by Jack Bryce
Carleton College Professor Emeritus
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Germaine Marcelle Tailleferre (Parc-St-Maur, April 19, 1892 – Paris, November 7, 1983) overcame her father’s opposition and entered the Paris Conservatory in 1904. She was a superb young pianist with a prodigious memory. She met Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud in a counterpoint class, and later Eric Satie, who was so impressed with her piece for two pianos, Jeux de plein air, that he called her his musical daughter. When the famous group Les Six was formed in 1919, Tailleferre was the only female member; the others were Auric, Honegger, Milhaud, Louis Durey, and Francis Poulenc. They are famous for their determined stances against the music of Richard Wagner and the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel. Early on Tailleferre was sponsored by the princess Edmond de Polignac, who commissioned a piano concerto in 1923; but her career lagged through difficulties in two marriages, and her resulting financial problems forced her to compose mostly on commission, writing quickly and a bit unevenly. With Paul Valéry as librettist she wrote Cantate du Narcisse in 1938, and then a great deal of film music. She visited the US in 1942-6, thereafter got into opera, and later wrote wind music and music for children.
Tailleferre’s utterly charming Sonate Champêtre or “outdoor sonata” for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and piano, was written in 1972, though not published until 2003. It is dedicated to her colleague and and good friend, the composer Henri Sauget (1901-1989), who had arranged for her to spend a month at the Chateau de Rondon at Olivet, with her granddaughter, cat, and dog. This is an exquisite spot in Brittany on a small tributary of the Loire, where the Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques maintains a retreat house. The piece is in three movements, Allegro Moderato, Andantino, and Allegro vivace, gaiement. The first and second movements use themes from Tailleferre’s earlier comic opera, Il était un petit navire, from 1951.
Jeanne-Louise (Dumont) Farrenc (Paris, May 31, 1804 – Paris, September 15, 1875), composer, pianist, teacher, and scholar, was a remarkable pioneer, being the first woman, indeed the only one in the 19th century, to achieve a full time appointment at the Paris Conservatoire. The descendant of a long line of royal artists, including several women painters, she was the sister of the laureate sculptor Augustin Alexandre Dumont (1801–1844). She began training with Anton Reicha at the Paris Conservatoire in 1819 when she was 15. Two years later, in 1821, she married the flutist and writer Aristide Farrenc (Marseilles, 1794–Paris, 1865), with whom she made several performing tours in France. Her earliest published piano music appeared from 1825 to 1839; two overtures came in 1834 and three symphonies in the 1840’s. But her greatest achievements were in chamber music: two piano quintets in 1839 and 1840, two piano trios in 1844, and from 1848 a greater procession of works including two violin sonatas, a ’cello sonata, two more trios and the sextet for winds and piano. Perhaps her greatest work, the Nonet for winds and strings of 1849, premiered in 1850 with the young but already legendary Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim. She was professor of piano at the Conservatoire from 1842 to her retirement in 1873, and was honored by the Institut de France by being awarded the Chartier Prize for composition in both 1861 and 1869.
Farrenc’s Trio for flute, ’cello, and piano, op. 45, written in 1862, is in four movements. The opening Allegro deciso is indeed decisive and compelling, with principle themes in first the minor and then the major mode. Then comes an Andante movement, the first theme very gentle and lilting, the second darker and more dramatic. The Scherzo has alternating sections of turbulent, virtuoso music in the minor and soothing calm in the major. The Finale: presto goes like the wind, alternating minor and major sections with great drama. It is indeed a great pleasure to hear this superb music from an absurdly neglected composer.
