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ClassicsOnline Home » SEVERAC, D. de: Piano Music, Vol. 2 (Maso) - En vacances / Baigneuses au soleil / Les naiades et le faune indiscret
A central figure in the arts in France during his lifetime, Déodat de Sévérac stressed the importance of distinctive regional character in music. He derived his inspiration from Catalonia and Provence, and the genial warmth of expression in his work is reflected in the radiant imagery of Baigneuses au soleil which was dedicated to Alfred Cortot. The two groups of En vacances, the first described as little romantic pieces of moderate difficulty, are dedicated to friends, relations or colleagues, while the Fantasy Sous les lauriers roses is dedicated to the memory of the composer’s teachers. Volume 1 (8.555855) of Jordi Masó’s survey is a Penguin Guide *** key recommendation.
By John France
Déodat de Sévérac (1872–1921)
Piano Music • 2
The French composer Déodat de Sévérac belonged to a family of long distinction. He was born in 1872 at St Félix de Caraman en Lauraguais, in the Haute-Garonne, the son of a distinguished Toulouse painter, Gilbert de Sévérac, his first piano teacher. His mother was descended from the Aragon family of Spain, while his great-grandfather had served as naval minister to Louis XVI, the family boasting a descent that went back to the ninth century. The boy studied at the Dominican College of Sorèze, established in 1854 on the site of an ancient Benedictine foundation, before embarking on a degree in law at the university in Toulouse. Before long he was able to move to the Toulouse Conservatoire, where he was a student from 1893 to 1896. On the recommendation of Charles Bordes, a former pupil of César Franck, he was accepted by Franck’s leading disciple, Vincent d’Indy, as a pupil at the Schola Cantorum in Paris, a choice of institution that he soon found preferable to the more rigidly conservative academic discipline of the Paris Conservatoire.
At the Schola Cantorum Déodat de Sévérac was a composition pupil of d’Indy and Albéric Magnard, with organ lessons from Alexandre Guilmant, and piano training with Blanche Selva and with Isaac Albéniz, serving as the latter’s assistant from 1900. The period brought connections with fellow students, including Albert Roussel, and also with leading painters, sculptors and writers of the time. His compositions were heard in Paris, thanks in good measure to the advocacy of Blanche Selva and Ricardo Viñes. He later returned to southern France, making his home either at St Félix or at Céret, the latter an artistic centre for painters such as Braque and Picasso in the second decade of the twentieth century, earning the place the name of the ‘Barbizon of Cubism’. It was at Céret that Sévérac died in 1921.
Through his relatively short career Sévérac stressed the importance of local inspiration as a means of preserving a form of music that was distinctively French. His songs include settings of texts in Catalan and in Provençal, and it was this region, between Marseilles and Barcelona, that drew his continuing interest and loyalty. His emphasis on the importance of regionalism, the subject of his Schola Cantorum thesis La centralisation et les petites chapelles en musique, was in accordance with the prevalent views at the Schola and to some extent with the policies of Action française and Charles Maurras, a patriotic campaigner for a strong hereditary monarchy that would allow significant regional autonomy. De Sévérac retained his intense local loyalties and interests, but not his sympathy with the Schola. Attitudes of younger composers underwent some change, particularly after the scandal at the Conservatoire over the denial of the Prix de Rome to Ravel and the subsequent appointment of Gabriel Fauré as director, and Sévérac had more in common with Debussy and Ravel than with the perceived formalism of the Schola. He was greatly influenced by Isaac Albéniz, and completed Navarra, which Albéniz had left incomplete at his death in 1909, having earlier rejected it from his Iberia suite as descaradamente populachero (impudently vulgar).
Baigneuses au soleil (Souvenir de Banyuls-sur-mer) (Bathers in the Sun) was written in 1908 and dedicated to Alfred Cortot. Sévérac had intended to include it in his Cerdaña, but eventually decided to publish it separately. The piece has become relatively popular, a picture of girls lying in the sun and bathing in the sea at Banyuls-sur-mer. Les naïades et le faune indiscret (Danse nocturne) (The Naiads and the Prying Faun) was written in the same year but remained unpublished until 1952, when it was found by Sévérac’s daughter. It suggests the image conjured up by the characteristic title, coupled with evocative piano writing typical of its country and period.
