Blanche Selva displayed musical talents at the age of four-and-a-half. Because her father could not find a good teacher for his daughter in Brive, in 1891 he moved the family to Limoges and then to Paris, where Blanche began lessons with Sophie Chéné who prepared her for entrance to the Paris Conservatoire. Selva was admitted in 1893 to a preparatory class, and at the age of ten won a première médaille. In July 1896 the family left Paris for Geneva and on her thirteenth birthday, Selva gave her first concert in public in Lausanne. Not long after, Selva played Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 54 at the Kursaal de Montreux.
At the age of fourteen, Selva played Symphonie sur un air montagnard français by Vincent d’Indy and the following year met the composer. She went to the Schola Cantorum in Paris to study composition with d’Indy with whom she became close friends. When she was eighteen, d’Indy appointed Selva to the staff of the Schola Cantorum, where she taught piano for the next twenty years. Between her appointment at the Schola Cantorum and the outbreak of World War I, Selva performed in Belgium, Switzerland, England, and, in 1908, toured Russia with d’Indy. In 1904 she gave seventeen recitals in Paris in which she performed the complete solo keyboard works of Bach.
In 1907 an unknown Selva appeared in London announcing concerts for almost every day of a week in November at Steinway Hall. Her first recital was an all-Bach programme. The critic of The Times was impressed: ‘Her touch is very agreeable, she has great power of light and shade, a genuine love and reverence for the greatest thoughts of the greatest men, and, while her technical equipment is complete, her phrasing and interpretation generally give her a claim to a place in the first rank of contemporary players.’ A few days later he wrote, ‘Each day increases the high esteem in which the beautiful piano-forte playing of Mlle Blanche Selva is held by musical people; while her reading of Bach was dignified, her Beethoven broad and intellectual, and her Schumann so sympathetic that she seemed to be a pupil of the composer or of his wife, her first recital of modern composers, showed her in a new light, and made the compositions she played appear of the greatest value.’
Selva met many contemporary composers and knew Albert Roussel, Paul Dukas, Déodat de Séverac and Isaac Albéniz, with whom she was close during the composition of Iberia. She gave the first performances of Book 1 in 1906, Book 2 (which was dedicated to Selva) in 1907 and Book 3 in 1909. She had many works dedicated to her including d’Indy’s Piano Sonata (1908) and his Thème varié, fugue et chanson (1926), Roussel’s Suite Op. 14 (1911), and many works by Déodat de Séverac. She was acknowledged by Paul Dukas as the greatest exponent of his Piano Sonata and his Variations, Interlude and Finale on a theme of Rameau, and gave many first performances including Fauré’s Nocturne No. 13 in B minor Op. 119 written in December 1921.
From 1921 Selva divided her time between performing and teaching at the conservatories of Strasbourg and Prague and decided to leave her post at the Schola Cantorum. Three years later she met the Catalan violinist Joan Massia, gave concerts with him, and the following year settled in Spain where she founded her own music school in Barcelona. In 1927, the centenary year of Beethoven’s death, Selva performed all his thirty-two piano sonatas in Barcelona and the violin sonatas with Massia. She was asked to write the biography of Déodat de Séverac who had died six years earlier, and this task occupied her from 1927 to 1929. In November 1930, during a recital in the presence of d’Indy, Selva suffered a stroke, leaving her partially paralysed; as a result, the remainder of her life was spent teaching and composing. Having had to leave Spain in 1936 due to the Civil War she went first to Moulins and three years later settled in Saint Saturnin, south of Clemont-Ferrand.
Selva wrote a number of books in addition to the biography of Déodat de Séverac which was published in Paris in 1930. As early as 1913 she published a book on the sonata (La Sonate, Paris, 1913), and between 1916 and 1924 published three volumes on piano technique (L’enseignement musical de la technique du piano, Paris, 1924).
Undoubtedly a great pianist, Selva is almost forgotten today as she made very few recordings. Her style was not based on the traditional French precepts of piano playing, but relied far more on the arm weight and relaxation technique employed by German and English teachers. Her recordings were made for French Columbia between 1928 and 1930, just before she became paralysed, and all are wonderful. In her recording of Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B flat BWV 825 we can hear the pianist who was so highly praised in 1907 when she played Bach in London. She plays Bach pure and simple; there are no posturings, no arrogance of self-divined authenticity, and no effects for the sake of display or reverence. In her recording of César Franck’s Prelude, Choral et Fugue (which still remains one of the best along with that by Cortot), Selva seems to plumb the very depths of Franck’s soul; while her three recordings of short pieces by de Séverac make one long to hear more of Selva in this repertoire. With Joan Massia she recorded César Franck’s Violin Sonata, Beethoven’s ‘Spring’ Sonata Op. 24 and an Adagio by Bach as a filler on the last side of the 78rpm discs. The Bach partita and one of the de Séverac pieces have been reissued by Pearl; the remaining recordings (minus the Franck Sonata) have been reissued on compact disc by Malibran-Music.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).