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Both Gabriel Pierné’s parents were active musicians: his father was a singer, his mother a pianist, and they gave him his first music lessons. After the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, their home city of Metz was annexed by Germany and the family moved to Paris, where Pierné entered the Paris Conservatoire, studying organ with Marmontel and Franck, harmony with Durand, and composition with Massenet. He proved a model student, at the age of sixteen winning first prize for organ, at seventeen for harmony, at eighteen for counterpoint (as well as second prize for organ), and at nineteen the Prix de Rome for his cantata Edith. Following his required three years in Rome, Pierné returned to Paris where he taught in his parents’ music school. In 1890 he married one of his piano pupils and was appointed organist at St Clotilde, in succession to Franck, remaining there until 1898 after which he pursued the twin careers of composer and conductor.

Pierné’s opera La Fille de Tabarin was first performed at the Opéra-Comique, Paris, in 1901 and in 1903 he was appointed by Édouard Colonne as his deputy conductor with the Colonne Orchestra. Another colleague at this time was Pierre Monteux, who had joined the orchestra as first viola in 1893 and who also served as assistant conductor and choirmaster of the orchestra between 1906 and 1912. When Colonne died in 1910, Pierné replaced him as chief conductor, a position which he held until 1934 and which required him to spend the whole of the musical season in Paris as he was responsible for a minimum of forty-eight different orchestral programmes each year. During the summer, when he was not conducting, he composed at his country house in Ploujean in Brittany. He wrote in all the principal genres except the symphony, and assimilated many of the major musical influences of his time, including those of Massenet, Franck, Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Ravel, and Debussy. Pierné successfully integrated these different musical styles into his own works, which makes them attractively eclectic. His most significant compositions are the oratorios La Croisade des enfants (1905), and Les Enfants à Bethléem (1907); the incidental music composed for Pierre Loti’ s play Ramuntcho (1908); and the ballet Cydalise et le chèvre-pied (1923) (this includes his most popular work Marche des petits soldats de plomb).

A keen supporter of the idea of ars gallica, Pierné used his position at the head of the Colonne Orchestra to give the first performances of works by many of the leading French composers of the day, including Debussy (Ibéria, Images, Jeux, Chansons de Bilitis, Khamma); Ravel (Une Barque sur l’océan, Tzigane, and the first suite from Daphnis et Chloé—a year before the first performance of the complete ballet); and Roussel (Pour une fête de printemps). He also conducted the first performance of Stravinsky’s The Firebird for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the Paris Opera in 1910. Writing in 1924, the year in which Pierné was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the author Dominique Sordet provided a vivid account of him as a conductor: ‘Gabriel Pierné is not an elegant conductor: an enemy of useless virtuosity, he attracts little attention to his person. The authority he commands over his musicians is due to his wisdom, his refined musical instinct, careful preparation before concerts and an extraordinary talent at reading scores. The precision of his gestures aims to achieve musical efficiency rather than theatrical effects.’ There was however another side to Pierné’s musical taste. When rehearsing Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with Pablo Casals just before World War I, he announced that he would not conduct anything so ridiculous. Casals not surprisingly took umbrage, resulting in an abrupt parting of the ways between soloist and conductor.

The introduction of electrical recording in 1925, permitting orchestras to be recorded with some degree of verisimilitude, saw all the symphony orchestras of Paris being invited by the various different record companies to make records. Columbia recorded the Paris Conservatoire and Concerts Straram Orchestras, Pathé and Gramophone the Pasdeloup Orchestra, Polydor the Lamoureux Orchestra, and Odeon the Colonne Orchestra. Thus from March 1928 to May 1931 Pierné and the Colonne Orchestra made seventy-four recordings, most of which disappeared from the catalogues during the 1930s, with very few subsequently reappearing. Much of the repertoire recorded by Pierné was French: he was a fine interpreter of the music of Berlioz, and he recorded two of the overtures, Carnaval Romain and Benvenuto Cellini, as well as individual movements from the Symphonie Fantastique, Roméo et Juliette, and La Damnation de Faust. Other French composers whose music he recorded included Bizet, Chabrier, Debussy, Dukas, Franck, Lalo, Ravel, and Saint-Saëns. He also conducted several pieces of his own music for the gramophone, including excerpts from his ballets Cydalise et le chèvre-pied and Giration (two versions, one for eleven instrumentalists as originally written and one for orchestra), and incidental music to Ramuntcho.

