About this Recording
GP669 - SAMAZEUILH, G.: Piano Works (Complete) (Chauzu)
English  French 

Gustave Samazeuilh (1877–1967)
Complete Piano Works


In 1875, the young Ernest Chausson, travelling to the Basque Country, stopped en route in Bordeaux to visit Fernand Samazeuilh, a banker’s son, who was continuing in the family profession, but was also interested in philosophy, political economy and philanthropy. He loved art and, above all, music—he had met Wagner in Lübeck in 1867 and had links with Franck and Chabrier. His wife, daughter of Victor Lefranc, an opponent of Napoleon III who then became minister of the interior in 1872, was herself an excellent pianist. In 1877 they had a son, Gustave, who was immersed in music from an early age. Chausson, Fauré, Duparc, d’Indy, Dukas and Ysaÿe were all family friends, some of them regular visitors to the house, and the young Gustave was advised and encouraged by Chausson as soon as he began composing.

Samazeuilh had also known d’Indy since his childhood, and met him again in Brussels at the première of the latter’s opera Fervaal at La Monnaie in March 1897, as well as during visits to Germany in May and November that year. In the spring of 1897, moreover, the Samazeuilh family had welcomed d’Indy to their home for a concert devoted to his works. Years later, in 1941, Gustave recalled that period in their acquaintanceship: “We spent whole days sitting side by side at my modest upright piano playing Beethoven’s last quartets, Russian symphonies, the Second Quartet he’d just finished writing, and Debussy’s L’Après-midi d’un faune, from a set of printer’s proofs…” Samazeuilh became a private pupil of d’Indy, who taught him fugue, musical construction and orchestration, and also studied composition with him at the Schola Cantorum in Paris.

Samazeuilh and Ravel met as students and remained friends for the rest of their lives. One morning in 1928, during a brief holiday in Saint-Jean-de-Luz and just before their morning swim, Ravel tapped out a tune with one finger on the piano. “Don’t you think there’s a certain insistent quality to this theme,” he asked Samazeuilh. “I’m going to try to repeat it over and over again, without developing it, but graduating the orchestra as best I can.” Samazeuilh was therefore probably the first person to hear the theme of Boléro.

In 1962, he also recalled having attended the final rehearsals of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande before its première: “I even remember the day when Debussy added the wonderful orchestral section that follows Arkel’s scene in Act Four and which he had written in a single night to make allowance for the scene change. Seeing my enthusiasm … he commissioned me to do the Pelléas interlude piano transcriptions.” An excellent pianist, Samazeuilh is still known today for the hundred or so transcriptions for solo piano or piano four hands commissioned from him by composers and publishers.

He was also a valuable chronicler of the music world of his time. Together with his teacher Dukas, he was one of the best critics of the day, an unbiased observer who wrote with great insight and subtlety. He was one of Messiaen’s earliest advocates, having quickly spotted the significance of such an original talent. He protested in both 1930 and 1931 when the composer was not awarded the Prix de Rome—by this time Messiaen had already written such notable works as the Préludes for piano and the Offrandes oubliées—and on 9 May 1943, along with Poulenc, Jolivet and Honegger, attended the private dress rehearsal of Les Visions de l’Amen.

Samazeuilh’s Suite en sol (Suite in G, 1902 rev. 1911) is one of a number of modern works inspired by the rediscovery of Classical French composers. As one might expect, there is a strong sense of tonal unity throughout, but the minor mode is only used in the first four movements. The pianistic idiom of the Prélude is particularly noteworthy, with an accompaniment in arpeggios skilfully realised by alternating the hands note by note. The Française has “the feel of a folk song”, while the Sarabande is very expressive. A headstrong Divertissement leads straight into a rustic Musette, with calm ostinati providing the drone (bourdon). The final piece, a Forlane, refers to a dance in sextuple time, originally from the Italian province of Friuli, which had already inspired Chausson (Quelques Danses, op. 26) and which would also later be used by Ravel (along with a musette) in Le Tombeau de Couperin. Towards the end of the work, Samazeuilh incorporates echoes of the Sarabande, Divertissement, Musette and Prélude.

Chanson à ma poupée… (Song to my doll) was written in around 1904 for a collective Schola Cantorum work entitled Album pour enfants petits et grands and published the following year. Its simple, narrative form features five linked sections: the song itself, in A minor (2/4), a contrasting idea in A major, with a light, alert dotted rhythm (6/8), a brief section that rapidly alternates these two ideas, a kind of expressive waltz (3/4) and a slow, calm epilogue (2/2).

