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GP683 - GODARD, B.: Piano Works, Vol. 1 (E. Reyes)
Benjamin Godard (1849–1895)
Regarded during his lifetime as one of the most promising young composers in France, Benjamin Godard is barely known to modern concert audiences. A child prodigy, he excelled at both the violin and piano and enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire when he was just ten years old. He studied violin there with the great Belgian violin virtuoso Henry Vieuxtemps and composition with Henri Reber (who also taught Massenet). Despite two attempts in 1863 and 1864, he did not succeed in winning the coveted Prix de Rome, the mark of compositional success and acceptance by the establishment that launched the careers of most young French musicians. Nevertheless, this did not deter him from setting his heart on a career as a composer and he worked hard to build his musical career, earning comparisons with Mozart for his youthful talent.
By the 1870s he already had a considerable reputation across Europe. In 1878 he won the Prix de la Ville de Paris with his dramatic symphony Le Tasse, Op. 39, and in the same year the première of that work (at which Gounod, Massenet, Saint-Saëns and Ambroise Thomas were all in attendance) received rave reviews. In addition to his success as a composer, Godard also played violin and viola for a variety of chamber music ensembles in the French capital, and in 1887 he took over the teaching of chamber music at the Conservatoire.
Godard was a prolific composer and within the course of his short life he wrote three symphonies, four concertos, eight operas, three string quartets, four violin sonatas, and a tremendous range of further chamber works, piano solos and songs. Indeed most critics seem to have agreed that Godard would have served himself better by being less prolific and honing his craft between projects. It is probable that a combination of joy at his early successes, pride at his international profile, and a need for money, caused him to work so hard and publish such an extensive list of pieces. Although writing in an age of Wagner fever in France, Godard was notable for his careful avoidance of the German composer’s influence. As a musician of Jewish heritage, he loathed Wagner’s politics, and aligned himself musically with the earlier generations of Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin and Beethoven. It is for this reason, perhaps, that his music disappeared from the concert platform so soon after his death: the early works of Debussy and Ravel appeared in print in the 1890s, and against these new innovations Godard’s works seem decidedly conservative and old-fashioned. He died of tuberculosis in 1895, at the age of just forty-five.
The works on this recording all appeared in print between 1879 and 1884, and draw together Godard’s two Piano Sonatas with a collection of miniatures for piano. The vast majority of his piano works were either character pieces, often with descriptive titles, or cast in genres familiar from the works of Chopin: barcarolles, waltzes, mazurkas and nocturnes. Much of this was clearly written with an eye to the vast market for amateur musicians, and Godard even went so far as to publish a collection of Études, Op. 149, in four books, divided by level of difficulty—for beginners, students, amateurs and ‘artists’. The two Sonatas on this disc are clearly aimed at professional musicians, or very talented amateurs; the remaining pieces seem better suited to those playing purely for pleasure.
Godard’s ‘Sonate Fantastique’ in C major, Op. 63, was published in 1881, and each of the four movements bears a descriptive title in the manner of a character piece. (Indeed, the movements were also available for purchase separately, in the manner of discrete compositions). We begin with Les Génies de la Forêt, who seem to rustle and murmur all around the listener—the constant pulsing of triplet low Cs gives the impression of creatures that are grounded yet in constant motion. A dignified chorale, the second subject of the movement, seems to underline the age and power of these mysterious beings. They are followed, in the second movement, by Les Farfadets, little mischievous creatures of French folklore akin to leprechauns or sprites. Here the music leaps along in bouncing 3/4 time, with tricksy, chromatically-inflected scales and leaps. A rather gentler middle section reassures us that these little fairies are good-hearted, if naughty; but when the opening material returns we are thrown through a whirlwind of scales and staccato passages, before the Farfadets apparently jump out of the window in the final bars, disappearing into the night. The third movement deals with a rather different kind of fairy, La Fée d’Amour. The warmth and lyricism of this Quasi adagio is reminiscent of a Schumann song, and Godard carefully marks the subtle fluctuations of tempo that he expects within each phrase. Last but not least come Les Esprits de la Mer—this time not only given a descriptive title, but also a three-verse poem of Godard’s own composition (he was a keen poet and set his own texts to music on several occasions). The poem reveals the dark intentions of these sea spirits, who break up the ships which cross their waves and steal the sailors’ lives. The music here is low and rumbling, a pianistic texture dominated by restless C minor arpeggios and bass trills. The tension builds as the piece progresses, the ships and sailors swept away, before we reach a major resolution: the seafarers dispatched, all that remains is the calm, undisturbed surface of the ocean.
By contrast, Godard’s Sonata No. 2 in F minor, Op. 94, written three years later in 1884, is without any programmatic content. In the opening Allegro, the principal melody seems to have something of the Dies irae chant about it. This is followed by the kind of right hand/left hand alternation found in the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Pathétique’ Sonata, Op. 13, and the music becomes increasingly virtuosic as we progress. The second movement provides respite with a long-breathed, lyrical melody in D flat major; after which the Finale, in 6/8, seems to draw together the light, scherzando gestures of Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a bravura coda in the manner of a Chopin ballade. The sonata was dedicated to Godard’s friend, the Belgian pianist Auguste Dupont (1827–90).
Of the four character pieces presented here, two deal with the shifting textures of the water, and one with the same kinds of fairies that are to be found in the ‘Sonate Fantastique’. Whilst Sur la Mer, Op. 44 (1879), is subtitled ‘Barcarolle’, the waves here seem rather choppier than such a gondolier’s designation might suggest. An unsettled sea in C minor rolls and threatens, wandering into remote keys as stormclouds gather and dissipate. By contrast, Promenade en Mer, Op. 86 (1884), is far gentler—more the gentle rocking of a lagoon than the rough billows of the ocean. The F major melody of the opening is later embellished with little gurgling eddies and fountains, with only the merest hint of grumbling waves in the middle section of the piece.
Godard composed two pieces entitled Conte de Fée—‘fairy tale’—of which Op. 62 (1882) is the first. Based on a brief motive presented in the first bar, this gentle piece in F sharp major is a charming marriage of the character writing of Schumann with the filigree touches of Chopin. Finally, Au Matin, Op. 83 (1884), was one of the few pieces of Godard’s to enjoy some popularity in the decades following his death. A simple melody in E flat is repeated and re-configured, almost like a gentle morning stroll. The climax, when it comes, borders on the operatic—just the model one would expect of a composer who so excelled at music for the salon.
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