordings, a consequence Deruchie attributes to d’Indy’s reputation as a hardened conservative – a stance advocated and reified by Jane Fulcher and Brian Hart (although Hart retorts that his own comments are more nuanced than Deruchie claims). However, Deruchie sides with Steven Huebner and Jann Pasler who have tried to unflatten the composer's aesthetics. The Second Symphony provides a good example of d’Indy’s modernist tendencies by integrating the whole-tone scale (a signature of Debussy) into conventional nineteenth-century syntax while sounding a reactionary note against the debussyste tendency to fetishize the sensuous qualities of timbre and color. Contrary to Debussy, who often treats the whole-tone scale as a static sound object, foregrounded a sensuously gratifying harmonic timbre that attenuates diatonic function or causes it to lapse into abeyance, d’Indy employs the collection as a proper dissonance, replete with kinetic energy.

Additionally, he cultivated a predominantly severe orchestral sound, as opposed to the “sensationnisme” of Debussy or Ravel. He incorporated a raspy bass trombone, as opposed to more the mellifluous sound of the tuba, as well as adding a piccolo trumpet, which doubles a piccolo flute, giving a piercing sound. He incorporates thick unisons, unidiomatic instrumental writing (double tongued sixteenth notes over awkward leaps of sevenths and sixths), and unusual voicing to give a acerbic and caustic orchestral tone. . The English horn in the third movement, for instance, sits at the top of its range while the clarinet is in its highest register (F# above staff). Likewise, the first movement recapitulation contains heavy high and low end scoring, with relatively little middle-range.

He eschewed the novel forms of the symphonic poem (i.e. the four-movements-in-one design or two-in-one of Saint Saens and Franck) in favor of more orthodox syntax. At the same time, he disavows the through-composed tonal schemes of Franck, Chausson, and Saint Saens, where material from one movement cycles back into another. But unlike criticisms by Hart, Deruchie does not see the x and y themes of the Symphony as antagonistic dualism, but on the contrary, as a sort of continuity between modernn music and tradition that d’Indy considered morally imperative: part of his enseignement (teaching). The modern “x” (with its tritone outline) and “traditional y” subtly mingle and in his finale, he superimposes them contrapuntally in a grand synthesis that a symphony like Chausson’s negates.

Paul Dukas Symphony in C

Deruchie argues that Dukas’ symphony “stands as a response to what Dukas regarded as Beethoven’s occasionally overbearing individualism” and Dukas sought, in his symphony, to “abnegate the self” and to rein fuse the genre, and music in general, with “classical humanism.” Unlike d’Indy, Dukas saw and respected Beethoven’s attempts to capture pure heroism. But he criticized Beethoven because he felt that his restless quest to express the self had, on occasion, gone too far.

Dukas’ rejection of excess alinesdwith sociologist Emile Durkheim’s work, which claimed that “personalities were made up in great part of loans…ethically obliged to turn their energies back into the social collective.” Deruchie finds that Dukas’ advocacy for highly differentiated musical forms (like Beethoven’s), which themselves instantiate liberal-bourgeois ideals of subjectivity while arising (like Mozart’s) exclusively from the ‘laws governing sonorous architecture,’ collective in their origins, appears a close aesthetic equivalent to the need for synergy, between state systems and institutions on the one hand and individual citizens on the other, that impelled Durkheim’s social theory.”

Deruchie shows that the “excess” Dukas attributed to Beethoven might have been heard in Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. Scott Burnham argues that a heroic style coda typically expresses an extravagant response to the foregoing movement rather than a ’strictly necessary, organically, and structurally inevitable continuation of that which proceeds it.’ The violent and excessive cadences, in the first movement’s recapitualtion, for instance, appear as a deus ex-machina (really deus ex-composer), who enters into the piece and alters its course to save the day.

Dukas’ symphony responds by mimicking Beethoven’s conventions. He begins with a tutti measure, similar to the Third Symphony, and creates a main theme full of anxious character and harmonic instability. However, save for the themes’ transpositions, the recapitulation remains, measure for measure and harmony for harmony, identical to the exposition. Unlike Theodor Adorno, who celebrated the formal rupture and discontinuity of Mahler and Strauss, Dukas thought “to become was to acknowledge the ‘world’s course’ and to negotiate a place in it.” In other words, there are no miraculous breakthroughs, no supererogatory formal swerves, no derailed processes. The movement lacks the ‘anti musical’ elements of discontinuity, rupture, and imbalance in which Dukas heard a surfeit of subjectivity, and to which he traced the decadent condition of contemporary music.”

In stark contrast to the other symphonies Deruchie studies, and essentially an important trend in all fin-de-siècle French symphonies, Dukas did not use standard cyclic techniques. Deruchie attributes this avoidance to the fact that Dukas did not believe that history mandated certain genres or compositional procedures. In this way, his thematic treatment somewhat resembles the Mountain Symphony. However instead of a “theme and variations,” that d’Indy used, Dukas creates an unwinding spool of motives that each build off one another.