Any review of a composer as relatively unknown as Joseph-Guy Ropartz needs
some kind of biographical introduction, if for no other reason than situating
him within his contemporary music world. What follows is only a thumbnail
sketch of this tremendously underrated composer.
He was born in the town of Guingamp in 1864. Music was not his first calling
in life; he studied to be a lawyer, following after his father who was also
a lawyer and a highly respected historian of Brittany. However, as is so
often the case, he came to Paris and had to make the personal choice between
a career in law or in music. Poetry was another art that commanded his interest.
The story goes that as soon as he had been apprenticed as a lawyer, he resigned.
No case was ever contested by Joseph. At first he seemed to follow a literary
career, coming under the influence of his brother, Yves. The young Joseph
had apparently been composing from an early age. However it was not until
he cemented a friendship with Vincent d'Indy that he decided to follow his
vocation as a composer.
He studied at the Paris Conservatoire with the great Jules Massenet and enjoyed
the discipline of a thorough training in César Franck's composition
class. He became quite an enthusiast for his master's music. At this time
he struck up a friendship with the great symphonist Albéric Magnard.
The first part of Joseph Guy-Ropartz's career found him as director of the
Nancy Conservatoire. Later on he carried out similar duties in Strasbourg.
At that time he showed a great interest in the music of Magnard, Fauré,
Chausson, Koechlin and Florent Schmitt.
As a composer Guy-Ropartz produced essays in a variety of forms. He has five
symphonies to his credit. Along with these substantial offerings are at least
a dozen 'symphonic poems'. He wrote a deal of chamber music and songs. He
was regarded in his day as a 'regional' composer dabbling in the folk styles
of his native Brittany. However this simplification has been challenged in
recent years. One only needs to listen to his 3rd Symphony
or the truly gorgeous works on this present CD to realise that he was a
universalist long before he was parochial. He was not some kind of Celtic
Bard with his head stuck in the mists of Breton folklore.
The CD gets off to an impressive start. The absolutely wonderful Psalm
136 is totally secular in its almost erotic sensuality. Yet it is
dealing with the captivity of the Jewish people in Babylon. Everything is
thrown into this work; a huge orchestra, chorus and organ. There is no doubt
that this work which lasts for just over fifteen minutes is a masterpiece.
It was first performed at Nancy in 1898. There is nothing I can say to fault
either the performance or the music itself. It is almost perfect in its balance
between the barbarisms of Babylon through to the majesty of the rivers
themselves. The harmonies are lovely. Yet he can bring a sense of economy
to his writing. And he is not averse to the use of counterpoint. It is not
all blocks of chords.
There is no doubt that Guy-Ropartz's setting of this great Jewish hymn has
added to my appreciation of this Psalm. And it is the first time I have read
it in French. 'Nous avons pleuré au souvenir de Sion
the emotion just as well as the much more familiar version given in the
translation. We are reminded of the composer's 'mâitre' César
Franck at many points in this composition. It is religious only in the broadest
sense - it has none of the simpering qualities of so much 'churchy' music
being written at that time.
The main work on this fairly short CD is The Miracle of St
Nicolas. This work comes from Ropartz's Nancy period and was completed
in 1905. It was very much a 'local' work bearing on the Lorraine legend of
how the saint revived three boys who had been murdered and pickled by the
local butcher. This is, in spite of the apparent subject matter, a very
attractive work - it has all the charm of a fairy tale or perhaps even a
pantomime. It is conceived in sixteen tableaux with a chorale to finish off
with. The music here is less complex than the great Psalm 136; there
is at times a rustic simplicity about the work that is not only effective
but also satisfying. It has parts for a narrator, St Nicolas himself and,
of course, the butcher. There are continuo parts for organ, piano and harp,
so along with the chorus it has quite massive forces. Yet somehow the work
has an almost chamber feel to it. And of course it is the legend of how our
old friend Santa Claus made the promise that - 'Every year I will come back/
Covered with white snow/ Carrying toys, cakes and sweets, to expiate his
(the butcher's) sin.' The work can be viewed as a profound meditation on
the nature of God's forgiveness.
The other three works are equally attractive; 'Dimanche' (1912)
being perhaps my favourite. This is written for three-part female chorus
with orchestra. It is a truly gorgeous (overworked word in reviewing of music
by Guy-Ropartz) work both in the setting and the words of the poem. It may
be a little sentimental to some ears, but that does not detract from its
almost perfect construction. It is almost too short at just over four minutes.
The Nocturne was written in 1926 and dedicated to the Swiss
musician Gustave Doret. The words are written by the composer himself. It
is scored for mixed chorus and orchestra. It is almost impossible to describe
the 'vesperal' quality of this work in a few words. Suffice to say that it
adequately evokes the fall of evening and perhaps also the fall of the leaf?
Although a translation is provided, the original French coupled with the
music gives a delicious perfumed heaviness to this piece. Try to enjoy the
original words - even those with only school boy or girl French will get
much pleasure from these evocative syllables.
'Les Vépres Sonnent' or the Vesper Bell Sounds is the
latest work on this disc. It was composed in 1927. Once again it is written
for orchestra and three part women's choir. It is a fine evocation of a winter's
landscape. The harmonies are melting, every one seems to send a chill up
or down the spine. The words, by the poet Louis Mercier, create a picture
of a Sunday in the depth of winter. The composer responds with music that
can be 'cool' in perhaps a 'Holstian' sense - but then suddenly the warmth
comes through. The day is cold but the Spirit fills the heart and soul with
divine radiance and warmth.
The CD is beautifully produced - it is a reissue of the old Marco Polo recording.
It is a bit short on material at only fifty-six minutes. However the quality
of the playing, and of the pieces themselves more than adequately make up
for this down-side. The cover has an attractive painting by Paul Gauguin.
So this is an added benefit!
There is no doubt that all these works show Ropartz in an excellent light.
He was a man of deep religious convictions and this is evident in all these
works. However, as mentioned above he is not afraid to bring a kind of secular
'eroticism' into his liturgical works.
It is a musical style that I find totally captivating. After listening to
this disc I immediately put on the Michel Plasson recording of the Third
Symphony (EMI 7475582) and was captivated yet again. Here is a great
composer, one who was admired by Dukas, Honegger and Schmitt. Yet his star
has set. He seems to be little known, certainly in the United Kingdom. I
do hope that Naxos is about to embark on a recording programme of much more
of his fairly small catalogue.