View Archieves >>
Étienne Méhul's lost masterpiece to be heard for first time in 200 years

A classical music "missing link" that was lost for 200 years and has hardly been heard since it was written by its pioneering composer, then in the early stages of tuberculosis, will tomorrow night be performed in a London concert hall for the first time.

The name Étienne Méhul is not nearly as well known as say Beethoven or Berlioz, but tomorrow's performance provides an opportunity to pay tribute to a composer who arguably deserves a greater place in 19th-century musical history books.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment will perform Méhul's fourth symphony – and herald it as a long-lost prototype for the 19th-century romantic cyclic symphony, but written 20 years before Berlioz took up the form in his Symphonie Fantastique.

The lost symphony was discovered by David Charlton in 1979 but it has taken a remarkable 31 years for it to be performed at a concert hall in London.

"It is very exciting, I can't wait to hear it," said Charlton who is emeritus professor of music at the University of London, but was a "young hard-up lecturer" when he made the Méhul discovery.

Charlton recalled that he was working on the minor works of Berlioz for a book chapter which led him to the library of the Orchestre de Paris.

It was a busy, working orchestral library – "there were players coming in asking for the second horn part for next Thursday" – and Charlton came across something remarkable: references to Méhul's third and fourth symphonies.

"I nearly fell off my chair. These were works of which all trace had been lost."

There was no score – although, Charlton says: "I think it must be somewhere" – just an enormous pile of orchestral parts which meant Charlton had to, basically, reconstruct the score himself. "It was rather time-consuming, yes," he said.

Finally, as he got towards the end of it, Charlton saw a four-note motif from the first movement returning. "I'll never forget the feeling as it was taking shape under my pen, coming into focus bar by bar, part by part," he said. "I nearly hit the roof when I saw the theme for the first movement returning in the finale. I realised then that this was a prototype of immense importance."

It is the returning theme that is significant. Around the same time Méhul's contemporary Beethoven was, separately, doing a similar thing in his fifth symphony. But while we all know the fifth's recurring ba-ba-ba-baaa, hardly anyone knows Méhul's fourth symphony version – it has been lost to history.

"Both Beethoven and Méhul were moving towards the cyclic idea quite separately," said Charlton.

From there music developed further, with composers deciding that music should be about ideas, however abstract.

Tomorrow night Méhul's Symphony no 4 in E will be performed at a concert hall in London for the very first time since it was premiered at the Paris Conservatoire in 1810.

Charlton said the discovery was an astonishing one that rewrote history books "but unfortunately is hasn't been given the attention it deserves. "That's why this concert is really important as it is a launching pad for this lost French masterpiece which stands at the gateway of French romantic music."

Questions remain as to why the 4th symphony was never published, but Charlton believes it was because Méhul was becoming very ill with tuberculosis and was struggling with his opera, The Amazons, which was subsequently a failure. He may simply have run out of steam.

Although Méhul is not the best known of names today, in his time he was a national hero – the most celebrated of French composers who single-handledly put the French symphony on the musical map.

The OAE will perform using original instruments at Queen Elizabeth Hall tomorrow evening.

Mark Brown