Why has André Jolivet been so overlooked especially in Britain? Perhaps it was because he called himself an amateur. What he meant, and many composers like myself will sympathize with this view, was that he earned a living as a teacher (in a school for young children) and could develop his own style and language outside the fashions dictated by the university or professional dictates of the day. However he was later a pupil of Varese and of the arch-academic Paul Le Flem (no mean composer himself). Later Jolivet took up a role, rather surprisingly, as Musical Director of the Comédie-Français. Jolivet was also a member, alongside Messiaen, of a group known as ‘La Jeune France’.
Madrigal is scored for voices and a chamber orchestra. Jolivet liked the chamber orchestra concept and often mixed unusual instruments. For example, in the ‘Suite Liturgique’ of 1942 and the ‘Suite Delphique’ of 1943 he includes a soprano solo. Madrigal falls into three sections. The first, ‘I love, O shoreless sea’ is a meditation on love with an extraordinary Ohana-type incantatory feel especially to the first verse. The next poem, ‘Mother of God’ is a modern version one might say, of the ‘Stabat Mater’ with the Virgin at the foot of the cross as she tells the soldiers “Let me come closer/I will cause you no trouble”. This is quiet and intense music with the instrumental work a little more active than in the first poem. In the third poem the voices and instruments are in equilibrium. It is a lively almost jazzy setting of ‘The Sunrise’ “Who awaits the Lord on this pearly morn’” in other words ‘Easter morn’. It is joyous and carefree, but the recording of the work is a little curious and although apparently studio-bound sounds as if it was made in a church hall.
The subject of love continues with Jolivet’s Épithalame (Wedding Song). This is hardly standard repertoire, probably because it is an extraordinary virtuoso work for its period. I did however find a recording of it in my collection which I reviewed a while back. It was released in 2003 again by the SWR Vokalensemble of Stuttgart under Rupert Huber (Hänssler 93.055). The older version runs in at 18.35 which is two minutes faster than the new one. Huber’s tempi, unsurprisingly, are more exciting but the text is still clear - in fact a little more clear than Creed’s choir. And what a text! The composer wrote the words and the music in celebration of his twentieth wedding anniversary. It is reminiscent of the biblical ‘Song of Songs’ with lines like “There are garlands and flowers for your brown shoulders/There is music and song for your heart”. And in the second piece “Your beloved one, who is sitting by you and whose breasts are so close to you/rejoice your beloved is there”. In the difficult central section of the second movement Creed allots the tenor part, rather unsuccessfully I feel, to a soloist with a somewhat indifferent sense of pulse. Huber gives the line to the entire tenor section making it warmer and better balanced. Creed spreads the final bars of the middle movement beautifully culminating in a ‘Messiaenic’ Alleluia. Huber’s dynamics are not always varied and interesting enough. It’s important to know that the composer actually described the works as “pour orchestre vocale à douze parties’. The voices must make percussive noises, as at the very start, and trumpet fanfare effects at various times. Again Huber is slightly more tuned into the rationale behind the concept. It’s interesting that the Carus CD does not give us the composer’s very specific description. So on the whole the new version does not quite match up to the first but both are very fine.
Writing a Mass, it could be argued, is a labour of love. Jolivet was a religious man but not entirely conventionally. He was also fascinated by magic and incantation, indeed the excellent booklet essay by Harald Hodeige is entitled “Music as a Magical expression of spirituality”. The Missa Uxor Tua began life as a mass for his son’s wedding in 1962 where it had an organ accompaniment. This may come as a surprise when you hear its vocal difficulties, it’s almost atonal harmonies and its rather desolate setting of the Kyrie, Benedictus and Agnus. The French Radio Choir asked for a work and Jolivet re-wrote it but instead of the organ now included a chamber orchestra (again). Its form is unique. The Kyrie opens as usual with its Greek text. Instead of the Gloria we have the “Graduel et Alleluja” with words both in Latin and French from the ‘Song of Songs’ alluded to above - “Thy Wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house” - words from the wedding mass the ‘Missa pro Sponso et sponsa’. Instead of the Creed we have an instrumental ‘Offertorium’ then the Sanctus and Benedictus which is very beautiful but dark as is the Agnus Dei. Instead of a closing ‘Deo Gratias’ we have the longest movement called ‘Dédicace’ - “You will see your children and children’s children”. This then is not a liturgical mass but one suitable only for the concert hall; indeed one which works well when heard domestically.
The SWR Vokalensemble of Stuttgart are totally familiar with the language of modern choral music having performed almost every one of the 20th Century great masters including Ligeti, Dallapiccola and Kurtág. With the exceptions of the slight reservations mentioned above they are a marvel. They handle this astonishingly difficult music brilliantly under Marcus Creed who is an ex-Kings College chorister and who is forming an enviable reputation as choral conductor especially on the Continent.
Annoyingly the texts in French and German are given side by side but the English translation is set far away on the booklet’s inside back page. There are some rather gauche photos of the choir, also one of Creed and one of Jolivet. Altogether a fine and thought-provoking release.