During the first quarter of 2020 some beautiful albums of French music from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century by French singers and instrumentalists have been released, highlighting both famous composers such as Fauré and Debussy as well as unknown composers such as Mel Bonis or Augusta Holmès. The four albums I have selected are all great opportunities to (re)discover famous or little-known pages from a period François Porcile called the « Belle Epoque of French music » in his book La Belle Epoque de la musique française: 1871-1944.
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) had a considerable influence on 20th century French music, both as director of the Paris Conservatory, where he taught to Maurice Ravel, George Enescu, Florent Schmitt, Charles Koechlin, Louis Aubert, and Nadia Boulanger, and as a composer, because of the beauty of his harmonic language and his mastery of French melody. A poet of the voice, himself a lover of poetry, Fauré left an immense catalogue of melodies for voice and piano. Baritone Marc Mauillon and pianist Anne Le Bozec have just released a beautiful album devoted to Fauré’s melodies. As they explain in the booklet accompanying the disc: « We have always felt the repertory of Fauré’s melodies to be something completely natural: there is a profound joy in traversing these pages breathing in unison, without any need for speech, as if we were hiking side by side though landscapes contemplated in silence, were words are superfluous… Because the eloquence of Fauré’s music, his sensual union, the extraordinary evolution closely reflected in his choice of poets, are an enchantment. » It is the same profound joy that one feels naturally while listening to this magnificent album, thanks to the lively and poetic interpretation of Mauillon and Le Bozec, which are in perfect unison and are wholeheartedly at the service of Fauré music, sometimes lively, sometimes melancholic, and always elegant and graceful. Mauillon’s clear and distinct diction makes it possible to fully appreciate the beauty of the texts that inspired the French composer, and his as well as Anne Le Bozec’s intelligence and sensitivity shed light on the harmonic richness of his music as well as the evolution of his writing between 1869 and 1922. As one of his biographers, Jean-Michel Nectoux, so aptly wrote, Gabriel Fauré is « the musician who has extended the notion of tonality the furthest; he operate an evolution, rather than a revolution in the harmonic field; without wanting to shut himself up in classical tonality or modality, he forges his own language, of great freedom, instinctively finding in the tonal-modal mixture a paradoxical purity ». (Jean-Michel Nectoux, Fauré, Seuil)
Lili and Nadia Boulanger knew Gabriel Fauré from childhood. Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) was his student at the Paris Conservatory, and had a boundless admiration for the man she considered her « master ». Tenor Cyrille Dubois and pianist Tristan Raës have recently devoted a beautiful album to the vocal works of the two sisters, with an emphasis on the repertoire of Nadia Boulanger, who remained in her sister’s shadow as a composer, but whose work remains inseparable, though different, from that of her sister Lili. In fact, two years after the death of the younger sister in 1918 at the age of 24, Nadia Boulanger voluntarily ended her career as a composer and devoted much energy to defend and propagate Lili’s work. A friend of Stravinsky and Paul Valéry, Nadia Boulanger was such an influential teacher that she was nicknamed « the Queen of Music » by Leonard Bernstein. The list of her students is as long as it is prestigious (Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Pierre Schaeffer, Igor Markevitch, John-Eliot Gardiner, Daniel Barenboim, Dinu Lipatti…). However, if she knew how to spot the talent of others, she was ruthlessly hard on her own work. Indeed, Nadia Boulanger explained to Bruno Monsaingeon, who devoted a beautiful documentary to her, that the reason why she stopped composing was because of her « awareness that [her] music was useless ». The harshness of her words is surprising, for when one listens to the melodies chosen on this album, one can only acknowledge not only her talent, but also a real sensitivity and personal universe, as well as « a propensity for ample lyricisme and for experimentation with harmonic colours and styles of writing, counterbalanced by a striving for economy of resources », as the booklet accompanying the record rightly points out.
In his Portraits of French Musicians, the critic René Dumesnil describes Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) as follows: « Like Mozart, she has, without having lived, this astonishing prescience of life, this depth that experience itself, and the most painful, does not always bring to the most gifted. She expresses herself naturally in a language which, without ever ceasing to be simple, achieves at once to be pathetic and grand. » Lili Boulanger’s musical writing is much darker than her sister’s, harmonically more original and audacious. Although influenced by Fauré and Debussy, her musical language was far removed from the rules learned at the Conservatoire and was very modern for her time, as Alexandra Laederlich analyses in the booklet of a previous album by Cyrille Dubois and Tristan Raës devoted to the musicians of the Great War: « The daring harmonic turns, the chromaticisms, parallel chords, the progressions of fifths and fourths and the frequent absence of thirds are aspects of her modernity. »
Is it necessary to complete a work left unfinished by its creator? This is the delicate question posed by this fine recording of unknown works by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) by the pianist Nicolas Horvàth, thanks in part to the remarkable work of American musicologist Robert Orledge, a great expert of Debussy’s music, who has rediscovered, completed and transcribed unknown works by the French composer, but also thanks to essays written by psychologist Marie-Lise Babonneau, composer Regis Campo, musicologist David Christoffel and philosopher Yannis Constantinidès, whose texts accompany the listener in his or her reflection on the question of the Unfinished. This is in many ways an exciting album because it helps us rediscover the work of a composer who seems familiar to many of us, but whose music still has many secrets to reveal. As Orledge explains in the booklet, Debussy struggled to complete his works, and left many projects unfinished, as for instance L’Histoire de Tristan, an opera he intended to write from the Breton version of the legend of Tristan and Yseult, as Debussy considered that Wagner had distorted the legend. There only remains a letter with a quotation from one of the « 363 themes » intended for his future opera.
