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Genre – The Symphony in 19th-century France

Although a large number of symphonies were written by an equally large number of composers in 19th-century France, this output remains relatively unknown. At the turn of the century, Gossec, Guénin, Leduc or Pleyel composed symphonies which were not necessarily inspired by Haydn. After that, composers who, until 1850, may have done little but “imitate” the Beethovenian symphony, soon began introducing new sounds: Méhul, Onslow, Reber and David all deserve mention. There is no doubt, however, that the classical model endured in works by Gouvy, Bizet and Gounod, whereas, with Godard, the French symphony openly looked towards Schumann, at least when it was not becoming more descriptive in style. The advent of the programme symphony by Berlioz, fostered by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphonyand spinoffs of it (such as the “ode-symphonie” by Félicien David), cast a shadow over the symphony as “pure” music, developed by Saint-Saëns, Franck and Lalo. This latter type of symphony, however, overtook the models established by new developments in form and orchestral writing, the ultimate model probably being Saint-Saëns’Organ Symphony. Influences became ever richer, ranging from opera, in the mid-19th century, to folklore with d’Indy and his Symphonie cévenole. Works by Magnard, Roussel, Dukas or Ropartz, which reached a compromise between pure music and programme music, were relegated to a position of secondary importance as a result of Debussy’s assertion that the symphonic genre was obsolete. However, the great symphonic tradition was never entirely forgotten owing to works by talented epigones: Dubois, Lacombe, Rabaud and, of course, Chausson’s impressive symphony.