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8.223484 - KOECHLIN: Livre de la Jungle (Le)
Charles Koechlin (1867–1950)
Koechlin is a puzzle in the history of music and has never been able to win the position he deserves. An important link in French music, pupil at the Conservatoire of Massenet and of Gabriel Fauré for composition, of André Gédalge for counterpoint and fugue, and teacher of, among others, Francis Poulenc, Germaine Tailleferre and Henri Sauguet, he was also the author of a number of books, the Traité d’harmonie (1927–1930), Etudes sur les notes de passage (1922), Précis des règles du contrepoint (1927), Etude sur l’écriture de la fugue d’ecole (1933), Théorie de la musique (1935), Traité de l’orchestration (1954–59), among other works. He was also a regular contributor of reviews to the Revue musicale, the Gazette des beaux-arts and the Chronique des arts, a lecturer and a brilliant orchestrator, not only of his own compositions but also, among others, of music by Fauré (Suite of Pelléas et Mélisande) and by Debussy (Khamma). His work as a composer during a period of some sixty years amounts to no less than 225 opus numbers, a formidable body of compositions that now attracts all those in search of musical treasures.
The question arises as to the character of Koechlin and the reasons for his failure to attract the fame that his work as a composer merits. He was born in Paris on 27th November 1867 and died on 31st December 1950 at Canadel in the Var. He belonged to a family originating in Alsace and had a distinct taste for study. After a period as a student of the Ecole polytechnique, in 1889 he entered the Conservatoire. His curiosity was always considerable, a feature of a Faustian personality that also took pleasure in contemplation, poetry and the beauty of nature. Charles Koechlin, however, with his love of the imagination and of freedom, was also a serious student. His art is the result of consistently hard work and at times the weight of work, in exceptional cases, shows in certain compositions.
Charles Koechlin was reserved and did not push himself forward, except, necessarily, in some articles in the Revue musicale. This natural modesty was added to a tendency to self-effacement and a dislike of anything resembling publicity, probably a major obstacle to his fame. Furthermore, as a composer Koechlin seemed a marginal figure, because he was ahead of his time. He had an excellent knowledge of all forms of musical expression, from the Greek modes to atonality, forms that he accepted as possible. The public always welcomed his music, which thereafter fell quickly enough into oblivion. It was therefore not surprising that a large number of his compositions were not published.
Like Albert Schweitzer, another man from Alsace, Koechlin was deeply influenced by Johann Sebastian Bach. This is evident in his Cantate de Pentecôte. The shadow of the Cantor of Leipzig lies over all his work, starting with his theoretical treatises on fugue and counterpoint up to his 1942 composition, Offrande musicale sur le nom de B.A.C.H. (“Musical Offering on the Name of BACH”), fifteen pieces for organ and orchestra.
It was at about the age of twelve that Koechlin began to write down his musical ideas, followed by little pieces like a Suite pour piano, now lost. His first compositions of importance, however, date from his entry to the Conservatoire at the age of twenty-two, notably his Premier recueil de rondels de Théodore de Banville et de Charles d’Orléans (“First Collection of Rondels by Théodore de Banville and Charles d’Orléans”), written in 1890. Here there is evident a lyricism that is elegant, simple and direct, with nothing that might suggest a mathematician versed in all the arcane mysteries of integral calculus. He himself wrote of the impossibility of creating a symphony by mathematical means, an abuse of power of science over art, regarding the intrusion of the mechanical into musical aesthetic and even into life as connected with the current theory that music was not a language, an expression of feelings, but only had a certain objective superficial beauty, while signifying nothing, the beauty of this music stemming from definable causes through mathematical formulae: this, he suggested, had the consequence that the work of art in the future would be created through solving equations.
