About this Recording
8.555855 - SEVERAC, D. de: Piano Music, Vol. 1 (Maso) - Cerdana / En Languedoc

Déodat de Séverac (1872-1921)

Déodat de Séverac (1872-1921)

Cerdaña • En Languedoc


The French composer Déodat de Séverac belonged to a family of long distinction. He was born in 1872 at St Félix de Caraman en Lauragais, in the Haute-Garonne, the son of a distinguished Toulouse painter, Gilbert de Séverac, his first piano teacher. His mother was descended from the Aragon family of Spain, while his great-grandfather had served as naval minister to Louis XVI, the family boasting a descent that went back to the ninth century. The boy studied at the Dominican College of Sorèze, established in 1854 on the site of an ancient Benedictine foundation, before embarking on a degree in law at the university in Toulouse. Before long he was able to move to the Toulouse Conservatoire, where he was a student from 1893 to 1896. On the recommendation of Charles Bordes, a former pupil of César Franck, he was accepted by Franck’s leading disciple, Vincent d’Indy, as a pupil at the Schola Cantorum in Paris, a choice of institution that he soon found preferable to the more rigidly conservative academic discipline of the Paris Conservatoire.


At the Schola Cantorum Déodat de Séverac was a composition pupil of d’Indy and Albéric Magnard, with organ lessons from Alexandre Guilmant, and piano training with Blanche Selva and with Isaac Albéniz, serving as the latter’s assistant from 1900. The period brought connections with fellow students, including Albert Roussel, and also with leading painters, sculptors and writers of the time. His compositions were heard in Paris, thanks in good measure to the advocacy of Blanche Selva and Ricardo Viñes. He later returned to southern France, making his home either at St Félix or at Céret, the latter an artistic centre for painters such as Braque and Picasso in the second decade of the twentieth century, earning the place the name of the ‘Barbizon of Cubism’. It was at Céret that de Séverac died in 1921.


Through his relatively short career de Séverac stressed the importance of local inspiration as a means of preserving a form of music that was distinctively French. His songs include settings of texts in Catalan and in Provençal, and it was this region, between Marseilles and Barcelona, that drew his continuing interest and loyalty. His emphasis on the importance of regionalism, the subject of his Schola Cantorum thesis La centralisation et les petites chapelles en musique, was in accordance with the prevalent views at the Schola and to some extent with the policies of Action française and Charles Maurras, a patriotic campaigner for a strong hereditary monarchy that would allow significant regional autonomy. De Séverac retained his intense local loyalties and interests, but not his sympathy with the Schola. Attitudes of younger composers underwent some change, particularly after the scandal at the Conservatoire over the denial of the Prix de Rome to Ravel and the subsequent appointment of Gabriel Fauré as director, and de Séverac had more in common with Debussy and Ravel than with the perceived formalism of the Schola. He was greatly influenced by Isaac Albéniz, and completed Navarra, which Albéniz had left incomplete at his death in 1909, having earlier rejected it from his Iberia suite as descaradamente populachero (impudently vulgar).


De Séverac wrote his suite Cerdaña, described as Five Picturesque Studies for the Piano, between 1908 and 1911. The district known in French as the Cerdagne and in Spanish as Cerdaña, straddling the French-Spanish border in the Pyrenees, was originally the home of the Ceretani, from which its name is derived. In later history it included three baronies, Céret, St-Laurent-de-Cerdans and Puigcerdà. The villages of the upper Cerdagne were ceded to France, together with Roussillon, in 1659, while the ancient capital, Llivia, designated a town and therefore exempted, remained and remains a Spanish enclave, its name derived from the classical Julia Livia. The five pieces of de Séverac’s suite start with En Tartane, arrival in the Cerdagne in a two-wheel carriage. It begins in open admiration of the countryside, with melodic hints of what is to come, as the journey moves rapidly on. The second piece Les fêtes is described as a reminiscence of Puigcerdà, proclaimed the capital of the Cerdaña by Alfonso II in 1177 and on the Spanish side of the frontier which passes through the region. The festival preparations start tentatively, soon leading to livelier music of clear local provenance, with pictorial allusions to the scene of celebration that passes, in a musical language that often suggests that of Debussy, not least in the echo of a distant evening fanfare, as the piece draws to a close. The third of the set, Les ménétriers et glaneuses, musicians and gleaners, depicts a pilgrimage to Font-Romeu, now a popular sports and ski resort. The chapel there once held a twelfth-century statue of the Blessed Virgin, while the place itself takes its name from a spring. The musicians play their guitars and, as always, there is more than a trace of Albéniz in the piano writing. In Les muletiers devant le Christ de Llivia, the muleteers before the statue of Christ at Llivia, the bells of the ancient fortified church are heard tolling in a vivid depiction of the scene, as the worshippers offer their moving prayers and petitions. In Le retour des muletiers the muleteers are heard travelling back over the mountain roads, in music essentially of the region, Catalonia and the Spanish Pyrenees, reflected through the prism of Paris.


The five piano pieces that constitute En Languedoc were written in 1903 and 1904. These are less specific in their geographical references, offering more generalised musical illustrations of the region of France known as Languedoc. Vers le mas en fête leads to the farmstead where the festival of the title is to be held, in often serene pianistic textures that are very much an extension of the language of Debussy and, to a lesser extent, of Ravel. Sur l’étang, le soir, illustrates the calm scene on the pond in the evening in generally more transparent textures. This is followed by A cheval, dans la prairie, riding in the open country, graphically illustrated in the rhythm, suggesting the lively movement of the horse, with an occasional pause to survey the countryside, before cantering on. Coin de cimetière, au printemps, a corner of the cemetery in spring, opens meditatively, moving on from serene contemplation in a country churchyard to a climax of romantic feeling, before subsiding into its opening mood. The set ends with Le jour de la foire, au mas, fair-day at the farmstead. This offers a characteristic depiction of the country fair, in piano textures from the world of Debussy and Ravel, always with the suggestion of local colour drawn from de Séverac’s own part of France, the old province of Languedoc.



Keith Anderson

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