About this Recording
8.223655 - FLEM: Symphony No. 4 / Le grand jardinier de France / Pour Les Morts

Paul Le Flem (1881–1984)
Orchestral Works


The Celtic temperament is inseparable from a capacity to escape into dreams. The magic charm of the stories of Anatole Lebraz, paques d’lslande lies in their transfiguration of the real and the perception of an ancestral mystery hidden beneath the surface of things. Behind the prosaic nature of everyday life is concealed a message, the symbols of which it is granted to the artist to decipher. As Ernest Renan observed, the Celt is always set on confounding dream and reality. More than any other, the music of Paul Le Flem suggests entry into the sacred wood of the dream. There, without doubt, lies his fascination. Not only was he the greatest Breton composer, but, poet and artist above all, he belonged to the race of those creative artists to whom is granted perception of that world rhythm dear to Debussy.

Indomitable energy, generosity pushed even to self-denial, wide culture that nevertheless had done nothing to spoil his simplicity, immediate frankness and humour, these qualities made the man, as shown by his long life dedicated to music, his numerous writings or the witness of those who knew him. Born at Lezardrieux near Treguier, he was left an orphan at the age of twelve. In a distinguished school career at the Brest Lycee, he learned only the rudiments of music and already began to compose. On the advice of the head of Music of the Fleet, he went to Paris to continue his education. Paul Le Flem would not be a sailor, a career closed to him because of his poor eyesight, but as a musician, at least the voice of the deep always haunted his works, which constitute, in French music, a unique anthology of music of the sea. After studying with Lavignac and Widor at the Paris Conservatoire in 1899, he went on to work with Vincent d’lndy and Roussel at the Schola Cantorum. He soon became the latter’s deputy and succeeded him in 1923 in the counterpoint class. At the same time he followed the courses of Bergson at the Sorbonne and graduated there in philosophy. In 1902, during eighteen months spent in Russia, he met Tchekov, Gorky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Russian music left its mark on his work and this contact was doubtless at the origin of Le Flem’s taste for brilliant harmonic colour, and for a richness of orchestration that made wide use of woodwind and brass. This tendency to cultivate fine sonority for its own sake was reinforced by the first performances of Pelleas and the young composer found himself completely in agreement with the innovations made by Debussy. His first creative period begins with a seductive synthesis of impressionist colour with the solidity of construction and fine use of counterpoint inherited from the Schola Cantorum. This period is dominated by the First Symphony (1906–1908), the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra (1911), the symphonic poem Les chants du large and the Tryptique symphonique (Danses, Pour les morts, Invocation) (1912–1913). Love for his young wife inspired his first opera, Aucassin et Nicolette, a poetic and moving work, with a delicate air of the archaic (1909). War and general mobilisation put an end to this first creative period of his maturity.

After the armistice, material difficulties took Le Flem away from composition. He served as music critic for the periodical Comoedia (1920) and then as choral conductor at the Opera-Cornique and director of the Chanteurs de Saint-Gervais, taking on these responsibilities with his usual energy and the largeness of spirit of a true humanist. It is possible, however, that he devoted himself to the work of his contemporaries to the detriment of his own work, something that explains his relative silence as a composer.

He returned to composition in 1938 with Le rossignol de Saint-Malo (The Nightingale of St. Malo), a lyrical fantasy that combines humour and poetry. This second wind as a composer lasted until 1976 and his Trois preludes for orchestra and brought what is perhaps his masterpiece, a powerfully evocative opera, La magicienne de la mer (The Sorceress of the Sea) (1947) and three other symphonies, in 1956, 1970 and 1975. These works demonstrate a complete change of style, with the predominance of quartal harmony organised around a polar axis, rather than a clearly established tonality, syncopated rhythms, effects of mass orchestration moving towards an aggressive musical language. They seem to set free an ancestral violence held back since time immemorial. The underlying Celtic dream, however, assures a certain unity in the work of Le Flem, and connects the unbridled brilliance of this second period with the meditative serenity of the music written before 1914.

The stories of Le Braz, such as Nuit des morts (Night of the Dead) bear witness to the importance of the dead in the ceremonies of Celtic tradition. Certainly the Breton, more than anyone else, lives with his dead. Here the dream and fascination with the unreal leads to the evocation of the dead, and as Le Flem himself wrote: “In truth, have they died, these beings still living, filled with the ancient faith of their ancestors, and will they not return? ...Religious feeling, faith guides Breton musicians in their dealings with the beyond”. Orphaned early in life, Le Flem lost two of his children when they were very young. The symphonic poem Pourles morts (For the Dead), the first part of the Tryptique symphonique, is consecrated to their memory. Composed in 1912, this piece was orchestrated in 1920 and is dedicated to the Breton composer Marcel Labey. Here there is no dramatic lament but a meditation, the sweetness and luminous serenity of which adds stress to the poignant meaning of the music. Vast orchestral forces are used with restraint and the texture has the transparency of chamber music. The pentatonic hymn of the opening in the Aeolian mode on C-sharp has the noble simplicity of a prayer. It soon gives way to a plaintive melody with the character of a popular refrain, intimate and expressive. The climax occurs in the central part, when the horns sing a lullaby of unutterable sweetness. Here nature the consoler welcomes those who sleep, the occasion for pantheist ecstasy of poignant beauty. Pour les morts was first performed in January 1922 in New York under the direction of Vincent d’lndy. The latter wrote to the composer, describing the work as one of the finest symphonic compositions that he knew. Rene Dumesnil has perceptively likened this funeral prayer to a deeply religious communion with nature: “A symphonic poem of deep feeling, sincere, restrained and calm in feeling, free from all artifice and bombast, but strong, sober and redolent of the Lande”.

The Sept pieces enfantines (Seven Children’s Pieces), pieces for piano written in 1912, were later orchestrated. Like Schumann in his Album for the Young, Le Flem knew how to combine delicate poetry with didactic intentions. Here the reference to Breton folklore is more direct. In Bastions de sable (Sand-Castles), the second theme is a quotation of the popular song An hini goz, and the splendid cello phrase in La chapelle (The Chapel) has the character of a Breton song. It serves, too, as the generating theme of the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra written at the same period. Almost minimalist in its economy of material, this piece surprises by its intensity of feeling and the emotion that is implied.

The Fourth Symphony was written between June 1971 and November 1972 and is dedicated to Marcel Laridowsky. The wild energy of this music, which abounds in brutal contrasts, harsh and abrupt orchestral timbres, uneven rhythms, a high degree of dissonance, is characteristic of the second period of Le Flem. Apart from the change in his language, it is still the moor-land and the sea that is suggested in the background. The slow movement is a seascape bathed in sunshine that suggests the reinvigorating breath of the open sea, while the final movement takes up again the rhythms of the Breton dances dear to the composer.

The evocative qualities of the music of Le Flem made it natural that he should write scores for the cinema. Le grand jardinier de France (The Great Gardener of France) (1942) and La cote de granit rose (The Pink Granite Coast) (1954) are two successful examples of this. Intended for a short film by Jean Tedesco, the first of these reveals as great a talent in the use of a small ensemble as in the deployment, as elsewhere here, of large orchestral forces. Le Flem uses a small orchestra of seventeen musicians, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, trumpet, trombone, timpani and strings. The pastoral atmosphere is immediately established by the pentatonic line of the basic thematic material and this score of clarity and contrast has that inimitable mixture of refinement and simplicity that remains a mark of the great Breton musician.

© 1994 Michel Fleury
English version by Keith Anderson

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