Méhul and the Birth of the Nineteenth-Century Symphony

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Méhul's Fourth Symphony in E major (1810) was rediscovered in 1979 by the present author and published for the first time in 1982 in the series 'The Symphony 1720-1840' (New York & London: Pendragon Press). It had been lost to view since the composer's death in 1817. This essay focuses on Méhul's extraordinary use of a motif heard at the outset of the slow introduction and in the initial Allegro, then which recurs in the finale. Example 3 shows the exceptional nine-note harmonic sequence over a Mode 2 (octotonic) scale in the same introduction. The main themes of the work are tightly related. These features anticipate 'cyclic' symphonies of the later Romantic period (Berlioz, Schumann, Franck) but take their cue from the works which Méhul knew. Various meanings assigned by Paris critics, particularly Jérôme-Joseph de Momigny, to Haydn's late symphonies are explored as background. Jean-Jacques Nattiez's model of poietic and esthesic processes forms the basis of the interrogation of evidence relative to Méhul's possible intentions: he reached a position analogous to Beethoven's in his Fifth Symphony, though without necessarily having knowledge of the latter.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationÉchos de France et d'Italie
Subtitle of host publicationLiber amicorum Yves Gérard
EditorsMarie-Claire Mussat, Jean Mongrédien, Jean-Michel Nectoux
Place of PublicationNot given
Number of pages13
ISBN (Print)2283017122
Publication statusPublished - 1997


  • Symphony, Méhul, analysis, recurring themes, cyclic principles, Nattiez, Momigny..

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