Charles KOECHLIN (1867-1950)
Les chants de Nectaire, First Series, Op. 198 (1944)
Nicola Woodward (flute)
Recording details not given
HOXA HS190206 [71:22]
“Koechlin was a complex, fascinating, and independent spirit […] his knowledge of the other arts was sophisticated and comprehensive […] The breadth of Koechlin’s musical culture was all-encompassing: his sources range from Gregorian chant through the [Second] Viennese school.” These are the words of the American flautist Fenwick Smith in his booklet notes for his CD of Koechlin’s Music for Flute (Hyperion CDA 66414). That disc doesn’t overlap with the new disc under review here, but the comments make a good introduction to it.
Koechlin was an idiosyncratic – or perhaps one should say eccentric – character. He developed many enthusiasms which often turned into what one might reasonably describe as obsessions. His initial passion was for astronomy (this early enthusiasm may have contributed to later compositions such as the orchestral nocturne Vers la voûte étoile or the beautiful piece ‘Hymne du Philsophe devant la Nuit étoiles’ from Series III of Les Chants de Nectaire, but his family pushed him towards a career as a military engineer. He was saved from this by a serious bout of tuberculosis, and against initial opposition from his family he was able to pursue his love of music by studying at the Paris Conservatoire, where one of his teachers was Massenet. He later studied with Fauré.
Later, his enthusiasms included the cinema and its stars, for him most notably the Anglo-German actress and singer Lilian Harvey (reflected in the two series of L’Album de Lilian, 1934-35, though his infatuation with Harvey lead to the production of over a hundred pieces of music) and Ginger Rogers (e.g. Danses pour Ginger Rogers, 1937). In the same years he also composed his Epitaphe de Jean Harlow (1937) – for flute, alto saxophone and piano. Before writing any of these pieces he had written his Seven Stars Symphony (1933), an orchestral work, the movements of which carry the names of Douglas Fairbanks, Lilian Harvey, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Emil Jannings and Charlie Chaplin.
Another obsessive enthusiasm of Koechlin’s was the two Jungle Books of Rudyard Kipling. His musical responses to these books included Trois poèmes après Kipling (1899-1910), Le course de printemps (1927), Le loi de jungle (1939) and Le Bandar-Log (1940). He was, to put it mildly, a prolific composer; the catalogue of his works runs to well over 200 opus numbers (and, it is relevant to note, several of the works given a single opus number are made up of a long series of individual pieces). Like most very prolific composers this has made him an object of ‘suspicion’ for those who believe that a composer so prolific cannot be taken seriously – composers such as Telemann and Vivaldi have, of course, been viewed in the same way at various times. Koechlin wrote at least five works to which he gave the title symphony, just under 20 symphonic poems, and at least 13 other orchestral works (my figures are only approximate, since at the time of writing the Libraries remain closed in Wales and I am without access to a full catalogue of Koechlin’s works), some 35 works – or collections of works – for a variety of chamber music combinations, many songs and a number of choral works and a range of works for solo instruments, including piano, ondes martenot, cor anglais, flute and oboe d’amore. Even if one grants that the achievement of the prolific Koechlin is inevitably uneven, that is no excuse for failing to discover, or simply ignoring, his successful compositions. I cannot pretend to have heard more than a small proportion of Koechlin’s output, but of what I have heard I have found his lengthy sequences for single instrument, often predominantly slow and meditative explications of a literary source, especially satisfying. One such work is Les Heures Persanes (1916-19) for piano solo, which originated in Koechlin’s reading of Pierre Loti’s book Vers Ispahan. The present CD is a recording of the first part of an even longer sequence, this time for unaccompanied flute. The entire sequence is made up of 96 pieces, published as 3 sets of 32 pieces as Koechlin’s Opp. 198, 199 and 200, under the collective title of Les Chantes de Nectaire. Each of the three series also has a heading of its own. Series I being headed Après ‘La Révolte des Anges’ d’Anatole France’, while Series II is headed Dans la Forêt antique and Series II carries the heading Cortèges et Danses pour Les Dieux familiers. As the title of Series I suggests, the generative text for this sequence was a novel by Anatole France La Rêvolte des Anges (1914). Being now only a few years younger than Koechlin was when he composed Les Chantes de Nectaire, I have to report that half a century has passed since I read this novel and, unsurprisingly, my memories of it are not very precise or detailed. I don’t think I ever owned a copy of the book and I certainly don’t have one on my shelves in 2020 – and given that (see above) all the libraries near me are closed, I can’t easily refresh my memories of it. There is a full text of Mrs Wilfrid Jackson’s English translation available online at the Internet Archive, but