Subtitles prepared by human
He was a great personality who collected what came before him and passed it on to the next generation. One must not forget that he lived through two wars. That is bad for one's career or for one's life. There is this video in which he improvises. In it, he is already old, has completely white hair, and is happy like a child: 'Oh, I'm improvising a double fugue!' And he seems satisfied. I think that's great! Although he has experienced these terrible wars, he retains his joy in life. That's beautiful! Before you start, may I ask you in what musical form you are going to improvise? Let me think for a minute, maybe less than a minute ... I'm going to do a double fugue. I admire how you can know that in under a minute. I'll leave you to it now, my dear master.
Marcel Dupré died 50 years ago today on 30 May 1971. He was a composer, song composer, concert organist, church musician, educator, improviser, husband, father and grandfather. I am Tobias Frank and would like to discover Dupré's musical cosmos with you in the coming months. I would like to make you curious about his music and make you familiar with a composer who today is actually only known to organists. Many of Dupré's works are still unpublished. I would like to present some of them to you in this project. They reveal a surprising stylistic range of Dupré. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Alice Szebrat, the composer's granddaughter, who supported me in my research. Dupré digital allows you to discover music, some of which has never been performed before. Interviews with prominent guests and contemporary witnesses uncover surprising facts about the musician and the man, and place Dupré in the context of his time.
This monumental undertaking would not be possible without the support of a number of volunteers. My special thanks go to them, as well as to the sponsors and players whose names stand for Dupré Digital. The best way to get an overview of the complexity of the project is to visit our trilingual website www.dupre-digital.org. Today and in the next episode, we turn our attention to Dupré as an impressionist and choral composer. Dupré came from a household educated in the humanistic arts. There was a bust of Pierre Corneille in his childhood home in Rouen. The German equivalent would probably be a bust of Goethe. His early education and musical talent allowed him to develop a fine intuition to combine language and music. Dupré wrote his Danse orientale in 1913, when he was a student in Charles-Marie Widor's composition class. The next episode will be about what it was like in his class.
The basis for this piece of music, which is unusual in many respects, is the poem Les Bayadères, which is about a temple dancer, a bee and a delicate revelation. Orientalism was very much in vogue in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, especially in France. The idea of the Orient influenced many painters and poets to create romanticised works. Jean Lahors, whose real name was Henri Cazalis, is the author of the text. Many of his libretti were set to music, including by Camille Saint-Saëns in his Danse macabre. I talked about the texts of the choral pieces with Dr. Albert Gier, a professor of Romance languages and literature in Heidelberg. He tells us more about the content of Danse orientale. There are these temple dancers, performing their dance. It so happens that a bee finds her way into the bosom of a dancer.
She gets scared, as such an animal could in fact sting. In an attempt to get rid of the bee, she exposes herself and shows a little more skin than usual. When she realises that it is not dangerous after all, she laughs and thinks it is funny. She calms down and covers her breasts again. Imagining this scene, one can be sure the audience appreciated that. At the time the text was written, Europe was in economic upheaval and life was picking up speed. The pictures that the painters brought back from the Orient conveyed the impression of pleasure and joie de vivre and acted as an antidote to the hectic pace of Europe. The harem and bathhouse scenes conveyed an image of relaxation with a touch of eroticism. The poem Les Bayaderes by Henry Cazalis serves this erotic component in a voyeuristically explicit way. The foot is of particular interest.
A small bell is attached to the ankle: When the ladies dance, their skirts fly up. So the foot – though covered by the shoe – is about the only thing you got to see of the body. At that time, there was a strong tendency towards foot fetishism, which no longer played a role after 1918, because from that point there was enough to see of body parts that might be more interesting. Prof. Denis Rouger knows how such a text can enter the curriculum at the venerable Paris Conservatoire: In France, the Conservatoire was always in opposition. There are 60 million inhabitants and there are, in a sense, 60 million political parties. The Catholic Church was very strong and in the conservatoire you had the chance to write secular music.
