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GP684 - GODARD, B.: Piano Works, Vol. 2 (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.
This recording draws together a broad selection of Godard’s piano music, from the relatively early Trois Fragments Poétiques, Op. 13, published in 1869, to later works from the early 1890s, just a few years before he died. There are shared characteristics between many of these pieces: in particular their employment of long-spun, lyrical melodies and relatively simply formal structures. Yet whilst some seem particularly suited to an amateur player, carefully avoiding major difficulties, others are clearly meant for skilled pianists wishing to show off their octave playing and fast fingerwork.
We begin with a piece from 1893, Rêve Vécu, Op. 140—literally, ‘living a dream’. This gentle waltz, described by its composer as a ‘Pièce romantique’, contains elements of Chopin with some of the rich harmonies of early Debussy, coloured by sevenths and ninths. It was dedicated to Jacques Durand, son of Auguste and co-founder of the publishing house Durand & Fils in 1891, which issued much of Godard’s music.
Godard’s four Nocturnes were composed across two decades, from c. 1882–1892, and in the Premier Nocturne, Op. 68 in particular, the influence of Chopin is once again clearly detectable. However, conscious of his amateur audience and the need for manageable salon music, the composer carefully avoids the kind of elaborate filigree that made his predecessor’s nocturnes so challenging.
The singing melody of the opening contains several two-bar ‘echoes’, the material repeated, usually at a quieter dynamic, as if from far in the distance. The Deuxième Nocturne was completed just a few years later, in 1885, and turns the conventional accompanimental arpeggios of the genre on its head—quite literally, with the left hand playing patterns which descend through each bar, rather than rise. These falling figurations are often mirrored by a rising right hand melody, which gives way to a more virtuosic, almost orchestral climax in the central section. The piece bears a dedication ‘to my friend André Gresse’, a distinguished operatic bass who created roles in several operas by Massenet.
It was not until 1892 that Godard returned to the genre, completing the Troisième Nocturne, Op. 139 in c. 1892, and the Quatrième Nocturne, Op. 150 in 1893. The Troisième explores rather different textures to its predecessors, the melody sitting between the hands within a straightforward chordal texture, and extending up to the top of the right hand and back down into the tenor register. The Quatrième is the most harmonically unusual of the four, full of seventh chords and sharpened fourths. It is also the most difficult of Godard’s nocturnes, with fast-running semiquavers and octave passage work, the emphasis on sophisticated musical development rather than pragmatic writing for a wide audience.
The Trois Morceaux, Op. 16, published in 1874, were most decidedly intended for the amateur market, and each of the three pieces was issued separately as well as together. The opening Menuet actually begins with a Prélude, bringing together Baroque-imitation trills, arpeggios and imitative part-writing with some decidedly non-Baroque leaping melodies and rich harmonies. The following Andante is similarly brief and full of pastiche elements. The Gavotte, interestingly, is labelled ‘Première Gavotte’ as if there might have been plans for a second… but it appears alone here, light and bouncing, the treble statement of the opening melody repeated in full chords, as if mimicking the concertino and ripieno groups of a concerto grosso.
Another late work is the Fantaisie en trois parties, Op. 143, from 1893, which Godard dedicated to the distinguished pianist and pedagogue Antoine-François Marmontel (1816–1898). This begins with a Ballade, in which a light E flat major melody is presented in a series of different musical contexts: the pianistic texture, register and voicing are altered at each appearance, pushing the music towards different tonalities each time. The Intermezzo which follows is a virtuosic Vivace in G minor, a fast-moving, sinuous triplet melody over a driving, almost waltz-like bass (indeed, the middle section of this movement is clearly in the manner of a witty Chopinesque waltz). The finale, a lively Scherzo, presents us with a bouncing, sparkling melody full of sly chromatic inflections. An expansive and increasingly ominous central Andante gives way to handfuls of semiquavers and sextuplets as the opening material returns for a bravura end to the piece.
An Etude, Op. 82, from 1884, bears the rather curious title Renouveau—‘Renewal’. This is a flowing, lyrical piece in A flat major, the constant arpeggios providing the study element of the work in a more lightly-textured imitation of Chopin’s so-called ‘Aeolian Harp’ Etude, Op. 25, No. 1 (also in A flat). Finally—now moving backwards in time—we come to the Trois Fragments Poétiques, Op. 13, published in 1869. These three pieces each bear the title of a poet: Lamartine, Musset and Hugo. Lamartine has a particularly unusual harmonic palette, with keys never firmly established and exotic-sounding chromatic inflexions within the melodic line. The strummed chords of the opening, followed by this unusual melody, seem to conjure the image of a mysterious minstrel. By contrast, Musset borders on the Impressionist, with much of the piece featuring a left hand drone on E and B, and repeated semiquavers in the treble whilst the melody sits in the middle. A free middle section devoid of barlines and marked ‘con fantasia’ functions almost as a kind of recitative, before the return of the rich, unsettled opening material. Finally, Hugo is jaunty and straightforward, free of the harmonic complexities of its predecessors and full of light, bouncing dotted rhythms. Whether this was intended to reflect Godard’s view of the three poets in question is difficult to say; though he does head the work with a brief quotation from Lamartine’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (a work of great importance to Franz Liszt, philosophically and musically):
The stanza in question is taken from the tenth book of Lamartine’s work: a section entitled ‘Réponse à M. Victor Hugo.’
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