About this Recording
GP724 - ROGER-DUCASSE, J.: Piano Works (Hastings)
English  French 

JEAN ROGER-DUCASSE (1873–1954)
PIANO WORKS

 

‘Of all modern classicists, perhaps none is more successful in combining colour and solidity than Roger-Ducasse. All the best qualities of the French musician are combined in him—an abundantly rich imagination, clear and deep thought, graceful and precise workmanship, and unerring taste.’ So wrote Alfred J. Swan in The Musical Times in 1921, of a composer whose reputation at the time was considerable, for all that he is less familiar to us now. Jean Roger-Ducasse was born in Bordeaux in 1873, eleven years after Debussy and two years before Ravel, and like all talented young French musicians of the day, he was sent to the Paris Conservatoire to train. A gifted pianist and promising composer, he won numerous Conservatoire prizes with ease and in 1896, joined the composition class of Gabriel Fauré. There he became friends with Ravel, Florent Schmitt, Charles Koechlin, George Enescu, Alfred Cortot and Nadia Boulanger—and although he did not manage to win the coveted Prix de Rome (the prize virtually guaranteeing a young French composer a successful career), he found a powerful advocate and warm friend in Fauré himself.

Roger-Ducasse spent his early career as inspector general for the teaching of singing in Paris schools, and wrote a sizeable quantity of choral music as a result. He also became close friends with Debussy, and joined the composer for one of the earliest performances of the two-piano work, En Blanc et Noir in 1916. He orchestrated several of Debussy’s works after his death in 1918—most notably the Rhapsodie for saxophone—and was close friends with his daughter, Chouchou. From 1929, he joined the staff of the Conservatoire and became a Professor of Composition in 1935, taking over the post from Paul Dukas (which caused some confusion given the similarity of their names).

It is not surprising, given his own considerable facility as a pianist, that Roger-Ducasse wrote often for solo piano. However, much of his piano music was given first or early performances not by the composer himself, but by his dear friend Marguerite Long (1874–1966), who was also responsible for premiering Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin and Concerto in G. It was Long who gave the première of the first piece on this recording, the Barcarolle No. 1 (1906), which was written for performance on either piano or harp—it was partially intended as a showpiece for the concert harp developed by the Parisian company of Érard, and bears a dedication to its director, Albert Blondel. It is a dreamy work in D flat major, and both Debussy and Fauré are detectable as Roger-Ducasse’s principal models. The rapid changes of key are no doubt intended as a means of showing off the harp, although they are equally musically effective in performance on the piano.

Dating from eleven years later, Rythmes (1917) is a playful, virtuosic game of counting, leaping between time signatures and even setting up different meters between the player’s two hands—the piece begins by pitting 5/8 against 3/8, for instance. There are little Spanish inflections throughout, and even the hint of shaking tambourines; a certain nod to the work’s dedicatee and first performer, pianist Blanche Selva, a formidable Catalan pianist who premièred several books of Isaac Albeniz’s Iberia. This is followed by the single Prélude, which Roger-Ducasse instructs should be played ‘avec beaucoup de fantaisie’. A whimsical little piece, the composer quickly undermines any sense of the piece being in a key through the introduction of sinuous chromatic movement, picking up accidentals in both the melody and bass only to drop them again.

Roger-Ducasse signed up to fight in 1914, but shortly afterwards he contracted severe pneumonia which nearly killed him, and was signed off for auxiliary service. Despite later stints of duty, he continued to compose during this period: the Quatre Études, Rythmes, Sonorités and Barcarolle No. 2 were all written by 1920, and in 1921, both the Impromptu and Chant de l’aube were completed. The latter of these two, ‘Song of the dawn’, is far from the gentle mist-laden scene such a title might suggest. Instead, it features a stark juxtaposition of the rather jaunty opening melody with a mysterious middle section, slow and harmonically unstable.

Sonorités, a wartime work, once again seems to have been inspired by Debussy’s earlier piano music. Resonant chords are built and reinforced in different registers of the piano, shivering delicately towards the work’s opening. When a melody emerges from the texture, it is exquisitely decorated with fluttering scales and elaborations; and as the work builds to its climax, these elaborations grow wilder and more extended, glittering over resounding bass notes which ring out—as the work’s name suggests—against the shifting colours of the upper voices.

The Six Préludes are an earlier composition, dating from 1907 and, once again, received their first performance thanks to Marguerite Long. These are brief pieces, each with a specific character which Roger-Ducasse provides by way of an opening performance indication. Thus the first, ‘Très nonchalant’, consists of a wandering right-hand melody against a rather ambiguous strummed accompaniment; and a limpid lyricism is to be found in the following ‘Très calme’. The basis of the third, ‘D’un rythme très précis’, is the hammered pattern of B flats at its opening, and ‘Très libre’ provides a hint that this fourth Prélude, whilst appearing to be a strict fugue, is actually rather freer than it seems. The subsequent ‘D’un rythme capricieux et tendre’ is, not surprisingly for its capriciousness, full of tempo changes and alternating time signatures that leave it without any real sense of regular metrical emphasis. The set concludes with a gentle interweaving of musical lines across the keyboard: ‘Très souple’.

The second of Roger-Ducasse’s Barcarolles, composed in 1920, is the most substantial and ambitious work here, and a piece of considerably more drama than its predecessor. The first few pages of the Barcarolle No. 2 present a canon between right and left hand, and this comes to necessitate some rapid hand crossing as the texture grows denser. This relatively tranquil opening section is gradually abandoned in favour of ever stormier music (Liszt and Ravel seem to hover behind this writing), before eventually subsiding to a reappearance of the canon. Melodies are often woven into the middle of the texture, and Roger-Ducasse even chose to write out one lengthy section across three staves, to reveal the nature of the interweaving textures with greater clarity. The piece is dedicated to the composer’s two sisters, Marguerite and Yvonne.

The other works of the 1920s seem to look forward to the pianistic innovations of Poulenc—a clear demonstration of Roger-Ducasse’s familiarity with, an interest in, new musical developments. The Impromptu (1921), another virtuosic work, sees the music trickling up and down chromatic scales, musical ideas making appearances half a step higher or lower than on their previous appearance. The Romance of 1923 seems constantly on the brink of wandering away from tonal harmony altogether, only to turn on a single chord back towards familiar territory, a kind of rewriting of the harmonic rulebook to incorporate far higher levels of direct dissonance than Fauré and his colleagues would have been prepared to use. This is Roger-Ducasse’s last work for solo piano.

The remaining works on this recording are from earlier days. The Petite Suite, a duet composition of 1897, shares the same name as the piano duet pieces of Debussy from the 1880s. It is heard here in a transcription for solo piano by Jacques Charlot, a cousin of the esteemed French music publisher Jacques Durand. Each movement is dedicated to different children: the Souvenance (‘Recollection’) to his niece Marie Yvonne Maurange; the Berceuse, appropriately enough, to the children of Gabriel Fauré, composer of the famous Berceuse in his own piano duet work, the Dolly Suite; and the Claironnerie (literally ‘the shouting from the rooftops’ or ‘the trumpeting’—and we hear the trumpet blowing its little fanfare at the opening) to his nephew Jean Maurange. Finally, the Quatre Études take the form of a Prélude in C major, with shades of Debussy’s Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum; a witty Fugue with a subject suspiciously close to ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’; a gentler piece in E major, and a closing study in E flat minor which stretches across the far extremes of the piano’s compass. Tapping away in its final pages is a bolero rhythm—thirteen years before that dance was given full orchestral attire by Roger-Ducasse’s good friend, Maurice Ravel.

Katy Hamilton


Close the window