(2018) AT THE HEART OF THE 20TH CENTURY
“…There is in each of us an interior mirror into which we dare not glance …”
Before and after the War
The works recorded here, with the obvious exception of Philippe Hersant’s solo, were written between 1930 and 1956. Following the CD that Marc and I had dedicated to the memory of the Jewish composer Pavel Haas, murdered by the Nazis, we wanted to delve further into this moment of History and tackle French and Swiss composers who had, naturally, been spared, but who were implicated in this most particular of periods.
Olivier Messiaen, upon his return from Stalag, was appointed professor at the Paris Conservatoire in 1942. Henri Dutilleux was then composing his first works marked by his brother’s captivity and the poetry of the resistant Jean Cassou, alias Jean Noir.
Pierre Sancan won the Rome Prize in 1943 and Frank Martin, who had just signed up with the prestigious Viennese Universal editions in 1940, produced some of his major works during this same period, of which Cinderella (Le Conte de Cendrillon) in 1941. In 1943 in Geneva, he also met the wonderful Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti who was to become a faithful friend and the dedicatee of his Eight Preludes.
Oboe and nostalgia
According to Yvonne Loriod’s recollections, Olivier Messiaen wrote the Conservatoire Competition piece for the 1949 oboe class (unpublished), finally transforming this musical material into L’amour de Piroutcha, fifth melody of his Harawi cycle.
Messiaen only came back to the oboe as solo instrument at the very end of his life, transforming his Vocalise (1935) into the slow movement of his Concert à quatre, upon the suggestion of Heinz Holliger.
Henri Dutilleux also composed his Oboe and Piano Sonata for the Conservatoire competition in 1947. The first two movements are very inspired, of great harmonic beauty and implacable rhythmical construction. A ruthless critique of his own work, Dutilleux did not wish the Finale, less accomplished, to be heard in concert, although it still figures in the reissues of the piece.
La Geôle and Trois Mélodies recall painful family events dating from the two composers’ youth. In the case of the Trois Mélodies (1930) it is the death of Olivier Messiaen’s mother, the poetess Cécile Sauvage (1928). In La Geôle, set to a poem by Jean Cassou (1944), Henri Dutilleux refers to his brother’s captivity. In fact, much later, he reuses a dozen bars of this melody in his magnificent cycle Les correspondances (2009). The idea of adapting these melodies for the oboe d’amore, a baroque instrument revived by Ravel (Bolero) and Debussy (Gigues), was also inspired by Dutilleux’s liking for this rare and nostalgic timbre in the orchestra.
Pierre Sancan also wrote his Sonatine for the Oboe Competition of the Conservatoire, where he had just been appointed piano professor in 1956. He took great inspiration from Henri Dutilleux’s Sonatine for flute, written for the same circumstances in 1943. The slow movement is a total success, recalling Ravel and his Oiseaux Tristes, and making us regret that Sancan gave up composition in favour of his teaching and virtuoso career.
Frank Martin, at the heart of the 20th century
Oldest of the composers on this CD, he is the only one to combine the influence of German Post-Romanticism, French Impressionism and Schoenberg’s dodecaphonism. His instantly recognisable style, marked by a very personal distance, graveness and sense of humour, place him amongst the great composers of his time.
The spiritual aspect of his music undoubtedly brings him close to Olivier Messiaen’s religious inspiration. It was indeed while taking a break from the composition of his Golgotha oratorio that he conceived his Eight Preludes for Piano in 1945.
In fact, the composer’s initial project was to write twelve pieces, each attempting to solve a particular pianistic problem. The first, for instance, calls for a novel use of the pedal, whereas the seventh speculates on the possibilities given by the left hand alone. This unique great cycle dedicated to his instrument was most certainly inspired by the depth of play of Dinu Lipatti, who asked for a two year study period before performing it. Sadly, he died before having had the chance of premiering it in public.
Modality and Modernity, correspondence
When I asked Philippe Hersant to write an oboe solo that was to become Shehnaï (2016), his independence of spirit and his taste for modality and remembrance appeared to me to be undeniably linked with the other pieces and compositions which had already been gathered for this project. His inspiration, issued from the traditional Indian oboe (the Shehnaï), and the strong attraction of the piece around F sharp also coincided with the slow movement of Pierre Sancan’s Sonatine, Olivier Messiaen’s Vocalise or even the polarity of Henri Dutilleux’s La Geôle. The melisma of Frank Martin’s Petite Complainte, full of Cinderella’s sadness at not being allowed to attend the ball, were also in correspondence with the music that we already knew and were about to record.