About this Recording
8.223115 - PIERNE: Piano Music

Gabriel Pierné (1863–1937)
Fifteen Pieces, Sérénade à Colombine, Op. 32 • Sérénade à lzéÿl • Scherzando de Concert, Op. 29 bis • Étude de Concert, Op. 13


The French conductor and composer Gabriel Pierné was born in Metz in 1863 and moved to Paris when his family took refuge there during the Franco-Prussian War. His father had taught singing at the Metz Conservatory and his mother was a piano teacher and gave her son his first music lessons. In 1871 Pierné entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he distinguished himself, winning the Prix de Rome with his cantata Edith in 1882. Among his teachers were César Franck, whose organ classes exercised a much wider influence over those attending them, and Jules Massenet, after earlier lessons from Lavignac, Marmontel and Émile Durand. He won the prize for solfège at the age of eleven, followed by the first prize for piano in 1879, for harmony in 1880 and fugue and counterpoint in 1881 and for organ in 1882. The following period in Rome brought a meeting with Liszt and a happy enough stay in Italy. On his return to Paris he married a pupil, Louise Bergon.

Pierné succeeded Franck as organist at Ste-Clotilde in 1890 and retained the position until 1898. In 1903 he was appointed deputy conductor for the Concerts Colonna and seven years later succeeded Colonna as principal conductor, a position he held until retirement in 1934. He was associated with Dyagilev’s Russian Ballet in Paris in the years before the war and conducted the first performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird, much to the approval of the composer, and as a conductor gave a great deal of encouragement to contemporary composers, particularly his compatriots, in the annual series of 48 concerts that were his responsibility. He died in the summer of 1937 at his country house at Ploujean in Brittany.

As a composer Pierné showed complete facility, competence and versatility. His position as an organist led to the composition of works of serious religious intention such as the symphonic poem L’an mil, with its movements Miserere mei, Fêtes des fous et de l’âne (“Feast of Fools and the Ass”) and Te Deum, La croisade des enfants (“The Children’s Crusade”) and Les fioretti de Saint François d’Assise and Paysages franciscains (“Franciscan Landscapes”). If compositions of this kind showed a debt to Franck, lighter pieces, like the comic opera Sophie Arnould and other theatre pieces in a similar vein, might be thought to reflect something of Massenet’s teaching, more intensely shown in works such as his 1934 stage-piece Fragonard. He wrote songs that are a significant addition to the melodie repertoire, eight operas, ballet scores, a number of orchestral and choral works and a quantity of chamber music, this last revealing his particular ability in clarity of texture and the overt charm of much that he wrote.

The Quinze Pièces (“Fifteen Pieces”) for piano, Opus 3, were written in 1883. With self-explanatory titles, the sequence opens with a charming Romance sans paroles (“Romance without Words”) of limpid clarity. This is followed by Chanson de la grand’maman (“Grandma’s Song”), a delightful pastiche, a foretaste of music Poulenc was to write for his aunt. Fantasmagorie enters the world of Schumann fantasy, tempered by French lightness, wit, and elegance, leading to a solemn and delicate Marche funèbre (“Funeral March”). The atmosphere changes with the attractive caprice of the whimsical Coquetterie, by turns pert and wistful. The sixth and seventh pieces of the series are a Prelude and Fugue, the first suggesting the traditional Baroque chorale prelude, beloved of organists, the chorale melody here hinting to English listeners of another possible source. The Fugue reminds us of Pierné’s early mastery of counterpoint, as the subject is duly worked out in a manner fitting for the future organist of Ste-Clotilde. A l’église (“In Church”) is grandiose in its version of the chorale, stated in massive and stately chords, gently echoed in the upper register of the instrument. There is a lively minuet, minor in key and elegantly contrapuntal, and an excursion into the world of childhood with La marelle (“Hopscotch”), L’escarpolette (“The Swing”), gently rocking, and Cache-cache (“Hide-and-seek”), a livelier game. There is a lilting waltz, Feuillet d’album (“Album-leaf”), in the form of a song without words, and a final whirling Neapolitan Tarantella, with familiar turns of phrase.

Sérénade à Colombine, Opus 32, was written in 1894 and has a nostalgic charm recalling the world of the Italian comedy in the France of Watteau, where Harlequin serenades his Colombine. Sérénade à lzéÿl moves to another continent, a reminiscence of Pierné’s incidental music for the Indian drama lzéÿl of 1894, a play by Silvestre and Eugène Morand.

A number of the pieces that make up Opus 3 were soon afterwards arranged for orchestra. The Opus 29 bis Scherzando de Concert of 1893 was originally an organ piece, the last of a group of three. It allows some contrapuntal treatment of the principal theme, to which a central trio section offers a gentle contrast. The brilliant Étude de Concert, Opus 13, was written in 1887 and fulfils all the promise of its title.

Keith Anderson

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