Some of the strength of Koechlin’s music lies in his choice of subject, often metaphysical, and even if certain pieces offer an element of traditional mysticism, such as the symphonic poem L’abbaye (“The Abbey”) of 1899–1903, where he makes use of all his contrapuntal erudition to the verge of polytonality, it is as a poet of nature, a lover of the sky, the stars, the night, the forest and the sea that he shows his inner freedom. In this spirit he wrote the orchestral works La Forêt (“The Forest”) of 1896–1907, Le Printemps, L’Hiver, L’Été (“Spring, Winter, Summer”) between 1908 and 1916, En mer, la nuit (“Night over the Sea”) of 1899–1904, L’Automne (“Autumn”) of 1896–1909, Nuit de Walpurgis (“Walpurgis Night”) of 1901–1907, Vers la voûte étoilée (“Towards the Starry Vault”) of 1933 and Les Vendanges (“The Vine Harvest”), written between 1896 and 1906, without counting the Symphonie (“Symphony of Hymns - to the Sun, to the Day, to the Night, to Youth, to Life”), completed in 1938.
Koechlin was fascinated by the birth of the seventh art, the cinema, with its stars and to evoke these new gods and goddesses of the screen, Douglas Fairbanks, Lilian Harvey, Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, Emil Jannings and Charlie Chaplin, he wrote his Seven Stars Symphony (1933), followed by his Album de Lilian (1934) and the Epitaphe de Jean Harlow (1937), with other works of this kind.
An original genius, Koechlin wrote fine pieces of chamber music, such as the Piano Quintet (1921), a work he valued, or the Flute Sonata (1913), the Trio for flute, clarinet and bassoon (1924) and the Wind Septet (1937). His symphonic poems, however, possess exceptional charm, and among them, the height of his achievement, Le Livre de la Jungle (“The Jungle Book”), based on Rudyard Kipling. The whole work is a vast symphonic poem in four parts, La Loi de la Jungle (“The Law of the Jungle”), Op. 175, completed in 1934, les Bandar-log (“The Bandar Log”), Op. 176, of 1939–40, La méditation de Purun Baghat (“The Meditation of Purun Baghat”), Op. 159, completed in 1936, and La Course de Printemps (“The Spring Running”), composed between 1911 and 1927. Three older works, the Three Poems for soloists, chorus and orchestra, Op. 18, can come between La Méditation de Purun Baghat and la Course de Printemps.
That the work occupied Koechlin for so long, from 1899 until 1950, shows the importance that he attached to it. This continuing creative activity fits very well one of the meanings of the book itself, that of an education, the symbolic journey of man. If the quality of symbolic writing rests in the possibility of it being read on different levels, there is no doubt that everyone will understand Koechlin’s composition. Here is the jungle, where everything of beauty can be found, rhythms, melodies, colours, harmonic and orchestral designs.
La loi de la jungle (“The Law of the Jungle”) is a fundamental mystery, a prelude to life in society, not the “law of the jungle” as it is generally understood today. The mystery is outlined by the wind, particularly the brass, and the symphonic ensemble develops from a repeated phrase in an oriental mode. The law is strong. Let him who does not respect it beware. The law is love, as La Course de Printemps (“The Spring Running”) shows.
The Bandar-Log are Kipling’s monkeys and are portrayed with various faults, in particular that of laziness. For Koechlin the monkeys are spirits confined by systems, spirits led by current opinions and fashions. They can easily be recognised through their neo-classical, atonal or polytonal style. Then the masters that represent Baloo and Bagheera put them to flight, and the jungle returns to its former serenity.
The Meditation of Purun Baghat, Purun the Holy Man, raises us to the heights of the Himalayas. Purun, former prime minister of a maharajah, has become a hermit. Koechlin uses all the resources of the orchestra, climbing in modal polyphony. There is a landslide, but the sage does not remain at his prayers. He calls on the villagers to come out, shouting “Leave none behind! We follow!” The wise man does not live in the clouds. His actions can always prove essential for the society in which he lives. Koechlin might well have had in mind to some extent the role of the guru, which in a sense was his own.
La Course de Printemps (“The Spring Running”) ends The Jungle Book. The child has become a man and goes to rejoin mankind, leaving his friends of the forest, “Man goes to Man at the last”. This is also the law of change, of transformation, of parting. Everything around Mowgli wakens and he runs, for he feels the time of a new language approaching, “the Time of New Talk”. He leaves his masters, one of whom says “From now, we follow new trails”. Koechlin here clearly refers to the world of music, drawing an analogy between the jungle-boy, Mowgli, and his liberation, and the musician. The polyphonic display of the orchestra is dazzling, augmented by piano and organ, but this liberation demands caution. The law must be known, that is everything that musical tradition brings.
© 1992 Frederik Reitz
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