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8.223504 - KOECHLIN: Heures Persanes (Les) , Op. 65
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Charles Koechlin (1867–1950)
Heures Persanes (Les), Op. 65


It is probably because of his fierce spirit of independence mingled with modest reserve that Koechlin has not acquired a wider reputation. Nevertheless he enjoyed in his time among a circle of musicians, the greatest prestige, stemming above all from his teaching (Francis Poulenc, Maxime Jacob, Germaine Tailleferre, Roger Désormière and Henri Sauguet were his pupils) and his theoretical writings. These came about to meet a precarious financial situation, shortly after the First World War. They give expression to Koechlin’s extraordinary power of musical organisation as well as his attachment to musical traditions that he wished to transcend. “There is a need, in periods of development,” he wrote, “for some solid principles to cling to, for fear of vertigo. As far as I am concerned, a deep knowledge of consonant classical harmony is the indispensable basis of all composition study. Before giving way to free treatment of counterpoint, polytonality and chords of superimposed fifths, it is no bad thing to have a solid tonal foundation”. His famous Etude sur les notes de passage (“Study on Passing Notes”) was written in 1922. There followed in 1927 a Précis des règles du contrepoint (“Summary of the Rules of Counterpoint”), in 1928 a Traité d’harmonie (“Treatise on Harmony”) and in 1933 Etude sur l’écriture de la fugue d’école (“Study on the Writing of the Academic Fugue”). In 1948 he published a study of wind instruments.

Charles Koechlin was born on 27th November 1867 in Paris into a family that had its origins in Alsace. His grandfather Jean Dollfuss is known for having established a textile company at Mulhouse. Koechlin entered the Ecole Polytechnique in 1887 but had to leave when he contracted tuberculosis. It was to Algeria that he went in 1889 to seek a cure, a voyage that brought contact with the East. In 1890 he returned to Paris to the Conservatoire, where he studied harmony with Taudou, composition with Massenet and Fauré and counterpoint and fugue with Gédalge.

Faced with a very conservative National Music Society and following the example of painters who abandoned the Society of French Artists to set up a rejuvenated Salon on the Champ de Mars, Koechlin in 1909 founded the Independent Music Society, of which one of the first aims was to encourage contemporary music by breaking away from official academicism. With him in this enterprise were Louis Aubert, Jean Huré, Maurice Ravel, Gabriel Fauré, André Caplet, Roger-Ducasse, Florent Schmitt and Emile Vuillermoz. The two groups came together when Vincent d’Indy resigned his position at the head of the National Society and handed over the presidency of the executive committee to Gabriel Fauré. In 1918 Satie invited Koechlin to join him in a group “Les nouveaux jeunes”, in which Roussel and Milhaud were to participate, but the group came to nothing. This movement was nevertheless at the origin of the foundation of the Groupe des Six in 1920. The independent Music Society disappeared during the course of the Second World War.

Koechlin wrote a considerable amount of music, with more than 200 opus numbers. Many of his compositions remain in manuscript, while other works have been lost. Discoveries are therefore certain with this composer, the value of whose work is increasingly recognised. Koechlin was particularly attracted by the creation, by nature. There is in his music a romantic view of nature that is expressed in a language near to that of Debussy, a form of impressionism. “En mer la nuit” (Night at Sea), “la Forêt” (The Forest) (1896–1907), “le Printemps, l’Hiver, l’Eté” (Spring, Winter, Summer) (1908–1916), “l’Automne” (Autumn) (1896–1907), “Vers la voûte étoilée” (Towards the Starry Vault) (1933) are examples of his mystique of nature, joined to a sharpened perception of time which is not outside human beings, as Westerners think.

Koechlin, whom one often thinks of as a bearded sage—he died at the age of 83 on 31st December 1950 at Canadel in the Var—thought of life as a journey. His most important work, from the point of view of density of materials used, richness and originality, is the “Livre de la jungle” (The Jungle Book), a symphonic poem that includes “la Loi de la jungle” (The Law of the Jungle), Opus 175 (1934), “Bandar-Log”, Opus 176 (1939–1940), “la Méditation de Purun Baghat” (The Meditation of Purun Baghat), Opus 159 (1936) and “la Course de printemps” (The Spring Running), Opus 95 (1911–1927).

Another very important cycle set an account of a journey of Pierre Loti, “Les Heures persanes” (1913), which he orchestrated in 1921. His talents as an orchestrator were already recognised at the Polytechnique, where he arranged the First Ballade of Chopin. For Debussy he orchestrated the ballet “Khamma” and for Fauré the suite “Pelléas et Mélisande”.

The “Heures persanes” are divided into separate moments or stages. The period of travel is without doubt the deepest reality of the Orient that Koechlin, following Pierre Loti, has made part of his work. “He who wants to come with me to see at Isfahan the season of roses, should travel slowly by my side, in stages, as in the Middle Ages”, wrote Pierre Loti at the beginning of his work. His journey in 1900 only lasted two months. It took him from Bushehr on the Persian Gulf to the Iranian plateaux, alter crossing Shiraz. Then he continued towards Isfahan, to Teheran, crossing the mountains of Elburz to reach the Caspian Sea.

Koechlin never visited Persia, but he knew Algeria. It would not have been difficult for him to write music of a frankly Oriental flavour, but he did not do so. His “Heures persanes” remains an imaginary journey in which one may notice oriental touches as exquisite as they are fine and delicate. The “Heures persanes” are the counterpart of short poems, like those of the poets of Persia.

Koechlin’s journey takes two days, if one follows sun and moon that play an important part in the work. There are three mentions of moonlight (No. 8, on the terraces; No. 14, over the gardens and No. 16, over the desert). The centre of the work is in the tenth piece, “Roses at Midday”, since the journey is undertaken to see the season of roses and this is the only place where the sun is at its height.

The time is marked from the first piece with a piano that the orchestration has not overwhelmed—it is simply integrated with the general instrumental ensemble. It re-appears at various points, in the third piece, for example, where it forms part of the description of the rapid steps of climbing, and the fourteenth (the third story), where there is a very fine duet with the vibraphone.

The orchestration, which adds refinement to the colours of the “Heures”, has also transformed the work. In the first place it establishes the length of the journey. Koechlin makes splendid use of the sustained notes of the violins, with superb violin solos in Nos. 4, 5, 14 and 15, or of cellos and double basses. Koechlin also uses a particularly refined technique with wind instruments, notably the flute, an instrument that lends itself to Oriental characteristics, as in the second stage of the journey. In this homogeneous ensemble the percussion add brilliant touches and underline the sense of the marvellous, as with the vibraphone in the fourth section.

Another Oriental element is evident not so much in exotic melodic lines as in the harmonic procedures employed, with use of modes and repeated notes. Although the sixteenth section has little in common with the dance of the dervishes, the arabesques of the twelfth sound extremely modern, thanks to the polytonal design. The Orient surely shows us the way. These Hours pass, we feel them pass, we feel the time. It is without doubt the greatest miracle of this composition that it is in no way monotonous, but one must take time…

Frederik Reitz
English version by Keith Anderson

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