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GP695 - LE FLEM, P.: Piano Works (Complete) (Koukl)
English  French  Breton 

Paul Le Flem (1881–1984)
Complete Piano Works


In what was, regrettably, an interrupted career as a composer, Paul Le Flem always maintained his deeply-rooted aesthetic convictions, and yet also successfully adapted his musical idiom to suit the modern innovations of the day.

Like his older colleagues Guy Ropartz and Louis Aubert, he was of Breton origin, and once recalled: “The first music I heard was the folk songs of Brittany, which were very beautiful—they seduced me, lit the flame of love within me…” That Breton soundworld of his childhood was soon broadened and enriched when he began to teach himself harmony and music theory. He went to his first concerts and opera performances in Brest, and started composing before he sat his baccalauréat exams in 1899. Like Albert Roussel a few years earlier, Le Flem heard the call of the sea and planned to study at the École Navale, but in the event, his poor eyesight meant a maritime career was out of the question. Instead he went to Paris, studying with Lavignac at the Conservatoire—where the academic teaching style failed to enthuse him—as well as graduating in philosophy from the Sorbonne.

In 1902, he attended the earliest performances of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, its harmonic idiom imprinting itself indelibly on his imagination. That summer, he left for Russia, where he spent the next eighteen months as a private tutor and also acquired a sound knowledge of the Russian language.

On his return to Paris, he decided to pick up his music studies again, but this time at the Schola Cantorum with Vincent d’Indy (composition) and Albert Roussel (counterpoint). He also studied the polyphonists of the Renaissance, an area of interest he shared with his friend and fellow student Edgar Varèse.

Le Flem was later to say, “It may seem strange that, having studied with Vincent d’Indy, I then chose to follow more closely in the footsteps of Claude Debussy. I think what really attracted me to his music was its intense poetry, which reminded me of the poetry of the folk songs that had shaped my childhood. I could suggest that Debussy’s poetics and D’Indy’s strict sense of order were two opposing extremes, but the truth is that both of them have left a mark on my work, which has been inspired by a fusion of three influences: my native Brittany, Debussy and D’Indy.”

The years leading up to the First World War gave an indication of the way Le Flem’s career would develop in the interwar period, as he began to divide his time between teaching, criticism and choral conducting. His teaching skills were soon noted by others: in a letter to Roland-Manuel on 14th September 1911, Erik Satie, then a mature student at the Schola Cantorum, wrote “Roussel isn’t taking the class until December. His replacement is Le Flem, who is doing a very good job.”

As a critic, he championed the boldest new works of his time, his reviews always well informed and soundly argued. Despite his D’Indyist training, when he attended the première of Debussy’s ballet Jeux in 1913, he praised the sophistication of its “music with broken rhythms, well suited to a variable choreography”.

His own compositional career was interrupted by the outbreak of war.

Arthur Honegger was later to remark that, “On the eve of 1914, Paul Le Flem was one of the leading “musicians of tomorrow”, but he voluntarily stepped aside to make room for the new “musicians of today”.” He realised, for example, that one of his students, André Jolivet, would benefit from working with Varèse, and duly made the introduction.

Le Flem only switched his focus back to composing in 1937. As well as stage works linked to the tales and legends of his native Brittany such as Le Rossignol de Saint-Malo (The nightingale of Saint-Malo, 1938) and La Magicienne de la mer (The sorceress of the sea, 1947), he also produced more abstract works such as the Concertstück for violin (1965) and three symphonies (1957, 1972, 1974) which demonstrate how his musical idiom was developing towards atonality.

His catalogue of works for piano is dominated by four pieces inspired by Brittany, all of them steeped in the region’s landscapes and ever-changing seascape, its light, its climate, its vegetation, its austere granitic geology and its traditional mysteries and legends, in all their tonal variety, from the lighthearted to the disquieting.

Dedicated to the composer René de Castera, Avril (April, 1910) is a festive, springtime work, in which the spirit of nature’s renewal is translated into a dazzling piece of pianistic writing. It opens with a series of concise musical elements: dotted-rhythm figures alternating with bright, airy runs. That dotted rhythm heralds the A major first subject, which has the character of a folk dance. Soon the music’s contours become more fluid—Debussyist, even Hispanic in feel (reminiscent of the opening of Ibéria). A central episode in C sharp gently introduces a more expansive, chordal second subject, as the underlying activity becomes increasingly intense. The two main themes are then superimposed on one another in the coda.

Vieux Calvaire (Old wayside cross, 1910), in F sharp minor, is dedicated to the pianist Blanche Selva. Imbued with a devotional, contemplative quality, the work is remarkable for the sense of space and openness it gains from being written across three staves, a separation that highlights the contrast between different registers and their associated sonorities. The motifs are short and, for the most part, alternate with flowing runs. The first, contemplative theme soon gives way to a three-note figure that resounds in octaves in the upper register, and then to a “finely sung” theme. The central section combines a chorale tune in the lower registers with sudden bursts of the three-note motif. The return of the first theme, “very sustained”, marks the climax of the work. In the final section, the opening theme alternates with the chorale, associated first with the three-note motif and then with the beginning of the main theme, which fades away as it becomes more and more truncated, like a fragment of memory.

