Étienne-Nicolas Méhul (1763-1817), mention of whose name will most likely be met with a blank stare nowadays, was a hugely respected, influential creative figure in his own time and for several decades thereafter.
References to his achievements crop up with tantalizing frequency in connection with Mendelssohn, who held Méhul’s orchestral music and operas in highest regard and programmed the Symphony No. 1 in G-minor during three of his seasons as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Carl Maria von Weber admitted to drawing on Méhul’s innovations in orchestration and harmony for his own more far-reaching ones. Robert Schumann’s critical writings contain several appreciative entries, while Wagner’s study of Méhul’s opera Joseph in Egypt (1807), with “its noble and simple style” (Wagner), offered guidance for creating what he regarded as his first mature opera, Rienzi (1838).
Méhul’s glory years in his native France arrived with the Revolution. Later, Napoleon Bonaparte would be among his patrons, commissioning several large-scale works, including a score to commemorate at once the supreme leader’s victory at the battle of Marengo (June 1800) and the fall of the Bastille (July 14, 1789), for presentation in the church of Les Invalides. The resultant Chant national du 14 juillet 1800, for multiple choruses, harps, and solo horn, is “in its use of spatially conceived effects… a notable ancestor of Berlioz’s Requiem, written for performance in the same building” (The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians). It might be noted, too, that Méhul was one of the first members of the Légion d’honneur and a founding faculty member of the Paris Conservatoire.
In virtually every biography, there is mention of Méhul as the first important composer in France to be concerned with orchestration, e.g., in his use of the cello in its higher registers (rather than merely supplying the bass line) and the employment of subdivided strings and stopped horn notes. David Charlton, in his Grove article, further observes that “Méhul’s use of harmony… could be striking and original… In exploring new types of modulation he could sound as headstrong as Beethoven; like Beethoven, too, he sometimes had recourse to loud dissonances of great power”.
The last symphonies of Mozart, above all the work in G minor, K. 550, provide a launching pad for Méhul’s five symphonies, of which No. 1, likewise in G minor, is easily the most arresting. And there can be little doubt that Méhul spent time poring over the early works of Beethoven.
Schumann wondered whether Méhul, when writing this symphony, had been listening to Beethoven or the other way around. In the third movement of Méhul’s work, the employment of string pizzicatos (extremely rare in orchestral works of the time) suggests the pizzicatos in the scherzo of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, while the principal subject of Méhul’s Finale recalls inescapably the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth.
The notion of thievery is an interesting one, with underdog-loving conspiracy theorists asserting that that big bully Beethoven was the crook. The theory, however, doesn’t hold water: the two symphonies were written at the very same time, in 1808, and not published until the following year.
Extraordinary coincidence and certain ideas floating in the musical air of the time, ideas most likely invented by neither Méhul nor Beethoven, and plucked out by both are the only tenable, if hardly illuminating, explanations for this fascinating musical mystery.
Herbert Glass, a columnist and critic for the Los Angeles Times from 1971 through 1996, is a frequent contributor to Gramophone and The Strad. He is English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival.
These are the first Los Angeles Philharmonic performances.
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, timpani, and strings.