PIERRE WISSMER (1915 - 1992)
Born in Geneva in 1915, Pierre Wissmer had Vaudois lineage on his father’s side, whereas his mother, Xenia Kowarsky, was of Russian ancestry. Both doctors, his parents cultivated his gifts and channelled his enthusiasms. With her irresistible Slavic charm, his mother spoke several languages, loved music, readily humming tunes by Tchaikovsky, and enjoyed dance, the theatre and literature. She quickly sensed how to orient the education of her son despite the war that was raging, with doctors always kept busy. It was first necessary to leave the city and settle in Corsier, some dozen kilometres from Geneva, a place that owed its imperishable charm to the light and the peaceful movement of sailing-boats on the lake. A few distractions punctuated this period of retreat: in particular, a performance of Petrushka by the Ballets Russes, the boy’s first real musical experience, touched his sensibility that was already attuned to Russian genius through his mother.
Two of his parents’ friends further influenced his tastes: Stéphanie Guerzoni, a well-known painter, and Andrée Hess, a pianist and effective teacher. The latter, a fine athlete, also developed the young boy’s talents in swimming and cycling. Painting became a strong but ephemeral passion that did not withstand the rigours of teaching, whereas music gradually established itself on a long-term basis.
Pierre Wissmer began musical studies at the Geneva Conservatoire, while studying Classics in secondary school and obtaining his baccalaureate. On the advice of his parents, he then enrolled at the law school, but the piano aroused a real interest in him, and Robert Casadesus, who regularly inspected the school, encouraged him enthusiastically to persevere in that path. He decided that he would stand for the entrance examinations at the Paris Conservatoire.
Pianists Jacqueline Blancard and Jules Gentil took charge of improving Wissmer’s technique and trained him for admission to the famous school. Coming first amongst the eligible candidates, he allowed himself to relax, distracted by romantic preoccupations, and thus failed the decisive competition. Was this not a sign of fate? But other paths opened up before him, and he was recommended to Roger-Ducasse, Paul Dukas’s successor in the composition class, who agreed to take him on as an auditor until a vacancy should open up. Roger-Ducasse’s personality fascinated him, and his culture and professional demands obliged him to perfect his technical training and especially in harmony. He therefore also enrolled at the Schola Cantorum where Daniel-Lesur, who, at the time, was on the board of governors, taught counterpoint. A friendship grew up between the student and teacher, seven years his senior, that would endure throughout their lifetime.
It was probably thanks to Daniel-Lesur, in the libéral atmosphere of the Schola, that Pierre Wissmer could deepen his own nature as a creator. He learned to master not only the rules of counterpoint but also the thought process leading to that art, and he would skilfully unfold learned or graceful textures throughout his whole output. He turned to advantage commentaries on form, instrumentation, the equilibrium of works, always proposed in the respect of the composer. He found Daniel-Lesur’s teaching liberating and, a few years later, wrote: ‘Harmony ceased to be a sterile exercise, becoming the composer’s perfectly sharpened tool. Certainly, the rules were rigorous but always justified from the viewpoint of a clear, more elegant language, more in keeping with the intention and, in the final outcome, more personal’. Supplemented by Charles Münch’s conducting class at the École Normale de Musique, he benefited from thorough, well-rounded training.
Wissmer’s intuition and imagination generously produced ideas and, after a few pieces of chamber music, he tackled the orchestra, which he would always serve with the firm, straightforward pen of a refined colourist. His First Piano Concerto was first performed on the Radio on 10 October 1937 by Jacqueline Blancard under the direction of Henri Tomasi. The next year, his First Symphony was conducted in Winterthur by Hermann Scherchen, and in 1939, he composed Le beau dimanche, a ballet in one act on an idea by Pierre Guérin, a friend thanks to whom he gradually got to know Stravinsky, Poulenc, Sauguet, Cocteau, Bernac, Bérard and Hervé Dugardin, with whom he would always remain close.
