Les Six... And the Rest (Part 2)
Last month I wrote about Les Six, and their immense contribution to French music between the two world wars. But unfortunately, their talent for publicity meant that they often overshadowed other, equally worthy, composers. In 1921, when the group was at the height of its celebrity, Camille Saint-Saëns (b. 1835) died in Algiers and Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), who was by now profoundly deaf and just three years away from his own death, produced his final works for solo piano. Both the dark and foreboding thirteenth Nocturne, and the austere and questioning thirteenth Barcarolle, make Les Six's efforts at the piano sound like good-natured pleasantries.
It was Le Tombeau de Couperin that concluded the solo works of Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), though the piano did re-emerge some years later in the Concerto in G and Concerto for the Left Hand. Not surprisingly, given his supreme command of the keyboard and superb powers of orchestration, they are now considered to be two of the greatest twentieth century concertos. Ravel died in 1937, as did Albert Roussel (1869-1937). In truth, Roussel was at his best when writing for orchestra (consider, for example, the ballet Bacchus et Ariane, or his mature third Symphony), but his last work for the piano, the 1933 Trois Pièces, is typical of his piano music.
Gabriel Pierné (b. 1863) also died in 1937, something of an annus horribilis for French music. He composed the sumptuous ballet Cydalise et le Chèvre-pied and, as a conductor, is remembered for championing his players. His piano masterpiece is undoubtedly the extraordinary Variations in C minor, and his Trois Pièces are also a significant achievement. He wrote an excellent concerto too, with an unusual sequence of movements that match Saint-Saëns' Second Piano Concerto. The first has an extended exposition preceded by an imposing introduction, while the scherzando second movement is followed a brilliant rondo which makes liberal use of previous material.
Pierné's Six Pièces, while not quite in the same league as the Trois Pièces, are also very fine. The prelude pays homage to Paul Dukas (1865-1935), the obsessively perfectionist composer of the symphonic poem L'apprenti sorcier. Dukas produced a truly wonderful piano sonata in 1901, a dauntingly virtuosic work which, on account of its vast dimensions and enormous intellectual demands, has never entered the mainstream repertoire. At forty-five minutes it represents over half of the total duration of his piano output, and he clearly relished using a form that invited inevitable comparison with Beethoven and was conspicuously avoided by his contemporaries.
It is a sumptuous work in the tradition of César Franck's Prelude, Chorale & Fugue, which, in many ways, it resembles. This is particularly evident in the spacious first movement, written in a carefully blurred sonata form. The slow second movement is based on a deliberately simple hymn-like melody, which keeps recurring in different elaborations. The third movement is a scherzo in ternary form, the central section being a fugue, while the slow finale represents Dukas at his most Lisztian. It opens with a series of chords, followed by a vanishing melody. Gradually a forceful minor theme takes shape, which is eventually followed by a new and noble major theme.
The Variations, Interlude et Finale on a theme of Rameau, written in 1903, is another work of superb quality. Dukas was involved with the revised edition of Rameau's complete works, which resulted in this set of variations on the short harpsichord piece Le lardon. It, too, is reminiscent of Franck, although Dukas' musical language was by now rather more advanced. Rameau's piece appears verbatim at the opening, creating a stylistic clash with what follows that prompted Debussy to observe that he preferred his Dukas without Rameau! The theme is followed by eleven brief variations of contrasting character, into which the theme often disappears without a trace.
Dukas produced nothing more for the piano until 1920, the year of the miniature Plainte, au loin, du faune, but he did contribute to Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy (alongside Ravel, Roussel, Béla Bartók, Manuel de Falla, Eugène Goosens, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Erik Satie and Igor Stravinsky). Dukas' effort is an intensely elegiac piece, full of deep resonances. Over an obstinate background pulsation, the chromatic theme creates a positively anguished mood in which a repeated quotation from Debussy's Prélude à L'après-midi d'un faune speaks of unrelenting grief. The intensity grows and subsides in turn, with neither resolution nor resignation.
Charles Tournemire (1870-1939) is now more readily associated with the organ, which might perhaps explain the shameful neglect of such inspired and beautifully written piano music as the twelve Préludes-Poèms. Another composer more closely associated with the organ is Jehan Alain (1911-1940), who was killed in action aged just twenty-nine. Alain showed considerable promise in his short life, and composed some fine works for choir. His piano music, while not as important as his organ compositions, contains moments of intense poetry, particularly the Suite monodique, Il pleuvra toute la journée and Dans le rêve laissé par la Ballade des pendus.