Written in 1919 and published the following year, Sous les lauriers roses (Under the Oleanders) is described as a Fantaisie, dedicated to the memory of the composer’s teachers, Emmanuel Chabrier, Isaac Albéniz and Charles Bordes, and with the explanatory alternative title Soir de Carnaval sur la Côte Catalane (Carnival Evening on the Catalan Coast). It opens with La Banda Municipal, drums and all, and a paso doble, followed by the Petite Valse de Carabiniers, a tempo di valse veloce. La Naïade de Banyuls makes her appearance, to the swish of her dress and a melody described, in the manner of Satie, as avec un bon mauvais goût (with good bad taste). There follows a Quasi Sardana, preceded by a prelude for the Catalan flute, the fluviol. A passage in 5/8 is for Charles Bordes, followed by a tribute to Chabrier, Scherzo Valse. In an Alla Barcarolla a fisherman recalls the distant sardana (un pêcheur fait entendre au loin une réminiscence de la sardana). The carnival moves forward to L’ombre charmante du vieux Daquin (the charming shade of old Daquin) and a reminiscence of the latter in a playful cuckoo fughetta. A distant mechanical piano recalls the last echo of the ‘sentimental’ air associated with the Naïade, as the piece draws to a rapid close.
The first group of En vacances (On Holiday) dates from 1911, described in its full title as a set of little romantic pieces of moderate difficulty, each piece dedicated to a friend or relation. The set opens with an appropriate nod to Schumann, whose Kinderszenen is clearly in mind. The gently lilting piece is dedicated to the composer’s friend, the composer, organist and choirmaster Léon Froment. The following seven pieces have the general title Au Château et dans le Parc (In the Château and in the Park). The first, dedicated to Déodat de Sévérac’s niece Françoise de Bonnefoy, known as Césette, is Les caresses de Grand’ Maman (Grandma’s Caresses), lento e molto espressivo. This is followed by Les petites voisines en visite (The Little Girls from Next Door), dedicated to Christiane Synnestvedt, known as Cricri, daughter of a cousin of the composer, a Tempo di ronda giocosa quasi presto. Toto déguisé en Suisse d’église (Toto dressed as a Beadle) has the fitting tempo indication Lento espressivo e pomposo, apt for the parish official of the title. It is dedicated to Gaston de Castéra, son of Sévérac’s close friend and onetime fellow-student René de Castéra. The fourth piece, Mimi se déguise en ‘Marquise’, has its dedicatee, Mimi Godebski, to whom and to whose brother Ravel had dedicated his Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose), here with powdered wig and classical court dress, to the sound of a formal Minuet. Ronde dans le Parc (Games in the Park), dedicated to Max Carrère, son of the composer’s friend Paul Carrère, is a sober Andantino, followed by Où l’on entend une vieille boîte à musique, the old musical box of the title reflected in a drone bass, high register and characteristic figuration. It is dedicated to a young cousin, Mimi de Rigaud. The collection ends with Valse Romantique (Romantic Waltz), dedicated to his young cousin Marie de Saint-Cyr.
The second collection of pieces under the title En vacances was put together and, in the case of the second piece, completed, by the formidable pianist Blanche Selva, who became a substantial and important figure at the Schola Cantorum under Vincent d’Indy. It was published posthumously in 1922. The first of the three pieces, La Fontaine de Chopin (Chopin’s Fountain) evokes the spirit of Chopin, its opening Recitativo leading to a characteristic waltz. It is dedicated to the organist Raoul-Giral de Solancier. La Vasque aux Colombes (The Dove Fountain), Moderato e dolce, is dedicated to the poet and art critic Marc Lafargue, and the final Les Deux Mousquetaires (The Two Musketeers), Canon sans danger dans le style pompier (Canon without danger in high-falutin’ style), dedicated to Dr Camille Soula, who was to attend Sévérac on his death-bed, is a formal canon at the octave, interrupted by a glissando, before the return of the opening.
A fuller study of the composer may be found in Pierre Guillot’s Déodat de Sévérac: musicien français, Harmattan, Paris, 2010, to which the present writer is partly indebted
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