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Sunday listening: The symphonic poetry of 20th century French composer Charles Koechlin

By John Terauds on July 14, 2013

koechlin

Bastille Day is a fine excuse to spend a moment with underappreciated French composer Charles Koechlin (1867-1950), who is benefiting from some very fine new recordings, including an album by Toronto violist Steven Dann.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

With Maurice Ravel and Florent Schmitt, Koechlin founded the Société Musicale Indépendante in 1909 to help promote new music in Paris. Like his two colleagues, a quest for new means of expression never strayed too far from music that remains, a century later, as pleasant to listen to as it is filled with remarkable craft.

Koechlin became a highly respected teacher and musicologist, all the while writing music prolifically. He left 225 published opus numbers as well as significant textbooks on harmony, counterpoint and orchestration when he died.

Let’s listen to a couple of symphonic examples — one earnest, one not — that truly define what symphonic poetry is all about.

Koechlin’s childhood dream was to become an astronomer, and he became friends with Camille Flammarion, the Carl Sagan of late-19th century France. At Flammarion’s death in 1925, Koechlin dedicated a gorgeous tone poem to him that is a model of careful thematic deployment: Vers la voûte étoilée (Towards the starry dome).

Here is Koechlin’s 1939 revision, performed by conductor Heinz Holliger and the Stuttfart Radio Symphony Orchestra:

Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book had a stage life before Walt Disney came along. Here’s Koechlin’s symphonic take on “Les Bandar-Log, “also from 1939. What makes this especially clever is its parodying of experimental composition of the 1920s and ’30s.

As Koechlin wrote in the programme notes for the first performance (my translation):

In the calm of a luminous morning, the monkeys suddenly erupt with grotseque noises but also supple and gracious gambols. As you know from Kipling’s story, these monkeys are at once the most vain and most insignificant of beasts, who think of themselves as creative geniuses but are in reality vulgar imitators. They will talk, sing and declaim their pretentious secrets. For that, they will use (to little effect) various techniques of modern harmony: first of all consecutive fifths, then ninths, in the style of Debussy. These are folded into the gambols, which remain harmonious and musical.

How’s that for skewering your peers?

Have a listen to this fine recording by Günther Wand and the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra (interesting how it’s been Germans who have helped preserve Koechlin’s legacy):

Another fascinating piece from Koechlin’s vast output is his Music Offering on the name of Bach, written during the early years of World War II. The first six movements are pure Baroque structure (chorale, followed by canons, fugues and a passacaglia). The seventh movement is a solo piano “album leaf.” The eighth and ninth multi-part movements are harmony “lessons” on embellished cantus and bass lines.

This is from the same Holliger recording, which uses Koechlin’s 1946 orchestration:

And, in the spirit of less so often being more, here is Koechlin’s 1917 contribution to the symphonic world of sea sketches, Paysages et marines, which he reduced just before his death to an arrangement for piano (Christoph Keller in this recording), violin (Alexandru Gravilovici and Urs Walker), viola (Christoph Schiller), cello (Patrick Demenga), flute (Kyoshi Kasai), clarinet (Eumar Schmid). There are 12 movements:

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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