About this Recording
8.223189 - PIERNE: Flute Sonata / Piano Trio

Gabriel Pierné (1863–1937)
Sonata for Flute and Piano, Op. 36 (1949)


Gabriel Pierné is often described as a remarkably well rounded or many-sided musician who enjoyed the affection and respect of his colleagues and an enviable reputation as a composer as well as a conductor. In the latter capacity he worked tirelessly to promote the music of his contemporaries, even if their artistic views differed from his own. An incident at the première of Milhaud’s Protèe illustrates his integrity of character. When the score elicited whistles of displeasure from the audience, Pierné turned on the podium and calmly announced, “We are going to play Protèe a second time for those who did not understand it at first”. He gained a reputation for championing others’ music at the expense of his own, and thus his superb works, which represent a synthesis of French stylistic trends of the time, fell into neglect.

Pierné came to Paris as a boy, when his family resettled there in order to retain French citizenship in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War. He was born in Matz, Lorraine, on 16 August 1863 to a musical family. His father, from whom he inherited a kindly nature and a northern solidity, taught singing at the Matz Conservatory; his mother, to whom he owed something of a Latin temperament, taught piano. From her he received his first musical instruction. In 1871 he entered the Paris Conservatory, where he became Debussy’s classmate. There he studied solfège with Lavignac, piano with Marmontel, composition with Massenet and organ with Franck. Much to the annoyance of the professors of composition, Franck digressed liberally into composition during his organ class—a matter of great significance in the formation of Pierné’s style, which reflects strongly the opposing personalities of Franck and Massenet. An excellent student, the young Pierné won first prizes in piano (1879), harmony (1880), fugue and counterpoint (1881) and organ (1882). Also in 1882 his cantata Edith brought the nineteen-year-old student the most coveted honour of all—the Prix de Roms.

The three years in Rome were happy ones. Because of his youth, Pierné was known to his confrères at the Villa Medici as “the Kid”. He frequented the city’s many The three years in Rome were happy ones. Because of his youth, Pierné was known to his confrères at the Villa Medici as “the Kid”. He frequented the city’s many museums, took in the monuments and met Franz Liszt. After returning to Paris he married a pupil, Louise Bsrgon, who provided a happy home life and a peaceful atmosphere in which to compose. Pierné succeeded Franck as organist at Saints-Clothilde in 1890 and held the post until 1898. Five years later he was named deputy conductor of the Colonna Orchestra, and in 1910 he assumed the post of principal conductor from Edouard Colonna. Selflessly he used his newly won international prestige to promote his contemporaries: Saint-Saëns, Widor, Fauré, Ropartz, Ravel and Milhaud. Associated with the glittering world of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, he conducted the première of Stravinsky’s Firebird in 1910. Pierné retired from the Colonna Orchestra in 1934 and died on 17 July 1937 at his country house in Ploujsan, Brittany.

As a composer Pierné first attracted attention with an opera, La coups enchantée, in 1895. Enduring success came in 1903 with the cantata La croisade des enfants, but the music for which he is best known today is the ballet Cydalise et Is chèvre-pied, written in 1913 but not premièred until 1923 because of the war. Pierné composed prolifically in all genres: opera, scenic music, ballet, sacred works, orchestral and chamber music, piano pieces and songs.

His compositions reveal a multifaceted creator. He was at once an erudite musician and a lively, spontaneous composer. He was a pillar of the right-wing establishment but one open to new ideas. Of a temperament far different from that of his friend Debussy, he preferred to bring the colours of his own experience to the traditions handed down to him. His inborn Lorraine solidity resonated with what he had learned from Franck, and he composed religious oratorios laden with mystery. His Mediterannean side responded to Massenet’s teaching and produced the sensual, worldly and witty stage works. But for the most part Pierné’s compositions embody something of each extreme. They show a wedding of technique and imagination, of formal soundness and elegant charm, of genuine depth underlying a lighthearted surface. Even when dealing with a serious subject, he wrote with virtuosity and stylishness. To Pierné composition was a constant quest for the Beautiful.