War and Pieces
This rather long title roughly translates as 'After the Dream left by Villon's Ballad of the Hanged Man', after a poem by the thief and vagabond François Villon (c. 1431-1463). It is commonly acknowledged, though rather less clearly established, that Villon wrote it in prison as he awaited his execution following a brawl in which a pontifical notary had been wounded. The dead man speaks to the living in the poem, surrounded by his fellow hanged men (who are depicted as eternally dangling and turning in the wind). Alain portrays this with an undulating accompaniment and a cantus firmus based on the tonally ambiguous whole tone scale, to suitably unsettling effect!
The career of Pierre-Octave Ferroud (1900-1936) was also cut tragically short, when he was killed in a car crash in 1936. But he left us with a number of exciting works for the piano, including the Trois Études, Types and the Sonatine in C sharp. Luckily, many French composers who were active between the wars did live to enjoy long careers once hostilities had ended. They were often friends, students and admirers of Les Six, the most notable, perhaps, being Florent Schmitt (1870-1958). With the exception of opera, Schmitt composed in most of the major musical forms. His piano works include Nuits romains, Trois Dansel and the ten short preludes that make up Soirs.
Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) was active as a writer and lecturer in Paris in the first half of the twentieth century, and a prominent figure on the French music scene. Until now he has primarily been remembered as a teacher rather than as a composer, but, thanks to new recordings and publications, and the efforts of his family and devotees, audiences are at last beginning to discover the delights of his vast and varied output. His increasing acceptance as an important composer of great vision and originality is long overdue, not least amongst pianists. He wrote a number of very fine pieces for our instrument, including Les heures persanes and Paysages et marines.
Koechlin was independently wealthy, and often accused of living in an ivory tower. But he did not escape the horrors of the First World War, when he worked as an ambulance driver (alongside his wife, Suzanne, who was a nurse). His best writing for the piano is found in the twelve Pastorales that he wrote between 1916 and 1920, not that you would guess given their radiant innocence. Anything approaching the obvious appeal of an operatic melody would jar horribly in such a refined context, but his melodies are beautiful nevertheless. Most of the movements are brief, with several less than a minute in length. The longest movement, the final Allegro, lasts just over two minutes.
Louis Aubert (1877-1968) was a child prodigy, entering the Paris Conservatoire at the age of ten. It was there that he met Ravel, and the two became lifelong friends. Much of his mature music was influenced by Ravel, although from 1945 onwards, as he approached the end of his career, his harmonic language became darker and more exploratory. He composed his last music around 1960, and died in obscurity at the age of ninety. For such a gifted pianist, his production is disappointingly small. The operatic fairytale La Forêt bleu is his most important contribution, along with the beautiful suite Sillages, which I think embodies the best qualities of his mature music.
Another child prodigy who entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of ten was Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947). He is often thought of as a French composer, the product of an effective Parisian musical education coupled with the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the capital. In fact he was born in Venezuela, but this has never deterred the notion (not even among the nationalistic French, as he made Paris his home for almost his entire life). Today, as in his lifetime, he is chiefly known for his vocal works, which range from serious opera to solo songs. He did leave one significant piano work though, a set of fifty-three 'poems' entitled Le Rossignol Éperdu(The Bewildered Nightingale).
Perhaps the most unusual musical path was that taken by Jean Wiéner (1896-1982), a student of Darius Milhaud and one of the earliest proponents of French jazz. Wiéner played the piano at the Gaya bar, which was frequented by Cocteau and Les Six, and he was soon drawn into their circle. He went on to play at Le Boeuf sur le Toit, where a chance encounter with Clément Doucet in 1924 led him to abandon the avant-garde and throw himself headlong into popular music. They performed over two thousand concerts together, and produced more than a hundred recordings of jazz, blues and classical music. Wiéner also worked with the singer and dancer Josephine Baker.
In post-war France, the powerful proponents of serialism tended to disparage composers who had been at their peak during the 1920s and 1930s. But the musical roots of the titans of modern French music, composers such as Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), Henri Dutilleux (b. 1916) and Pierre Boulez (b. 1925), lie in the interwar era. Together, they preserved the legacies of Ravel and his contemporaries while producing works in a style that was always distinctly their own. Happily, the diverse music of this colourful period is now being rediscovered by artists, promoters, record companies and audiences. I do hope you will join them in celebrating its wonderful legacy.