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8.223501 - ROGER-DUCASSE, J.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 1 (Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic, Segerstam)

Jean Roger-Ducasse (1873–1954)
Orchestral Works, Vol. 1


Although a native of Bordeaux, where he was born on 18th April 1873, Roger-Ducasse had little of the southern temperament, cultivating a taste for independence and making no concessions to the public or to interpreters. He had high artistic aims, with the result that certain works are wonderful, but are difficult to interpret, and are, therefore, less well known. As Emile Vuillermoz remarked, Roger-Ducasse had a peculiar appetite for unpopularity, and this to a noticeable extent. Unyielding towards himself, he destroyed, as Dukas and many other composers have done, a number of works that he considered unsatisfactory. This is obviously a pity, but there are valuable compositions still left to us.

The father of Roger-Ducasse, by profession in marine insurance, was an amateur musician. There were five children in the family, Jeanne, Marguerite, Roger, Daniel and Yvonne. Roger was the composer’s Christian name, but he developed the habit of hyphenating his name. He studied the piano in Bordeaux with Mme Rick-Bertini and was a pupil of the Ecole Saint-Pierre, where he acquired a solid basis of classical learning. His elderly father died when Roger-Ducasse was barely eighteen, a loss he felt deeply.

With the help of his family Roger-Ducasse went to Paris to study at the Conservatoire, where he was in the harmony class of Emile Pessard, studying fugue and counterpoint with André Gédalge. In composition he studied under Gabriel Fauré, whose pupils included Ravel, Enescu and Nadia Boulanger. He became a friend of Fauré and one of his most important successors. It was Fauré who, in 1900, gave him the task of making a piano reduction of the score of his Requiem. In 1902, after two unsuccessful attempts in 1900 and 1901, he won the second Grand Prix de Rome with the cantata Alcyone, an achievement that Ravel did not succeed in bettering.

The first works of Roger-Ducasse were written at the turn of the century. The first of his compositions to be played in public, on 5th March 1898, was the Petite Suite, a piano piece followed by six Préludes, Esquisses, Etudes, Arabesques and Sonorités, but the first symphonic work with chorus, where he declared his very original character, was Au jardin de Marguerite (“In the Garden of Marguerite”), on which he worked between 1901 and 1905. 1909 was the year of the Suite Française that proved a triumph at the Concerts Colonne and confirmed his reputation. It was also in 1909 that he was made inspector general of the teaching of singing in schools.

From 1910 dates another important work that marks the attachment of Roger-Ducasse to historical and symbolical subjects, Sarabande, an orchestral and choral composition. The subject is the death of a prince, accompanied by a lute-player. After this he produced in 1913 his masterpiece, first performed on 31st January 1914 in St. Petersburg. Orphée uses a text that Roger-Ducasse had written himself, based on the Georgics of Virgil. In this he returned to the forms of early opera, with the chorus taking the parts, mingled with the instruments of the orchestra. The parts of Orpheus and Eurydice are mimed and not sung. Ida Rubinstein mounted this neo-classical mime-drama at the Paris Opera in June 1926.

After this Roger-Ducasse created an opera full of the warmth of the South with Cantegril, a work in four acts, with a text by Raymond Escholier. Philon Cantegril lives in a village of the Ariège, a lover of good cheer, of good wine and pretty girls, but one day he falls in love with a girl who refuses him, Francézine. He is dispirited, but the plot has a happy ending. This work is difficult to produce, since the composer surrounded his hero with a singing cast of 32. In spite of this, Cantegril was staged at the Opéra-Comique on 6th February 1931. Between 1935 and 1945 Roger-Ducasse taught composition at the Paris Conservatoire, where he succeeded Paul Dukas.

In addition to piano pieces and chamber music Roger-Ducasse orchestrated his Petite Suite and composed a First String Quartet, a Romance for cello and piano first performed by the Orchestre Colonne in November 1923, a Barcarolle for harp, an Allegro appassionato, Variations plaisantes sur un thème grave and, in 1919, a Marche Française, including a funeral hymn. The following year a Nocturne de printemps came before a Nocturne d’hjver, the latter completed in 1931.