The Trois Petites Inventions (Three little inventions) in E major were also written around 1904. The three are played without a break and all feature different forms of polyphonic writing, being written in two, three and four parts respectively. As in the Suite en sol, the tonal journey evolves from the minor (Inventions 1 and 2) to the major. For the very rapid No.1, Samazeuilh’s ostensible starting-point is Bach’s Invention in A minor, BWV 784. The second piece is slower and characterised by expressive syncopation, while the last has the meditative tone of organ music.

In a lecture he gave on French music in 1916, Charles Koechlin classified Samazeuilh as one of the Schola graduates whose music was “imbued with a vague Debussyan nuance”. Naïades au soir… (Naiads at nightfall…), composed in 1910, does have that Debussyan quality, but the conception of this music, with its constant metre and supple, barcarolle rhythm, is still more linear than impressionistic, its long, sinuous phrases tinged with chromaticisms in the spirit of the time. Ravel noted that one of the themes in his Daphnis resembled one of these phrases, and a score of the latter work owned by Gustave Samazeuilh bears the following dedication, signed by Ravel: “to G. S., author of this work’s principal theme”.

Le Chant de la mer (The song of the sea, 1918–19) follows a carefully thought-out temporal and symbolic scheme: (I) a call to the vast, immobile sea, (II) moonlight on the waves, (III) tempest and daybreak. The Prélude, written on three staves throughout, features rather static layers of sound. With its dotted-rhythm theme, it seems to summon us to the sea—inviting us to explore the mysteries of its immensity. The last nine bars consist of a pedal on E, above which the same chord is played four times in succession in different registers, finally ringing out over a four-octave span.

Clair de lune au large opens with limpid triplets in the upper register (a deliberate allusion to Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, or an unconscious echo?); these introduce a new theme representing human emotion and based in the piano’s middle range. The triplets then move to the lower register and the theme to the upper, with a quaver counterpoint in between. The dotted-rhythm sea theme returns to alternate with the human theme, which develops in impassioned surges. Towards the end the initial theme is heard unsupported like a solitary voice calling out amid the mysteries of the night and the majestic vastness of the sea.

Tempête et lever du jour sur les flots is a movement of intense virtuosity. With its rapid flourishes, ostinatos and tremolos, chromatic broken-chord ascents and descents, and alternating black- and white-key glissandos, it clearly owes much to Lisztian piano technique. Divided into two parts, it reflects two different moments in time: the tempest (in B flat minor)—sombre and agitated—and the dawn (in B major)—calm and filled with light. While the colours in Debussy’s Dialogue du vent et de la mer are created by the portrayal of opposing natural elements, Samazeuilh’s tempest, with its sense of fear and excitement, its dark shadows, flashes of light and strident outbursts, takes on a tragic dimension in which man is directly involved.

According to the composer, Nocturne, his 1938 piano adaptation of the orchestral poem Nuit (Night, 1924), was inspired by Juliette Mante-Rostand (1872–1956), sister of the poet Edmond Rostand, whom he called an “élite pianist and musician”. The score is headed by a poem by Henri de Régnier addressed to the “luminous and secret” night in which time stands still and passions are freely revealed. A short and mysterious introduction sketches out a theme in the middle register that then gives way to crystalline music in the upper register. After a pause, the theme returns, harmonised and completed by a new motif. A second expressive idea follows, marked Très modéré. Later, the music briefly abandons the key of G flat major as it picks up speed and becomes more and more impassioned. As the tempo slows, an air of mystery emerges, with echoes of whole-tone scales in the distance. A long final section unified by an unrelenting chromatic motif in semi-quavers fades into a sombre, muted atmosphere pierced only by an occasional glimpse of light and remnants of the whole-tone scales.

The Quatre Esquisses (Four Sketches, 1944) are late works of remarkable originality and superb musical realisation. Dédicace (Dedication) presents a chordal theme played out over an ostinato motif in the bass that functions as a harmonic pedal. Luciole (Firefly) evolves in minuscule chromatic movements and gentle, middle-register sonorities, depicting the flickering light of the firefly that eventually flutters away into the distance. The second pair of movements, like the first pair, are played without a break. The Sérénade, written for the left hand only, with Hispanic accents and endless changes of tempo, is based on a guitar work written in 1925 and dedicated to Andrés Segovia. Souvenir, written for the right hand only, brings the cycle to a close with recollections of the first three movements.

Originally for violin and piano, Évocation was written in 1947 for George Enescu. As a violinist, Enescu sometimes included works by Samazeuilh in his concert programmes. The latter was in turn a great admirer of Enescu’s music, and was particularly enthusiastic about OEdipe when it was first staged in 1936 at the Paris Opéra. The atmospheric Évocation is based on two musical elements: a motif played unaccompanied in the lower register which then acts as an ostinato counter-melody to the subsequent expressive phrase, and a descending triplet figure, usually chromatic, which little by little infiltrates the entire musical texture at the heart of the work.

Gérald Hugon
English translation by Susannah Howe

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