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Émile JAQUES-DALCROZE (1865-1950)
First suite of dances (c. 1911) [16:45]
Poème alpestre (1896-1898) [10:12]
Thirteen little variations on 'La Suisse est belle' (c. 1895) [19:00]
Suite de ballet (1897) [13:52]
Moscow Symphony Orchestra/Adriano
rec. Mosfilm Studios, Moscow, August 2003
STERLING CDS1057-2 [60:04]

Even if you think that the name Émile Jaques-Dalcroze means nothing to you, your life, like my own, may well have been influenced by the man without you knowing it. Like hundreds of thousands of other British baby-boomer children, I took part in regular infants’ and junior school classes designated as ‘movement’. We five and six years old mites of both sexes stripped down to our underwear and while a teacher played a gramophone record - the one I remember was ‘Morning’ from Grieg's Peer Gynt suite - were encouraged to move our bodies ad lib in ways that we thought best suited the music. Those classes derived in part, I now know, from the educational theories of the aforementioned M. Jaques-Dalcroze, inventor and propagator of the "Méthode Jaques-Dalcroze for the development of rhythmic instinct, of the sense of hearing and of tonal sensitivity". His theories are still propagated energetically to this day by such bodies as the Association Jaques-Dalcroze, the Foundation Émile Jaques-Dalcroze and the Insitut Jaques-Dalcroze de Genève - now celebrating more than 100 ans de musique en mouvement as proudly proclaimed by its website.

As well as implanting his theories indelibly, if subconsciously, in the heads of generations of unsuspecting British children, Jaques-Dalcroze is still, it seems, particularly remembered in Switzerland. There, according to Jacques Tchamkerten's invaluable - if, as is the way with these things, occasionally hyperbolic - booklet notes, “the people of Suisse romande have not forgotten that he created what might be termed a folklore, writing innumerable songs which integrated directly with the popular heritage”.

Should, however, the composer of those songs also be lauded for his other music? There is, it seems, something of an argument to be mounted to that effect. Those booklet notes, for instance, suggest that his 1897 comic opera Sancho ultimately failed to establish itself because, as well as being four hours long and boasting a plot that was hard to fathom, it was musically too advanced and sophisticated for its audiences. However, unlike the more knowledgeable M. Tchamkerten - on whom I have relied for much of the background factual information about Jaques-Dalcroze and his music that I present here - I have only the four pieces on this disc to consider in evidence. What verdict do they suggest?

Three of the four come from the period c.1895-1898 and the outlier from c.1911 and, listening to them in isolation, it’s difficult to detect any great development in the composer's musical style over that 16 years period. Perhaps Sancho's failure discouraged Jaques-Dalcroze from further experimentation? Or maybe his focus on developing his Méthode distracted him exploring some of the interesting avenues being pioneered by his more avant garde European contemporaries? While the four orchestral works collected together on this CD do indicate that he was a composer of some skill, producing work that at the very least remains easy on the ear, their lack of real individuality helps explain Jaques-Dalcroze's unfamiliarity to those of us who don't belong to the Association, the Foundation, the Institute or that loyal Suisse romande community.

Thus, the earliest of them, Thirteen little variations on 'La Suisse est belle', struggles to make much of an impact. As such directions as Malizioso (variation 1), Alla Haydn (5), Melodrammaticamente (11) and Marche philistine (pomposo con sbruffo) (13) suggest, the individual variations can certainly be characterfully idiosyncratic. Nonetheless, the composer wasn’t jesting when he described them as “little”, for once the original theme - a schoolchildren’s song with a simple melody dating from the late 18th century that’s straight out of Listen with mother - has been presented, the average length of each is less than 90 seconds. Only the third, an adagio con mistero taking up a relatively substantial 3:03, succeeds in making a memorable impact.

The Suite de ballet presents us with music originally featuring in a ball scene in the aforementioned comic opera Sancho. As might be expected, it is music on a bigger, more ambitious scale than the variations. The opening allegro comodo sets the scene with plenty of faux-Spanish rhythms and tambourines: I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear castanets too, though I didn’t. Two shorter dances lead on to a final mouvement de valse that boasts an engaging theme and is well developed before dissolving into a return of the opening ‘Spanish’ themes.

The 1911 Suite de danses is, apart from those nods to the Iberian peninsula, rather similar to the Suite de ballet. Again we have a sequence of four individual numbers, each of which has a certain degree of charm - or, at the least, interest - without, though, being especially memorable.

That leaves us with the Poème alpestre. That had originally been composed as a more ambitious piece for soloists and a chorus that also included episodes of ballet. Faced, however, by the need to fulfil a commission, Jaques-Dalcroze subsequently reworked some of the material into the shorter, more concentrated piece for orchestra that we have here. It is worth pointing out, however, that even when reduced in length to just over ten minutes it is still more than twice as long as 21 of the 22 other tracks on this disc.

The Poème’s constituent elements are stereotypically ‘Alpine’ from a musical point of view. At various moments we hear horn calls, a cowherds’ song, an Alpine storm and a subsequent people’s hymn of thanksgiving following the intervention of a calming "Spirit of the Mountain" - the latter reflective of the almost mystical status accorded to mountains by the artistic world at the time. Jaques-Dalcroze thereby takes his place in a line of composers who exploited at least some of those themes, including such distinguished names as Beethoven (the Pastoral symphony), Tchaikovsky (Manfred) and Richard Strauss (the Alpine Symphony). Unfortunately, his own level of invention isn’t quite on the same level as those others. Poème thus emerges as a typically enjoyable piece of late-Romantic era scene painting, even if it is let down by a storm episode that’s straight out of a sub-par silent movie accompaniment. While it is certainly the piece that I enjoyed most on this disc, I suspect that that’s primarily because the others are so episodic: on this occasion Jaques-Dalcroze makes the most of an opportunity to delineate his musical personality at rather greater length, even if the end result suggests that it's not a particularly strong or individual one. It’s a pity that the 20 minutes or so unused space in this disc wasn’t utilised to present a couple of other longer pieces that might have provided further opportunity to assess the composer’s talents.

The Swiss conductor Adriano is well known for taking an interest in composers who, in his view, have been sidelined from mainstream musical history. He and his Moscow orchestra do their very best with these rather disparate scores and they are heard in good quality sound. I suspect, however, that the recording is something of a labour of love not just for the conductor but for the already converted or the self-interested: it was sponsored by, among others, the aforementioned Association, Foundation and Institute as well as by the city of Geneva's cultural affairs department. While that certainly need not deter the rest of us from exploring Jaques-Dalcroze's music, it is idle to pretend that this disc uncovers a hitherto neglected major talent.

Returning, before I conclude, to those infants’ school ‘movement’ classes, if you look at the Institut Jaques-Dalcroze's website you’ll notice that, on the same English-language page, it repeatedly refers to his teachings as both Eurhytmics and Eurhythmics. Shouldn't that be Eurythmics? Or was that just the pop group?

Rob Maynard

Previous reviews: Ian Lace ~ Rob Barnett



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