my ageing eyes can’t sustain the strain of reading all of its 348 pages online. What I do remember is that it is full of the irony that is typical of Anatole France, in a narrative concerning a number of angels who come down to earth, take human form and base themselves in early twentieth-century Paris; after reading a number of contemporary works of philosophy, theology and science, they plot to overthrow God (I can’t now remember quite how they hope to achieve this) and replace him with Satan. I can’t remember in any detail Nectaire’s role in the novel. However, by a great stroke of luck I have, since I started writing this review, discovered that Eric Blom’s 1935 anthology, The Music-Lover’s Miscellany (of which I do have a copy contains an extract from Mrs. Jackson’s translation which was, I think, first published in 1922). Fortunately, this extract, Chapter XIV of France’s novel contains a passage which directly inspired many of the pieces contained in this First Series of Koechlin’s Chants de Nectaire. This is made very clear if one quotes some short passages from it and cross-references them with his titles: two of the angelic conspirators, Zita and Arcade go to visit the market gardener Nectaire, at his small and simple house. Nectaire (formerly an angel called Alaciel) agrees to play his flute – actually a crude “boxwood pipe” – for them: “Touched with cunning fingers, animated with creative breath, the rustic pipe sang like a silver flute. […] One seemed to be listening to the nightingale and the Muses (cf. track 19) singing together, the soul of nature and the soul of Man. And the old man ordered and developed his thought in a musical language full of grace and daring. He told of love (cf. track 16), of fear (cf. track 22), of vain quarrels (cf. track 10), of all-conquering laughter (cf. track 8), of the calm light of the intellect (cf. track 6), of the arrows of the mind piercing with their golden shafts the monsters of Ignorance and Hate (cf. track 7).
Turning to the music itself (not before time, I dare say!), it is remarkable how many of Koechlin’s miniatures (in this recording, they range in length from 0:41 to 6:18) live up to their poetic and often rather ‘grand’ titles. Though it never sounds at all fussy, there is a wealth of invention in the writing. Anatole France’s narrator tells the reader that Nectaire “developed rich melodies in which the trills sparkled like diamonds and pearls on a velvet ground”. The same image might very reasonably be used to describe the Chants which Koechlin wrote for his Nectaire. Koechlin’s Chants come to us contrasted against their ‘velvet’ of silence; some are as elegant (and powerful) as a well-cut diamond, others more like natural pearls, seeming less fully worked by human art – there is a quasi-improvised quality to many of these pieces.
My own highlights (though it is the great sweep of the whole sequence that I most admire) include Naissance de la vie, which unfolds organically like the sonic version of one of those slow-motion films of a flower emerging from the soil and growing into full (musical) flowering; or Clartés de l’Esprit, one of the finely-cut diamonds – as befits its title; Le Rire vainqueur bubbles with amusement, while retaining a kind of neoclassical dignity; Gaîtê de la lumière has the airiness of morning sunshine before its warmth is truly felt, while Pour les âmes souffrantes is full of benign consolation – emotion after emotion is created, attitude after attitude delineated. With the brief Gaîté du matin ensoleillé and the much longer (it is the longest piece of the set) Méditation sur la douleur humaine we reach a summation of a kind, in which the fleeting joys of human existence are juxtaposed with its more enduring sorrows. The last two pieces appear after – and might be said to be the product of – Le Calme du Sage. The elderly Koechlin, with his huge white beard looked every bit the image of the sage and it is hard not to ‘identify’ him with Nectaire, the ‘sage’ of Anatole France’s novel. Like Nectaire in the novel, Koechlin explicates his ‘philosophy’ musically
Nicola Woodward proves herself an impressive advocate for Les Chants de Nectaire. Throughout, her phrasing is finely judged, her range of colour pleasing and sensitive, her breath control outstanding. She respects the (deceptively) ‘simple’ honesty of Koechlin’s music. She can articulate both the fluidity of the composer’s looser pieces and the neat shapes of the more formal pieces. Beneath all of Koechlin’s eccentricities there was an underlying foundation of wisdom and Nicola Woodward certainly reveals the wisdom in Après ‘La Révolte des Anges’ d’Anatole France. There are other recordings, including (to my knowledge) two of the complete three series of Koechlin’s Chants,
by Leendert de Jonge (Basta Music) and Pierre-Yves Artaud (review). But on this preliminary evidence (a second CD, devoted to Series II of Les Chants de Nectaire has already been announced and I trust that Series III will follow in due course) I prefer Nicola Woodward’s interpretation to either of those. To put it simply, she communicates more of Koechlin’s distinctive magic. She also has the advantage of the best recorded acoustic – neither too close nor too cavernously distant.