Of course you sang the old masters like Palestrina, but you made a lot of secular music as a contrast because you had to make a lot of church music anyway because of the churches. I thought that a text like that would not have gone down so well in Catholic France at the time. However, society seems to have been more open-minded than I suspected: The question is this: Did people have such pictures showing harem scenes with naked odalisques hanging in their living rooms or rather in their work cabinets, where not everyone got to see them? One must not attach too much importance to Catholicism either. There is, for example, the influential literary critic Brunetière, who said quite openly, 'I am not a believer, but I still go to church, because of the social aspect of it.'
'And we must also hold on to the institution of the church because it is also a means of disciplining parts of the proletariat, for example.' He wrote that very openly before 1914. There was a movement in society that wanted more of that. Carmen by Bizet was much earlier, but the eroticism was already a scandal then. And this aspect of the dangerous or forbidden appealed to people. In everyday life, such things were not allowed to happen to you, but being represented in music or in art was fine. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was quite normal. Because he has become an unknown name, people say 'I'm not interested'.
Instead, they prefer to do 'Die Zueignung' by Richard Strauss for the hundred thousandth time, which is a great song, but they also do weaker songs by Richard Strauss just because they are by Richard Strauss. And that's a pity, and that's what happens to a composer like Dupré. I think everyone should get involved in bringing such people back to life, because often the best things by these composers are much, much better than the weakest ones by the famous composers. But they are performed all the time because they are called Beethoven or Strauss. Dupré is far from being considered a forgotten composer. But that is certainly true for parts of his oeuvre. The fact that Dupré's early work is largely unknown is also due to Dupré himself as his main interest from the 1920s onwards was the organ. As a composer and performer, he wanted to make the organ a mainstream instrument. With great success! Thousands filled the concert halls of the world to experience his much-admired virtuosity.
Virtuosity is, after all, quite important. Messiaen said of Dupré that 'he was the Liszt of the organ!' That is a very nice compliment! Dupré himself once described his early works as "youthful misdeeds". But are they really? After all, they were written at a time when his first pieces had already appeared in print and he first attracted attention with his Trois Preludes et Fugues op. 7. Today the aforementioned Opus 7 is one of the composer's most famous works and was considered revolutionary and unplayable at the time due to its completely new technical requirements for the organist. Of course, the choral pieces breathe the spirit of their time but nevertheless pursue a novel approach: One senses that he wants to remain faithful to the traditional school. But nevertheless there is an innovative approach.
His music is very much rooted in the contrapuntal style. The harmonies are very beautiful and reminiscent of Paul Dukas. You can feel that he respects tradition, which makes some things seem a little stiff. But I think this is important for the new generation who want to compose something new. They can use the awareness of the old tradition as a source of inspiration. Once a student came to Olivier Messiaen and said he really wanted to study in his class. Messiaen: 'Do you know the Bach chorales?' Student: 'No.' Messiaen: 'Then I can't do anything for you. Goodbye!' and he sent the guy away immediately.
It was unthinkable for Messiaen to write new music without knowing the old. I think this is the right attitude, that it’s essential to know what came before. We will encounter the theme of counterpoint again and again, for it was also Dupré's aim to fill old forms with new life. But that is another chapter. With La Source, Dupré created a choral piece that was completely different to the character of Danse orientale. In Danse Orientale, Dupré infuses almost every line of text with a different musical drama. La Source, on the other hand, is characterised by a more uniform emotion. Charles Leconte de Lisle, an important representative of the Parnassiens, is the author of the text. The Parnassiens were a group of French poets in the second half of the 19th century. Their works are characterised by formal rigour and emotional distance. Dupré adapts the level of emotion in the music to the text.
The poem is about nature unspoiled by man in which humans play no role. There is a whole series of words and phrases that emphasise this tranquillity: ponderous deer, bees flying around the oaks, fauns sleeping under the canopy of leaves. By the way, you can find the whole poem, as well as the German and English translation, on our website. It is a scene without any movement. An image of peace and quiet. In this context, it is also fitting that the music follows a uniform character. This is great, very beautiful music. It belongs to the musical tradition at the beginning of the 20th century. I'm grateful to you for digging this out. We French should have done that. But anyway. The music is beautiful and Dupré has – if you can put it that way – crafted this perfectly.
This is a great discovery. Episode 2 will be available online from 13 June 2021.
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