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8.572429 - SEVERAC, D. de: Piano Music, Vol. 3 (Maso) - Le chant de la terre / Piano Sonata
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Déodat de Sévérac (1872–1921)
Piano Music • 3


The French composer Déodat de Sévérac belonged to a family of long distinction. He was born in 1872 at St Félix de Caraman en Lauraguais, in the Haute-Garonne, the son of a distinguished Toulouse painter, Gilbert de Sévérac, 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 Franckʼs leading disciple, Vincent dʼIndy, 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 Sévérac was a composition pupil of dʼIndy and Albéric Magnard, with organ lessons from Alexandre Guilmant, and piano training with Blanche Selva and with Isaac Albéniz, serving as the latterʼs 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 ʻBarbizon of Cubismʼ. It was at Céret that Sévérac died in 1921.

Through his relatively short career Sévérac 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 Marseille 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. Déodat de Sévérac 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, while Sévérac 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 unfinished at his death in 1909, having earlier rejected it from his Iberia suite as descaradamente populachero (impudently vulgar).

In the winter of 1898 Sévérac, in Paris, wrote home to his sister Alix, asking her to send him the first volume of a French translation of Virgil by Emile Pessonneau. Virgilʼs Aeneid was to serve as the basis of a symphonic poem, now lost, while Virgilʼs Georgics were to provide the inspiration for Sévéracʼs Le Chant de la terre: Poème géorgique pour piano (The Song of the Earth: Georgic for piano), a piano suite completed in February 1900 and dedicated to the Belgian art critic Octave Maus, a work that reflects something of the teaching of the Schola. In the original work each piece except the Prologue was preceded by a poem, omitted from later editions. Also subsequently omitted was the designation of the main theme, first heard in the Prologue, as LʼÂme de la terre (The Soul of the Earth), subsequently given as LʼExposition du thème. This modal theme is echoed, as from a distance, and continued, without bar-lines, suggesting what is to come in Le Labour, which, after toil in the fields, offers the hope of LʼAimée (The Beloved), the secondary theme of the suite. Les Semailles (The Sowing) introduces the sound of the Angelus, très doux et très lointain (very gentle and distant) and the labourerʼs pause for brief prayer, a scene suggesting a genre painting by Millet, as Blanche Selva pointed out. The Intermezzo, marked Sans prétention, tranquille, brings respite in its Conte à la veillée (Evening Tale), before La Grêle (Hail) threatens the growing crops. The country people offer prayers on Rogation Day and, following local custom in times of storm, the death-knell is rung in supplication. The storm passes and with Les Moissons (The Harvest) all is well again. The theme of the Beloved is heard and wedding-bells sound. The work ends with the Epilogue, Le jour de noces (Wedding Day), as Le Chant de la terre rings out once more.

The Schola Cantorum, and, in particular, its founder, Charles Bordes, did much to arouse interest in French music of earlier periods, the works of Lully, Rameau, Couperin and their contemporaries in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Sévérac was among those who shared this enthusiasm, an interest expressed in his Stances à Madame de Pompadour (Stanzas to Madame de Pompadour), originally intended as part of Parc aux cerfs, Suite pour piano à la manière du XVIII siècle (Deer Park, Suite for piano in the manner of the XVIII century). The proposed suite was never written, or, at least, never completed. The single movement Stances à Madame de Pompadour was published as a supplement to the periodical Musica in December 1909 and is in many ways characteristic of its country and period, a nostalgic tribute to the past.

Pippermint-Get, Valse brillante de concert, takes its name from a mint liqueur created in 1796 by the Get brothers. Sévéracʼs light-hearted waltz, written in 1907, was dedicated to his friend Cyprien Godebski, Au cher Godsipac, Toulousain dʼHonneur. Cipa Godebski and his wife Ida were at the centre of artistic life in Paris, bringing together there and at their house near Fontainebleau musicians, poets, painters and artists of all kinds. Sévérac had become a member of their circle in 1905. The waltz is in rondo form, its jaunty principal theme framing two contrasting episodes.

Among the first tasks that Vincent dʼIndy set his pupils at the Schola Cantorum was the composition of a sonata, based on the principles revealed in a close study of Beethoven. In 1898 Sévérac turned his attention to such a composition, completing his Sonata in B flat minor in the early summer of the following year, to his teacherʼs apparent satisfaction. It was performed at the Schola Cantorum in January 1901 by the young Belgian pianist Maurice Bastin, who two months later played the Allegro at the Libre esthétique in Brussels. The sonata is united by the cyclic principle favoured by dʼIndy, who nevertheless suggested that Sévérac had, on this occasion, made too much use of the device. The first movement opens with an Adagio in which the theme of the second movement is quoted. The following Allegro presents an exposition with two themes, the ʻmaleʼ first subject and, after a transition, a D flat major ʻfemaleʼ second subject, marked Dolce, meno allegro quasi canzona, with a closing theme to end the exposition. There is a strong contrapuntal element in the development and varied incidental thematic material as the extended movement moves towards the recapitulation of the Adagio and the Allegro. The second movement Elégie, reflecting the relatively recent deaths of his father and of a younger sister, has a theme that appears in various guises, imbued with melancholy. The third movement, Allegro scherzando, Tempo di Minuetto, at first changes the mood, until more sombre colours are introduced, finally dispelled by the return of the opening section. The last movement recalls the themes from the first, second and third movements in a sonata-form structure, the whole in a characteristic musical language, with pentatonic elements and occasional use of the whole-tone scale, all an increasingly familiar part of the contemporary French musical palette. The sonata remained unpublished until 1990.

Keith Anderson
An authoritative study of the composer may be found in Pierre Guillotʼs Déodat de Sévérac: musicien français, Harmattan, Paris, 2010, to which the present writer is indebted.

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