The two works Par landes (On the moors, November 1907) and Par grèves (On the shores) are particularly closely linked to the Brittany of Le Flem’s childhood. The pair were premiered at the Société national in Paris on 4th April 1908. Par landes opens with harmonies built on strung-out notes that introduce, after focusing on A flat, an expressive, rather melancholy melody. A flurry of rapidly alternating chords is followed by a second subject of more naive melodic shape and a folk-like feel. A new flurry now introduces an impassioned theme in B major written across three staves and encompassing a wide span of registers. The last part returns, in modified fashion, to the elements heard at the beginning (the focus on A flat, expressive theme and strungout chords), bringing to an end this work full of poetry, mystery, humanity and nature.

The most “maritime” of all Le Flem’s piano works, Par grèves adopts a rhapsodic style reflecting all the emotions one might experience when strolling along the seashore. The introduction, for alternate hands and marked “fairly animated”, sets the scene of sea and sky before giving way to a joyful, dancing and folk-like first subject. The atmosphere is soon disturbed by the appearance of natural elements that are beyond man’s control—wind and water represented by agitated tremolos over arpeggios. Joy comes to the fore again with the folk-tune’s insistent dotted rhythm, until we reach a moment of calm, almost religious meditation. The introduction returns, but this time leads to a powerful, irresistible summons from the sea (in D major), with all its seductive appeal and sense of threat and danger, in a complex texture of (thirteen!) repeated syncopated three-chord “calls”, halos of trills, tremolos, and liquid arpeggios. After the eleventh repetition, the dotted rhythm gradually makes a brief reappearance. The music becomes even more fluid before a kind of chorale tune with long note values appears, the two hands playing at the extreme ends of the keyboard; a majestic theme is then heard twice, initially set out in contrary motion. This is followed by a recapitulation that returns to the initial key of E flat major and links the introduction, the folk-like subject and the call section, this time in B major and shorter, being limited to the first eleven occurrences. The final section is more restrained and brings in a decorative idea that, over a tonic (E flat) pedal, frames six new three-note calls, representing the obsession with the sea that was part of Le Flem’s psyche throughout his life.

Le Chant des genêts (The song of the broom plants, 1910), dedicated to his son Maurice, is a set of five pieces that are stylistically diverse but all inspired by elements of Breton folk tradition. Entrée des binious (Entry of the Breton bagpipes), with its bright and lively rhythm, is like parade music, full of unexpected modulations, sometimes “a little rakish” in spirit, as noted by the composer. In Vers le soir (Towards the evening) we hear distant echoes of a folk dance, floating through an atmosphere of low parallel harmonies redolent of Debussy. Autour d’un conte (About a tale) has all the dramatic contrasts of a narrative form. It begins gravely, with a hieratical pentatonic motif which is set against a second idea indicated “open and spirited”. This is the longest piece in the set, and boasts the most elaborate piano writing. Pour bercer (Lullaby) takes on almost Chinese hues in its central section with its use of the whole-tone scale, while in the concise final piece, Ronde (Round dance), a lively refrain is alternated with calmer episodes.

The Sept Pièces enfantines (Seven children’s pieces, 1911) are criss-crossed with the games and emotions of childhood, but also make reference to Breton religious and folk customs, as in the last in the set, the modally inflected Bigoudens, named after the traditional headdress worn by Breton women.

The two early works Les Korrigans (1896—a Korrigan is a magical creature in Breton folklore), a Breton waltz, and Éponine et Sabinius (Epponina and Sabinius, 1897), a “symphonic poem” for piano, were written before Le Flem’s move to Paris. Guy Ropartz had the opportunity to see the score of the latter work and passed on advice and encouragement to the young composer.

Émotions (1939) is part of the soundtrack Le Flem wrote for a documentary film entitled Sommes-nous défendus? (Are we defended?).

The atonal Pour la main droite (For the right hand, 1961) is one of the rare contributions to this repertoire, joining examples by Alkan, Samazeuilh (see GP669) and Jean Absil.

The composition dates of Mélancolie ! and the Pavane de Mademoiselle (style Louis XIV), a seventeenth-century-style pastiche, are unknown. Should we view Mélancolie ! as being written in somewhat ironic vein, given the exclamation mark in the title and the quotation from the Marseillaise at the beginning? Might there not be some kind of complicity here with its dedicatee, Émile Lacroix, a friend Le Flem may have met at the front. The lines that head the manuscript perhaps express a desire for solace and tranquillity: “Est-il un lieu béni, dans l’un ou l’autre monde,/Où tu puisses, mon coeur, oublier et dormir?” (Is there some blessed place, in one or other world,/where you, my heart, might be able to forget, and sleep?).

Gérald Hugon
English translation by Susannah Howe

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