Wissmer was called up during the war, with the special status of ‘Swiss citizen living abroad’ for he would not take French nationality until 1958. Several of his new works would soon have their first performances in Geneva (in particular, his First Violin Concerto by the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande) and, in 1944, he was appointed professor of composition at the Geneva Conservatoire and head of the chamber music department at Radio-Genève. Despite his multiple occupations, his output intensified and diversified. He composed Marion ou La belle au tricorne, a comic opera given its première in concert at Radio-Genève and later staged at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. He wrote numerous chamber works for piano, voice and string quartet, radio music including L’histoire d’un concerto, which won him the Swiss Radio Grand Prize, and the Second Symphony. It was also at this time (specifically, on 6 February 1948) that he married Laure-Anne Etienne, a young pianist and student of Marguerite Long at the Paris Conservatoire, who would, after their move to Paris, assist his career.
From 1952 to 1957, Pierre Wissmer was assistant director of programmes at Radio-Luxembourg then programme director at Télé-Luxembourg. In early 1957, Daniel-Lesur, then director of the Schola Cantorum, called him to be his assistant director (he would be director from 1962 to 1963), also putting him in charge of teaching composition and orchestration. In this school, where adult students were enrolled, often having a good overall cultural level and multiple identity, his teaching became influential. As he confided to his pupil Jean-Jacques Werner: ‘Being in agreement with oneself is the essential thing’. But he added: ‘Regardless of the value of your musical thinking, it will always need harmony to convey it and bring it to life’.
Harmony calls for all its care and attention, harmony not language: ‘The problem with language seems to me a non-issue that has haunted only minor musicians or great musicians during minor periods in their creation…’ But, he insisted, responding to a question on the elaboration of the score, on the imperatives of work: ‘Looking for a form, the choice of sound materials, the balance of the various elements, the beat given to the musical discourse, the perfecting of the polyphony (ie, of the design), then the orchestration (ie, the colour), the settling of all the performance details (breathing of the woodwinds, bowing, dynamics, tempos), all those operations that require the meticulousness of a watchmaker and the patience of a Benedictine monk, both guided by the intuition of a water diviner.’
The powerful works that came into being over the years are representative of the evolutions in his thinking, which affirmed itself in ardour or austerity and asceticism, but always noble and distinguished. Symphonic music and the theatre are the two fields that he seemed to favour. Thus did he pursue with regularity a cycle that would include nine symphonies, the third for strings alone, the others for full orchestra, fashioning a discourse of manifold expressive intentions. His instrumental knowledge also predisposed him to address soloists in the framework of the concerto. After having chosen the clarinet (1960), the trumpet (1961) and the oboe (1963), he wrote the Concertino-croisière for flute the same year (1966) as the Concerto Valcrosiano, a state commission that owes its name to the Provencal hamlet of Valcros where he spent his summer holidays.
In 1965 Wissmer received the Grand Prix Paul Gilson de la Communauté Radiophonique des Programmes de Langue Française for his oratorio Le quatrième mage, which was first performed on Radio Suisse Romande under his own direction. In 1967, the year he composed the ballet Christina et les chimères, on a theme and choreography by Michel Descombey, which would be broadcast on television, he received the Grand Prize of the City of Paris for Quadrige, a quartet for flute, violin, cello and piano. As regards the Wind Quintet, written shortly thereafter, he specified having sought ‘a harmonious balance between the virtuosity inherent in the genre and the sound and formal structures that condition all pure music’.
Dud he not, then, maintain a balance between different elements, combining, as Bernard Gavoty and Daniel-Lesur noted, ‘French clarity, Swiss precision, an Italian taste for brio and a dash of Slavic abandon, which he must have inherited from his maternal ancestry’?
In the 1960s and 1970s, Wissmer travelled extensively to teach or conduct before being appointed director of the Le Mans National School for Music, Dance and Dramatic Art in 1969, and professor of composition and orchestration at the Geneva Conservatoire in 1973. Ten years later the city of Geneva would crown his career and musical contribution to Switzerland by awarding him the City of Geneva’s Grand Prize for Music. Yet it was in France, in Valcros, that his life would come to an end, in 1992, shortly after his wife, who had never ceased to support his activity. It was she who had commented on his work with the most pertinence:
‘Is Pierre Wissmer’s music classical, romantic or modern? None of these three aspects ineluctably excludes the other two. Although his music was in no way backward-looking, it would, however, be hazardous to want to enclose it in one or another of the « schools » that have illustrated our century. There is general agreement in acknowledging his great virtuosity of writing, on the polyphonic as well as the orchestral levels. But it would perhaps be even more advisable to note the subtle appropriateness of the language to his highly personal thinking, robust and tender, in which the exhilaration of living comes up against uneasy questions.’