During the first half of the twentieth century, many Swiss Romandy composers received parallel training in Germany and then in Paris, maintaining often afterwards, respective ties with both the Latin and German poles of their homeland. This was the case of Frank Martin. For the Genevan Pierre Wissmer, it was France, and this country alone, which would be his home base, in his life as in his creative aesthetics.
Born in Geneva, Pierre Wissmer (1915-1992) studied music at the Conservatory of his native city, before leaving for Paris in 1935. He first worked with Roger-Ducasse, then acquired an authentic professional experience in Daniel-Lesur’s class of counterpoint at the Schola Cantorum. Over the years his style which could be defined as neo-classical, tended to move away from tonality and take on a more introspective language, particularly evidenced by his last symphonies. However, within this evolution, the perfection and refinement of contrapuntal writing and instrumentation are ever present in Wissmer’s art.
Parallel to his career as a composer, the musician took on an important role as a pedagogue, leading him to teach harmony, orchestration and composition at the Schola Cantorum, the Le Mans Conservatory and the Geneva Conservatory of Music. Pierre Wissmer’s production includes all genres–apart from religious music – and willingly adopts classical genres such as the symphony (he will compose nine of them between 1938 and 1989), the concerto (a field he cultivates with delight, the sonata, the trio, the quartet, etc. He is also the author of an outstanding corpus of melodies, ballets, as well as several lyrical works, such as Marion ou la belle au tricorne which was a real success when it was premiered in Paris in 1951.
Already in his early years, Pierre Wissmer distinguished himself thanks to his remarkable talent as an orchestrator and an innate sense of sonic color, attested by his Divertissement sur un choral for chamber orchestra composed at the beginning of 1938 when he was just twenty-two years old. The work is intended for an extremely light formation : the woodwinds by one, a trumpet, the strings without a double bass, a harp, as well as a piano to which he entrusts a quasi-soloist role.
The choir that supports the work is Ce que l’aîno, an old song celebrating the Genevan victory over the Savoyards during the events of the «Escalade», in 1602. In stark contrast to this somewhat austere melody, Wissmer designed a five-movement score full of freshness and invention. If the theme appears in extenso – in an almost hidden manner – only in the second piece, structured as an ornate chorale, it runs through all the melodic material. The composer freely uses modal scales and delightful archaisms; one can also recognize the amusing allusion to the opening of The Magic Flute at the beginning of the fourth movement. More than a third of the work alone, the fifth movement, a real «mini concerto for orchestra», brilliantly highlights the virtuosity of the various sections and finishes the piece most exuberantly.
In the 1950s, the language of Pierre Wissmer gradually changed : its hedonistic character, based on a shimmering harmony, gave way to a more inner expression, in which tonality became less clear and contrapuntal writing took on more and more importance.
The Concerto n° 2 for violin and orchestra falls within this evolution. The Allegro risoluto presents two themes, both from a cell of six notes already present in the orchestral introduction. Although based on the bithematic sonata form, the composer takes the greatest freedom with it. An impressive cadenza follows an abbreviated recapitulation which acts as a coda. Of elegiac character, sung by the solo instrument, a melodic line derived from a series of twelve tones, the Molto moderato evolves in a more and more feverish atmosphere, then regains its initial serenity with the recapitulation of the twelve-tone motif. After the final occurrence of the latter, the piece ends pianissimo, the natural fantasy and the ardor of Wissmer expressing themselves fully in the ending Allegro con spirito. A long introduction precedes the soloist’s opening, exposing a new twelve-tone theme, a unifying element of the mosaic motifs that shape the weft of this movement. If the whole work revolves around a tonal pole of A, the tone of A major asserts itself more clearly in this last piece whose inventiveness and enthusiasm are ever-present until its final chord.
In 1959, Pierre Wissmer was asked by the International Competition of Musical Execution of Geneva to compose the competition piece intended for trumpeters, a Concertino for trumpet and piano. Rather than the traditional diptych Andante-Allegro, common to most competition pieces, Wissmer adopted – as did André Jolivet for his eponymous work – a structure in three brief movements allowing the soloist to show respectively the extent of its sound, its expressive qualities and, finally, in the form of a tarantella, its virtuosity. At the same time as the piano version, the composer created a chamber orchestra version. In its orchestral form, the Concertino for trumpet was premiered in 1961 by Roger Delmotte, one of the great French trumpeters of the 20th century.
Despite the lightness and carefree nature of his presentation – three brief movements inspired by charming places on the Mediterranean coast – the Sonatine-Croisière composed in 1966, evolves in a more abstract expressive universe, with a scarcely noticeable tonal attachment and lines characterized by the irregularities of rhythmic and melodic contours.
The voluble initial movement, Azuréenne, pays tribute to the “joie de vivre” of the French Riviera dear to the musician. It is followed by a Vénitienne, a dreamy barcarolle in which melodic lines of the two instruments intertwine and respond to each other. Capriote, inspired by the famous island of the Gulf of Naples, competes with twirling rhythms expressed in constant meter changes that give the piece a liveliness that only fades with the final chord. The density of the harp part seems to call for an orchestral achievement. Also, Pierre Wissmer was simultaneously writing a concertante version entitled Concertino-Croisière, where the flute dialogues with a string orchestra, regularly reinforced by a piano. The work was first played in this form in 1967 at the Festival of Sanary-sur-Mer; the first movement would then take on the title Sanaryenne, in tribute to the small town on the French Riviera.