In 1937 Roger-Ducasse again used voices and instruments in the triptych Ulysse et les Sirènes. The first part has the title La mer, reminding us that the composer was a friend and fellow performer on a number of occasions of Debussy. When Roger-Ducasse produced Orphée, it was known that Debussy was considering a project on the same myth. In the first act of Orphée there is a subtle reference to L’après-midi d’un faune.
The Second String Quartet was the last work of Roger-Ducasse, a work first performed on 14th May 1953 at the Château de la Brède, where once Montesquieu lived and worked. After the war Roger-Ducasse spent the last years of his life in a remote house in the Landes, at Taillan-Médoc, near Bordeaux. It was there, in what he called his “maison de champs”, that he died, on 19th July 1954.

The Marche Française came after Orphée, his major work. Composed when Roger-Ducasse was approaching forty, it is a mature work in which he pursues his own path, between the impressionism of Debussy and the simplicity of Fauré. First performed after the First World War, this March, not throughout in march rhythm, represents the image of a war. The composer here employs all his qualities as an orchestrator in an expression of feeling that reaches moments of great power. The gentler elements here exhibit restrained feeling, while the trumpet is entrusted with the task of providing a funeral call with harmonies of great subtlety. The strength of Roger-Ducasse lies above all in his dynamic brilliance and his sense of architectural form.

The evocative Nocturne de printemps was written in 1920, a work that suggests, in its gentle orchestral colours, the sounds of a spring night in the woods. Night-birds call and the gentle beauty of the scene is conjured up with an orchestral palette that must remind a listener of the timbres employed by Ravel, the sound swelling to a climax.

The Petite Suite, in three movements, is an older work, dating from the turn of the century. It is also more southern in spirit, in particular in its melodic lines. It was first conceived as a piano composition for four hands, an important memory for Roger-Ducasse, since this was the first of his compositions to be played in public.

Le joli jeu de furet, an orchestral scherzo, was inspired by children in the schools that Roger-Ducasse visited as inspector of singing and originally this work, like Aux premières clartés de l’aube, was for choir. The symphonic version provides a fuller work. The theme of the children’s round II court, il court, le furet, is heard in snatches, giving the impression that the theme is built up gradually. Le furet, literally the ferret, an object that in the game, Hunt-the-slipper, is passed from hand to hand, passes from instrument to instrument.

There is no doubt that Orphée remains among the more remarkable compositions of Roger-Ducasse. The legend of Orpheus, the great musician of ancient Greek myth, and his beloved Eurydice, so nearly rescued from death and the Underworld by the power of music, has attracted composers since Monteverdi, while proving of vastly different inspiration to writers like Jean Cocteau. Orpheus, it will be recalled was also the central figure in a mystic religion, the Orphic Mysteries. Roger-Ducasse created in his Orphée a multimedia composition, a combination of the visual and the aural. In the first episode Orpheus calls on the god, again in a musical language that seems, in retrospect, very typical of his time and country, as is the choice of subject. Echoes of Debussy may be detected in melodic contours, reflections of Fauré, his teacher, and of Ravel, his fellow-pupil. Nevertheless the result is thoroughly original, the musical idiom distinctive. The second episode in the mime-drama is a torchlight procession in honour of the goddess of marriage, Hymen, followed by a final orgiastic dance, a Bacchanale, a reminder of the fate of Orpheus at the hands of the Bacchantes.

In all these compositions, Roger-Ducasse has much to say and to express. His music is rich and far from monotonous in character. Here the listener goes from the plaintive or gentle lamentation to moments of great joy, from lively dances to more meditative passages, rich in harmony. There is no respite. The orchestra enchants and stuns the listener, and is irresistible.

© 1994 Frederik Reitz
English translation and adaptation by Keith Anderson

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