Pierné’s chamber music may be viewed as the clearest, most direct expression of the inner man. It offers an intimate portrait of a gifted composer, one closer to Franck than to Massenet but endowed with warmth, charm and joie de vivre. The music, always elegant and finely balanced, is polished to a fine lustre that allows rare artistic sensitivity to illuminate a masterly architecture.

Composed in the summer of 1900 for the violin, the Sonata in D-minor, Op. 36, was transcribed for the flute possibly on the suggestion of the publisher Durand. The major-minor modulations, clearly contrasted sections, cyclic form and organic thematic growth bear an obvious kinship to similar features of Franck’s violin sonata, which was also published in alternate versions, including one for flute. But Pierné’s differs from Franck’s in flavour. Its Gallic elegance places it closer to Fauré, especially its exquisite slow movement.

At the outset of the Allegretto the piano announces the main theme in octaves in 10/16 metre. The superimposition of this same theme in 6/8 by the flute creates a blurred, impressionistic atmosphere. An expressive second theme, introduced by the flute and followed by a short motto and a longer lyrical idea, joins the first subject in the working out of the richly varied, complex first movement, which contains an important Andante tranquillo episode in 3/4 time and which ends after an abridged reprise with a tempestuous coda. Poetic sensitivity and subtle harmonic nuances distinguish the lovely middle movement, Allegretto tranquillo, which bears the indication “With a calm and dreamy feeling”. Franck’s cyclical principle is most evident in the finale. The slow, seventeen-measure opening is a transformation of the first movement’s central episode. A breezy, syncopated theme follows, and the two ideas enter into development with other material recalled from the first movement. The underlying complexities are no doubt subtle, and what is most apparent to the listener is the mood of breathless excitement.

Considered by some to be Pierné’s finest chamber music, the Trio in C minor for Violin, Cello and Piano, Op. 45, was written in 1920–21. It is a massive work, lasting forty-two minutes and based in large part on a four-note motif whose precise intervallic relationships undergo subtle changes while it maintains a readily recognisable identity. This germ is already present in the syncopated introduction for piano solo, and it appears embedded in the first subject, announced by the strings. In an elementary form it is heard as the first four notes of the second subject. The huge first movement, “Agitated, with movement and feeling”, follows a standard sonata design of exposition, development and recapitulation with one significant deviation. At the end of the development there occurs a long, lyrical episode marked “Twice as slow, very calm”. This is based on the second subject and serves as the work’s slow movement. The lively central movement returns to the Basque inspiration seen earlier in the incidental music to Ramuntcho and in the piano quintet. In ternary form, it begins with a dancelike theme in an irregular rhythm. This colourful music is notated in 5+3/8 with a footnote explaining, “This measure is beat as a measure in 9/8 of which the third part would be shortened by a quaver”. The striking effect is heightened by the use of harmonics and pizzicati. The four note motto brings Franckian recollections during the course of the dance, and Franck’s influence dominates the slower middle section. The pensive coda, throwing out wistful reminiscences of the trio and the dance theme, conveys a moment of rare beauty. It is as if this Scherzo, in contrast to the Franckian heaviness of the first movement, begins in the brilliant light of midday and ends with the softly glowing colours of dusk. The piano begins the last movement with a new statement of the motto. This forms the basis of the introduction, which builds quickly to a dramatic climax after which the theme is immediately announced. There follows an elaborate and remarkably inventive set of variations: (1) the strings in unison intone the theme over the piano in an archaic manner reminiscent of Gregorian chant, (2) dance-like elements infuse the archaic atmosphere, (3) chromatic elaborations are introduced, (4) the mood becomes lyrical, and (5) violin harmonics create an otherworldly effect over the cello’s pizzicati and the piano’s semiquavers. Until now the variations have been brief. Here the mood grows serious, and a sense of development, rather than variation, prevails. In the first of the large-scale variations (6) contrapuntal treatment marks the change in mood; there follow (7) a big, impassioned section, (8) a dreamy variation marked “Very calm”, and (9) a switch from the predominant chromaticism to a diatonic joyfulness. With the motto’s reappearance the music grows chromatic again, leading to a peroration over piano arpeggios. Finally, in an ecstatic climax, a trill on the violin signals the beginning of the coda—a positive, diatonic conclusion in C major.

David Nelson

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