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ClassicsOnline Home » MEHUL: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2
Étienne-Nicolas Méhul (1763 - 1817)
Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2
Étienne-Nicolas Méhul must be reckoned one of the more important contemporaries of Beethoven, his death at least regretted by the latter, who had in earlier correspondence asked for examples of his work and had been clearly influenced by him in the opera Fidelio. During the course of a busy career in Paris he wrote a large number of stage works, to which his surviving symphonies, a significant achievement in themselves, form a brief postscript.
Méhul was born in Giver in 1763, the son of the chief butler of the Count of Montmorency, who later set himself up in business, like Beethoven's grandfather, as a wine-merchant. He started his musical training, as so many French musicians had, as an organist at the Franciscan convent in Giver, later studying under and becoming assistant to the organist of the Abbey of Lavaidieu in the Ardennes, Wilhelm Hanser, a German musician borrowed from the Premonstratensians of Schussenried by the Abbot.
By 1779 Méhul had moved to Paris, where he took lessons from the Strasbourg composer and harpsichordist Jean-Frédéric Edelmann and may have supported himself as an organist, although there is no direct evidence of this. Certainly in the 1780s he published two volumes of keyboard sonatas, the second in the manner of the period with an optional violin part, and was known as a teacher. It was in 1790 that he won his first success in the theatre with the opéra-comique Euphrosine, which contained one duet that won immediate popularity. In spite of the disturbed political situation of the time, he continued to write a series of works for the theatre, principally opéra-comique, in which he was able to explore new techniques in harmony and orchestration.
The establishment of the Institut National de Musique in 1793, originally an appendage of the National Guard, led to the employment of Méhul on the teaching staff. After the amalgamation with Gossec's École Royale de Chant this became, in 1795, the Conservatoire, an institution briefly suppressed under the Bourbon restoration but re-established in 1816. Méhul's employment in the new institute involved him more directly in politics and in the provision of music for the republic such as the Hymne à la raison of 1793 and a subsequent series of choral works and songs designed in one way or another to celebrate the revolution and its Napoleonic consequences. One such composition, the Chant national du 14 Juillet 1800, was commissioned by Napoleon after the battle of Marengo, and in scale prefigures the Requiem that Berlioz was to write in 1837 for performances in the same building, Les Invalides.
Méhul's work for the theatre was to contribute with varying success as taste veered towards the Italian. His biblical Opéra of 1807, Joseph, was to remain in the repertoire throughout the nineteenth century. Les Amazones, four years later, was a failure at the Opéra, while La journée aux aventures of 1816 again succeeded at the Opéra-Comique. Méhul, like his contemporary and rival Le Sueur, who was to relate to his pupil Berlioz tales of the former's enmity, helped to extend the subject matter of opera. He was responsible for adventurous changes in orchestration and may be regarded as a pioneer in the use of the Leitmotif.
The operatic overtures are evidence of Méhul's ability in handling symphonic form and purely orchestral work. The first three of the five numbered symphonies appeared in 1809, followed by a fourth and fifth the next year, the last incomplete and unperformed. The influence of Haydn is apparent in the first and second symphonies. Symphony No. 1 in G minor opens in fine French style with splendidly dramatic contrast between first and second subjects. The slow movement is an Andante in free variation form, followed by a plucked string Minuet and a Trio that has been compared to a German Laendler, with an exciting Finale, in which Schumann detected similarities with the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Mendelssohn's admiration for the work suggests the possibility of influence on that composer.
Symphony No. 2 in D major starts with a slow introduction that may remind a listener again of Beethoven. The Allegro unfolds with a second subject clearly derived from the first. The slow movement is a B minor Andante, with contrapuntal touches that belie the accusations sometimes levelled at the composer. The use of the timpani in the final movement has again been compared to Beethoven's use of the instrument in his Violin Concerto. It opens with drum and double bass providing an ostinato from which the principal theme is derived to form a model conclusion to a work that looks back to Haydn and forward to a new age.
The Rhenish Philharmonic Orchestra
The Rhenish Philharmonic Orchestra was established in 1945 as the symphony orchestra of Radio Coblenz, and the following year became the orchestra of the newly re-opened Coblenz Opéra. In 1973 it became the official orchestra of the State of Rhineland-Palatinate. The orchestra has undertaken a number of tours in Germany, to Salzburg, and to Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland. There have been frequent appearances on radio and television. Musicians who have worked with the Rhenish Philharmonic Orchestra include Aram Khatchaturian, Eugene Jochum, Günther Wand, Carlo Zecchi, Wilkomirska and Alexis Weissenberg.
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MEHUL: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2