Koechlin was, to put it mildly, a multi-faceted man: a pupil of Massenet and Fauré, an ardent socialist/communist (like Anatole France, incidentally), a founding member of the Societé musicale indépendante, along with Fauré, Ravel and Florent Schmitt in 1910, a besotted ‘fan’ of several early film stars, (in the case of one such, Lilian Harvey, he might be described as, in epistolary terms at least, as a ‘stalker’, a lifelong admirer of Bach’s counterpoint who was (perhaps characteristically!) also a lover of monody, a teacher whose students included Tailleferre, Poulenc and Sauget, as well as Cole Porter and Lalo Schfrin (!), the author of substantial and respected works on harmony (Traité de l’harmonie, 1923-36) and Orchestration, (Traité de l’orchestration, 1935-43), President of the French section of the International Society for Contemporary Music, a member, with Satie, of Les nouveaux jeunes (1918), a musician described by Milhaud as “a magician” and by Heinz Holliger as “an alchemist of sound”, an orchestrator, at the composers’ request, of work by Fauré (Chanson de Mélisande) and Debussy (Khamma), an amateur photographer who took some startling photographs, a ,man who spoke out for the Russian Revolution and against the rise of Hitler, a man who, in 1940, turned down the offered award of the Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur; a pioneer of the use of the saxophone in the classical context and an early – and very effective user of the ondes martenot, a student of medieval music, a composer whose music can at times seem utterly naïve and at other times seem unfathomably complicated, a master of polytonality and a pantheistic mystic. I suggest both that Les Chants de Nectaire, with its use of only the solo flute, is a good way of discovering the essence of this intriguing, rewardingly contradictory man and his music – and that Nicola Woodward makes an excellent guide on such a journey of discovery.
Many of Koechlin’s compositions remained unperformed in his lifetime – even such a fine work as Vers la voûte étoile, written in the 1930s had, I believe, to wait until 1989 for its first performance; Koechlin often had himself to finance performances of his work. In the couple of decades after his death his work seemed to be slowly sliding into oblivion. More recently, however, there has been a slow revival of interest in his music – and a number of good recordings, such as, to mention just a couple of examples, the series of orchestral works conducted by Heinz Holliger or Kathryn Stott’s account of Les Heures Persanes have begun to make a case for Koechlin. A recording as good as this one (which I very much hope will soon grow into a full version of Les Chants de Nectaire) can only help the revival of Koechlin’s reputation.
1. Préambule [4:35]
2. Naissance de la vie [3:00]
3. Jeux de la lumière [2:41]
4. Clartés de l’Esprit [2:55]
5. Jeunesse du monde [1:43]
6. Les tranquilles clartés de l’intelligence [1:35]
7. …criblent de flèches l’Erreur et la Bêtise [1:08]
8. Le Rire vainqueur [1:05]
9. Gaîtê de la lumière [1:27]
10. Les Vaines querelles (“à quoi bon?”) [1:54]
11. La Tendresse [2:20]
12. La Plainte humaine [2:03]
13. La Nuit [2:29]
14. Souffles du Printemps sur la mer [1:30]
15. Lumière – moderation – équilibre [2:25]
16. L’Amour [1:59]
17. La Pitié [2:01]
18. Pour les âmes souffrantes [2:29]
19. Le Jardin des Muses [1:27]
20 Les Vrilles de la Vigne [1:21]
21. Les Heures douces [2:05]
22. La Crainte [2:31]
23. Idylle [0:53]
24. Clair de lune sur la mer [2:46]
25. L’Élan vers la vie [0:41]
26. “Le Désir qui créé les Mondes” [2:55]
27. L’Effort de l’Homme [3:00]
28. Le Vaincu médite [1:51]
29. Le Soir [2:20]
30. Le Calme du Sage [2:51]
31. Gaîté du matin ensoleillé [1:04]
32. Méditation sur la douleur humaine [6:18]