The non-French composers whose works Pierné conducted on record included Borodin, Grieg, Mendelssohn, Rimsky-Korsakov, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky and Wagner. Pierné was succeeded as conductor of the Colonne Orchestra by Paul Paray in 1932, and died five years later at Ploujean. He wrote eloquently of the joys of musicianship: ‘To read a score, weigh up its merits with your instinct, infallible sense of science and good taste; to reason, to compare, to understand and admire, this gives true satisfaction.’

View by Role: Classical Composer | Arranger | Conductor
Role: Classical Composer 
Album Title
Catalogue No  Work Category 
Cello Recital: Altstaedt, Nicolas - PIERNE, G. / d'INDY, V. / BOULANGER, N. (French Cello Sonatas) Naxos
Chamber Music
Chamber Music - FRANCAIX, J. / BORDES, C. / INDY, V. d' / PIERNE, G. / JOLIVET, A. (Englichova, Jans, Martinu Quartet) ArcoDiva
Chamber Music
Chamber Music - RAVEL, M. / DEBUSSY, C. / PIERNE, G. (Suite Francaises) (Ensemble Pyramide) Divox
Chamber Music
Chamber Music (French Flute Quintets) - TOURNIER, M. / SCHMITT, F. / PIERNE, G. / FRANCAIX, J. / ROUSSEL, A. (Mirage Quintet) Naxos
Chamber Music
CLASSICAL CHILLOUT - The Essential Collection Naxos
FRANCAIX, J.: Princesse de Cleves (La) / 15 Portraits d'enfants d'Auguste Renoir / KOECHLIN, C.: 4 Vocalises (Lences) Capriccio
French Music for Harp and Strings Naxos
French Music for Harp and Strings Naxos
MOZART, W.A.: Concerto for Flute and Harp, K. 299 / DEBUSSY, C.: 2 Danses / RAVEL, M.: Introduction et Allegro / INDY, V. d': Suite, Op. 91 (Jamet) Timpani
Chamber Music
PIERNE, G.: Chamber Music, Vol. 1 (Ivaldi) Timpani
Chamber Music, Ballet, Chamber Music
PIERNE, G.: Chamber Music, Vol. 2 (Ivaldi) Timpani
Chamber Music, Instrumental, Chamber Music
PIERNE, G.: Croisade des enfants (La) (Sung in English) (Susskind) (1960) Naxos Classical Archives
Choral - Secular
PIERNE, G.: Cydalise et le chevre-pied [Ballet] (College Vocal de la Cathedrale de Metz, Luxembourg Philharmonic, Shallon) Timpani
PIERNE, G.: Cydalise et le chevre-pied [Ballet] (College Vocal de la Cathedrale de Metz, Luxembourg Philharmonic, Shallon) Timpani
PIERNE, G.: Impressions de music-hall Suite / Izeyl Suite / Fantaisie basque sur des themes populaires basques espagnols / Divertissement (Koch) Timpani
Ballet, Orchestral
PIERNE, G.: Paysages franciscains / L'an mil / Prelude to Les cathedrales (Peintre, Nicolas de Grigny Choir, Lorraine National Orchestra, Mercier) Timpani
Choral - Sacred, Orchestral
PIERNÉ, G.: Songs (d'Allonnes, Dolié, Jean) Timpani
PIERNE, G.: Sophie Arnould / Ballet de cour (Chalvin) Timpani
Orchestral, Opera
PIERNE: Flute Sonata / Piano Trio Marco Polo
Chamber Music
PIERNE: Piano Music Marco Polo
PIERNE: Ramuntcho, Suites 1 and 2 / Piano Concerto, Op. 12 BIS
Orchestral, Concertos

Role: Arranger 
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Role: Conductor 
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