Far from the clichés about Debussy’s music, this disc shows the dark side of the composer, whether he was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s very bleak short stories such as The Devil in the Belfry or The Fall of the House of Usher, or by William Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear. Even in the oriental tale No-ja-li or The Palace of Silence, a ballet project from which only sketches remain, a hidden sense of anxiety, the anguish of silence and death, can be heard through this story of a prince withdraw into total silence, who imposes silence on all his servants as well as his wife and threatens to kill those who dare transgress this order. Isn’t silence what fundamentally threatens every musician? As far as I am considred, I think this is the question, more than that of the Unfinished, that this disc, and also more generally Debussy’s music, seems to raise, a music that emanates mysteriously from silence, before, sometimes, fading away in it.
As a recent and very thorough review on the blog Musiques inactuelles points out: « Nicolas Horvath plays on a 1926 Steinway with delicately iridescent resonances that plunges the notes into a very subtle mist, wraps them in a suave softness without altering their clarity, and facilitates bell effects, accentuating the depth, the mystery of all these atmospheres that Debussy likes to weave into the spiritual, yet turbulent, threads of Verlaine and the Symbolist movement. »
Flutist Juliette Hurel, an internationally renowned soloist and the principal flute of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra since 1998, and pianist Hélène Couvert, a former student of Leon Fleischer and a regular guest at major piano festivals, had the fantastic idea of devoting a whole album to pieces for flute and piano composed by little-known composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries such as Mel Bonis, Clémence de Grandval, Augusta Holmès, Cécile Chaminade alongside two works by Lili Boulanger, the only composer present on this album who currently enjoys some recognition and is beginning to be regularly programmed in concert halls and in recordings released in recent years.
Mel Bonis (1858-1937), whose real name was Melanie Bonis, chose the diminutive Mel to hide the fact that she was a female composer, fearing that it would harm the success of her works. As a student at the Paris Conservatory at the same time as Debussy, she studied with César Franck. Unfortunately she was forced by her parents to marry a wealthy, and much older, industrialist, even though she was in love with the poet Amédée Hettich, with whom she would renew contact a few years later and who encouraged her to return to composition, which she had abandoned after her marriage. The story of Mel Bonis is at once deeply sad and terribly common, it is the story of a female artist who, like so many others, suffered from the imprisonment of a patriarchal society that refused to acknowledge women’s voices. Bonis nevertheless, despite all these obstacles, composed more than 200 works, including many chamber pieces, notably several pieces composed for the flute. Hurel and Couvert chose to record the Scherzo (Finale) op. 187, Pièce op. 189 as well as the Flute Sonata in C-sharp minor, Op. 64. As Jean Lacroix writes in Crescendo Magazine, one can only be seduced by this refined sonata, which is ‘full of grace and endearing lightness, alternating bucolic or invigorating moments, and ensuring a beautiful exchange between the flute and the piano ».
Marie-Clémence Reiset, Vicomtesse de Grandval (1830-1907) was initially an amateur musician, although she began composing at the age of twelve. The composer and musicologist François-Joseph Fétis wrote the following comment about her in his 1881 supplement to the Biographie Universelle des Musiciens: ‘She approached all the genres successively, demonstrating in each of them, if not superior genius, at least true talent, a gifted imagination and a productive faculty whose vigour is unquestionable’. She had studied composition with Camille Saint-Saëns, and she was also a renowned singer and chamber musician, ‘in spite of the double handicap of being a woman and an aristocrat, which led to her being labelled a ‘dilettante », as Florence Launay explains in the disc’s booklet. Her Suite for piano and flute was dedicated to Paul Taffanel, a famous flutist of the time, who premiered this work with Camille Saint-Saëns at the piano in 1872. This suite is a charming work, an evidence of Grandval’s talent: « Clémence de Grandval’s qualities are established through this finely chiselled score, with its superb melodies and shimmering colours; it is worthy of some of her teacher’s pages. » (Jean Lacroix)
Augusta Holmès (1847-1903) was determined to become a composer, but being of Irish origin she was denied attending the Paris Conservatory, but fortunately she managed studying composition with César Franck. A musician of great culture, she frequented the Parisian literary circles of her time, into which she was introduced by Catulle Mendès. Thus she was acquainted with the members of the « Nouveau Parnasse Français », whose famed members such as Mallarmé, Leconte de Lisle, or Baudelaire, were admirers of Richard Wagner, whose opera Das Rheingold greatly impressed her. However, in the aftermath of the 1870 French defeat in the French-Prussian war, Augusta Holmes, like many other musicians, including Chausson, Duparc, D’Indy and Franck, rejected Wagner’s music and turned to a more French style. (Source: Association Femmes et musique, Compositrices Françaises au XXe siècle, Éditions Delatour).
Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944) was a child prodigy, who came to the attention of George Bizet, but her father was opposed to her studying at the Conservatory, so she received private composition lessons. Florence Launay recounts in the booklet how Chaminade was quickly noticed in the 1880s for her symphonic and chamber works, but that her career was slowed by « the death of her father and a thwarted romance with a young doctor » which plunged her into a depression from which she suffered throughout her life. The Sérénade aux étoiles, is « light music », « a little jewel of delicate poetry and infinite tenderness, which enchants the listener but leaves us wanting to discover more », as Jean Lacroix wrote in his review of the disc.
Two of Lili Boulanger‘s songs on the album are particularly touching, Nocturne, a piece of great poetry tinged with a certain melancholy, and D’un matin de printemps, a lively and joyful work, akin to some of Debussy’s works. This joyful yet sad work was composed shortly before her death, like a last explosion of energy before plunging into the eternal sleep of death, a work that sounds like a headlong rush against time and the disease that was to prevail.
Links towards the albums: