About this Recording
GP648 - AUBERT, L.: Sillages / Violin Sonata / Habanera (version for piano 4 hands) / Feuille d'Images (Armengaud, Fagiuoli, Chauzu)
English  French 

Louis Aubert (1877–1968)
Sillages • Violin Sonata • Habanera • Feuille d’images


Louis Aubert, like his contemporaries Joseph Guy Ropartz (1865–1955) and Paul Le Flem (1881–1984), was of Breton origins: he was born on 19 February in Paramé, today part of Saint-Malo. His father was a shipowner and amateur bassoonist, while his mother, who also came from a ship-owning family, was a fine singer, whose voice had been admired by one of the directors of the Théâtre-Italien in Paris. Even as a child Aubert had an excellent ear for music—he was a gifted pianist and sang as a treble chorister in the main churches of Paris. His talents were noted by one of his first teachers, Charles Steiger, who soon brought him to the attention of Albert Lavignac, a professor at the Paris Conservatoire. Aubert went on to study harmony with Lavignac, discovering the great composers in the history of music along the way. He also studied piano with Antoine-François Marmontel and, later, Louis Diémer.

In a letter to the singer Claire Croiza dated 1 August 1922, Gabriel Fauré wrote the following about the Pie Jesu in his Requiem, “It was written for a child’s voice. The first to sing it (at the Madeleine) is now a grown man with a full moustache: Louis Aubert, who has also become a talented composer.” Aubert had begun studying composition with Fauré in 1893, and by 1896 his fellow students also included Maurice Ravel, Florent Schmitt, George Enescu, Charles Koechlin, Jean Roger-Ducasse, Paul Ladmirault and Émile Vuillermoz.

In 1909, Ravel, Koechlin, Schmitt, Aubert, Roger-Ducasse, Vuillermoz and Jean Huré founded the Société de musique indépendante (SMI) with the aim of promoting new music; Fauré was named its president. As part of an SMI-sponsored concert in 1911, at which all the works were performed anonymously, Aubert gave the première of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, of which he was also the dedicatee. A few years later, in 1915, at the home of publisher Jacques Durand, he joined Debussy to perform the latter’s suite for two pianos En blanc et noir from the proofs.

Aubert divided his working life between performing as a pianist, teaching and composing. Henry Barraud, who studied with Aubert and later worked with him when his own composing career took off, acknowledged his debt to his former teacher: “He had, above all, an exceptional gift for sensing what came from deep within the composer of a particular work, and what was just show, or a passing trend.”

Aubert began composing at a very early age. With the exception of his Fantaisie for piano and orchestra, Op. 8 (1899), his first works were songs and short piano pieces. An opera, La Forêt bleue, based on the childhood world of Perrault’s fairy tales (a source it shares with Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye, which is its exact contemporary), occupied much of his time between 1904 and 1910. The world première was given in Boston in 1913 by the Boston Opera Company conducted by André Caplet.

Henry Barraud emphasised the originality of Aubert’s writing: “…his unusual harmonic sequences, the subtle relationship between them and the linear elements of his musical discourse, that tonal alchemy at which he is a past master—there’s nothing formulaic about any of it: it comes from an entirely personal combination of refined sensibility and deep musical knowledge.”

Philosopher and musicologist Vladimir Jankélévitch, meanwhile, noted that, “Had he only written Sillages, the Poèmes arabes and the Sonata for violin and piano, Louis Aubert would still be one of the greatest French composers.”

Debussy’s two volumes of Images notwithstanding, Sillages (Wakes) (1908–12) is one of the four most significant triptych piano works written by French composers in the early twentieth century, alongside Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit [Naxos 8.553008], Schmitt’s Ombres [Naxos 8.572194] and Samazeuilh’s Le Chant de la mer [Grand Piano GP 669]. Sillages features some of the key aspects of French musical Impressionism—seascapes, the night and, in the central movement, Spain, with the habanera rhythm that intrigued Aubert throughout his career, from the early Vieille Chanson espagnole to the sumptuous orchestral Habanera.

The programme note from the world première of Sillages, organised by Jacques Durand on 19 January 1913, provides valuable information about the inspiration behind each of its three evocative movements: “The first transports us from the shore towards the distant horizon, following the traces of a thought that externalises us despite ourselves and carries us off into the infinite expanses. The second is headed by these words, which are inscribed on the belltower in Urrugne, in the Basque Country: ‘Vulnerant omnes, ultima necat’ [all hours wound, the last kills]. Above slow chords in strange harmonies, it is as if one can feel the wounds being dealt by the passing hours, while a Basque folk song languidly leads us to that final moment, that at which we close our eyes for the last time. The third movement draws us into the oppressive darkness of night and leaves us to peer through the fog in search of a pale, flickering light that gradually grows and intensifies, and eventually points us towards safe harbour.”

Sur le rivage (On the shore) portrays the changing moods of the Atlantic as it pounds the French coast from Brittany to the Basque Country. A brief introduction suggesting the awe inspired in us by its immensity is followed by a continuous stream of arpeggios, but a broad, expressive chordal theme soon emerges from the backwash. In the second section, these musical elements (chords and arpeggios) clash more and more violently. The steady principal theme, shared between the two hands in the middle register, takes a new, more human turn in a development shot through with almost Franckian chromaticism (a rarity in Aubert!). The two original elements return, their order now reversed, to bring the movement to a close in E minor, with a few final fragmented waves.

Socorry seems to move away from the natural world for a while to focus on another kind of wake—that left behind by human life. The title refers to a chapel and little cemetery that dominate the village of Urrugne. A sombre section, its solemn accents steeped in chromaticism, opens the work. Then the above-mentioned folk song comes to the fore and develops in processional vein, sounding from both near and far at different times. When it is heard far-off in the distance, it is to a new rhythm, that of Aubert’s beloved habanera. Shortly before the end, the theme opens up imperiously into a climax over an agitated accompaniment.

Dans la nuit is a free-form dreamlike fantasy, recalling the troubled Romantic universe of Schumann (In der Nacht from the Fantasiestücke, Op. 12), if with more watery sonorities and glimmers of sparkling light. Its hugely varied piano writing is more than a match for any of the great works of French Impressionism, and the cycle’s overall unity is assured by an allusion to the second-movement habanera and, at the end, by the return of the opening movement’s main theme.

The Sonata for violin and piano, composed in 1926, bears the dedication “To the memory of my teacher Gabriel Fauré ”, and is reminiscent of Fauré’s own Second Sonata, Op. 18. It is Aubert’s only large-scale work in abstract, Classical form.

Like Fauré’s sonata, and those by Debussy and Ravel (the latter also dating from the mid-1920s), Aubert’s work is cast in three movements. The first is in bi-thematic sonata form: the first subject is warm but with a Fauré-like “whiteness”, the second is expressive and dreaming, its contours less clearly defined. An impassioned development section reworks the themes with great variety, using fragmentation, interpolation of fragments and sequential repetitions, modifying the intervals in melodic figures, altering the rhythm by means of longer or shorter note values, introducing modulations and employing a contrapuntal process that perfectly matches the wealth of harmonies here. The recapitulation faithfully mirrors the exposition, a few very minor modifications aside, and is followed by a developing coda that ends powerfully on a tonic D.

The central movement is in tripartite form: ABA’. The violin sets out A, an intensely expressive theme, above rich harmonies in the piano part. The middle section begins with a dramatic recitative, which is followed by a questioning passage on the piano that mingles with strange, “sans nuances” violin sonorities. The opening theme returns, now varied, above an ominous accompaniment in the piano’s lower register and builds to a peak of tension in the violin’s high register.

In the finale, the violin introduces a moto perpetuo quaver theme (I). The piano then takes the quavers into its lower register while the violin develops material deriving from the first subject of the opening movement. A second theme (II), broad and expressive, is played first by the piano then passed between the two instruments. A development section full of tension and passion begins in the violin part, its augmented motifs drawn from (I), and introduces a new, incisive thematic element. The dramatic climax of the movement is built on the sonata’s first subject. The quaver theme (I) returns before a brief, rising transition, which leads to the flamboyant coda. The sonata ends with a reaffirmation of its opening theme, now in augmentation.

The Habanera (1917–18) is undoubtedly the most frequently performed of Aubert’s orchestral works, and has been conducted by such eminent figures as Vladimir Golschmann, Walter Damrosch, Serge Koussevitzky, André Cluytens, Enrique Jorda and Louis Fourestier. The composer realised the transcription for piano four hands himself, and it was published in 1919. This fiery, monothematic work is made up of a series of crescendos which builds stage by stage to a great, dense climax of sound, before subsiding to its initial calm.

As demonstrated by La Forêt bleue, Aubert retained an affinity to the world of childhood. He also loved teaching, and his Feuille d’images (Page of images, 1930), a collection of five children’s pieces for piano four hands, is carefully planned for didactic purposes: the pupil plays the upper part, in which each hand is confined to a limited register, while the more difficult lower part is designed for the teacher. The first piece is calm and gentle, the second innocent, the third is imbued with echoes of Ravelian waltzes, the fourth is a relentless habanera, and the fifth is a humorous dance. Aubert later made an orchestral arrangement of this collection [see Marco Polo 8.223531].

Gérald Hugon
English translation by Susannah Howe

Whenever I start playing one of Louis Aubert’s scores, I immediately sense the dual presence of the pianist and the composer. From the very beginning of his cycle Sillages, your hands and fingers curve naturally into the notes of the first movement, Sur le rivage, then proudly strike those of Socorry, the portrait of a Basque village, before stealing their way into Dans la nuit, between notes, between resonances. Before you delve into the structure of the work, you feel him there with you, the composer-pianist whose own fingers were so familiar with the fluidity of Debussy, the finesse of Ravel, the sonic intransigence of Satie, the harsh and melancholy chords of Albéniz and Falla, as well as the muted curves of Bartók, the provocative curves of Stravinsky…That rounded hand position, close to the keyboard in order to play the tight-knit harmonies, requires the weight of the arm and results in an internalisation of the sound, sometimes a sound of sublimated anger, sometimes a sweet gentle sound echoing the heartbeats linked to the pianist’s fingertips. In Aubert’s music, physicality and architecture are inseparable—body and soul have to work together!

As a teenager I saw Louis Aubert take a long ovation at the end of his Habanera at a Sunday concert in Paris, and wondered who this emaciated, self-effacing little man was…The composer of a small number of remarkable works and a founding member of the celebrated Société musical indépendante; a man who was never far from the forefront of French musical life in the first half of the twentieth century, one who lived through a series of musical revolutions which fed into his own writing.

He was certainly an immensely independent creative spirit, exploring artistic trends but never bound by their conventions, as he sought out an elusive “third way” between post-Romantic Impressionism and a pared-down, painfully demanding modernism. The fresco that is Sillages leans one way, the Sonata for violin and piano the other. The latter, which stands alongside the works of Debussy, Ravel, Fauré and Roussel, among others, as part of the great French sonata repertoire, is emblematic of Aubert’s writing. He knew how to combine a perfect, Classically-inspired structural balance with a lyricism that ranges from the elegiac to the austere; the flexibility and strength of the violin part belong to the best traditions of French music, while some of the sonata’s dissonant harmonies anticipate Messiaen and some of its rhythmic patterns call the music of Bartók or Jolivet to mind. More mysteriously, there are echoes of an undefined folk music (Basque, Breton, Spanish…?) which are so stylised and treated with such distance that they become impenetrable, as if enveloped in some unnamed nostalgia…

Finally, in the four-hands miniatures the two pianists discover the composer’s inner child, his fondness for Schumannesque intimacy, and an unsuspected sense of fun.

Jean-Pierre Armengaud
English translation by Susannah Howe

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