Darius Milhaud (Marseilles, September 4, 1892 – Geneva, June 22, 1974), French composer, grew up in Aix-en-Provence, where his father, an almond dealer, was an excellent amateur pianist, and his Italian mother a fine contralto. Milhaud himself began playing piano duets with his father at the age of three, had a lovely baritone voice, and was an excellent violinist. At the age of ten he began to play 2nd violin in his teacher’s quartet, but soon turned to composition. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire from age 17 to 23. The Milhauds were Jewish, but at age 20 Darius became great friends with Paul Claudel, the fervently Catholic poet, playwright, and diplomat, “the great stroke of luck in my life.” At age 25 he embarked with Claudel, who was appointed ambassador to Brazil in 1917, to travel with the ambassador and translate coded messages; he also organized concerts and lectures for the Red Cross. A year later he went via the West Indies and New York back to Paris, arriving in 1919 in time to share the extraordinary musical culture there in the twenties. He renewed friendships with Koechlin, Honegger, and Poulenc, and made new ones, notably with Satie. He discovered jazz in London in 1920, where the Billy Arnold Jazz Band had just arrived from New York. In Vienna in 1921 he met Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern; he toured the US in 1922 and 1927, and Russia in 1926; he wrote music criticism for the Courrier Musical, and later (1934-37) for the daily paper Le Jour. By 1930 he had established himself as a major composer with the success of his multimedia opera Christophe Colombe (Berlin, 1930). In the thirties he went from triumph to triumph, despite increasing attacks of rheumatoid arthritis which put him permanently in a wheelchair by 1948. Learning that the Nazis had him on their list, he fled to the US in 1940, where he was appointed at Mills College, Oakland; he also taught at the summer music school in Aspen, and from 1948 to 1951 was honorary director of the Musical Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. He was able to return to Paris in 1947, and became professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire; but he lived and worked both in France and the US until 1971, when he retired from Mills College. An enormous number of French and American composers were his students, including jazz pianist Dave Brubeck. He composed to the end of his life, and left no unfinished works; he finished with a wind quintet written in 1975 for the 50th anniversary of his remarkable marriage to his cousin, Madeleine Milhaud. His vast output includes work in every genre of music.
La Cheminée du roi René, Milhaud’s opus 205 from 1939, is his first composition for the standard woodwind quintet of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon. First performed in 1941 at Mills College, it is adapted from his film score for Raymond Bernard’s 1939 Cavalcade d’amour, with the screenplay by Jean Anouilh and Jean Aurenche. René I (1409–1480), was count of Piedmont, Duke of Bar, Lorraine, and Anjou, count of Provence, King of Naples, and King of Jerusalem and Aragon. After an immensely turbulent career he retired to Aix, where he was famous for playing his viol and taking a long walk, or cheminée, in the town. (The much more common meaning of the word, ‘chimney,’ has led to ridiculous commentary on this quintet, which we shall simply ignore, please.) The vividly descriptive movements, lasting only from one to three minutes each, are Cortège (procession), Aubade (song at dawn), Jongleurs (jugglers), La maousinglade (a region of the Aix countryside where Milhaud lived in 1939), Joutes sur l’Arc (jousting on the river Arc), Chasse à Valabre (hunting at Valabre, king René’s hunting lodge at Gardanne), and the haunting conclusion, Madrigal nocturne.
Jean René Désiré Françaix (Le Mans, May 23, 1912 – Paris, September 25, 1997), composer and pianist, won the Florence Gould prize in 1950, and the Grand Prix Arthur Honegger in 1992. His mother was a singer and teacher of singing, and his father director of the Le Mans Conservatoire, a composer, pianist, and musicologist. Maurice Ravel wrote to Françaix’s father, “Among the child’s gifts I observe, above all, the most fruitful an artist can possess, that of curiosity.” As a performer he was a brilliant pianist. As a composer he wrote more than 200 pieces, including operas and other works for the stage and for film; orchestral and chamber works; instrumental solos, choruses and vocal solos; and orchestrations of pieces by French composers. His elegance and wit are boundless, as is his charm.
Françaix’s Trio for Violin, Viola, and Cello (1933), written when he was just 21, is in four movements, Allegretto, Scherzo, Andante, and Rondo. The first, third, and fourth of these are all marked vivo, “lively”; and that is just the right word for this delightful set. The opening Allegretto features a constant pulsating rhythm with melodies that evoke popular music. The Scherzo is a bit more modern sounding, with interesting, sometimes jarring instrumental techniques. The Andante is heartbreakingly lovely, and the concluding Rondo a youthful romp, but with a wistful midsection and a stunning surprise ending.