Of Church and Circus

By Wood, Marc | Musical Times, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Of Church and Circus


Wood, Marc, Musical Times


Pierne in perspective

In the third article in his series MARC WOOD revisits the work of a neglected petit-maitre

LIKE LOUIS DUREY and Henri Sauguet,1 Gabriel Pierne is yet another turn-of-the-- century French composer who, although successful and admired in his lifetime, has nowadays retreated into near oblivion. For a time he was moderately well-known for a piano miniature, March of the lead soldiers, but performances of his works on either side of the Channel are now virtually nil, and recordings of his large oeuvre few and far between. Yet this is a composer described by David Ewen as having

technical skill; his style was elegant; sensitivity and refinement characterized his speech; his thought was touched by poetic beauty. What he lacked in originality and independence, he compensated for in charm. While discovering no new world, while content to live in a familiar one, he said what he had to say with freshness and appeal.2

Indeed, Pierne's music amply repays discovery, for he is not only an estimable composer in his own right, but a figure of some historical importance, a representative of a transitional phase between turnof-the-century Franckism and the innovations of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky, who also took in elements of Faure's subtle radicalism on the way

He was born Henri Constant Gabriel Pierne on 16 August 1863 in Metz, into a musical family His father had been a opera singer and taught singing at the local conservatory; his mother gave him his first piano lessons. The family fled to Paris after Napoleon III's surrender at Metz in 1870 led to Alsace-Lorraine being ceded to the Germans. His father opened a piano and vocal school at rue St Andre-des-Arts in the Quartier Latin in Paris, and soon the eight-year-old Gabriel was presented to fellow Metzian Ambroise Thomas and accepted into the Paris Conservatoire, of which Thomas had just been appointed Director. Pierne attended the Conservatoire from 1871 to 1882, along with his classmate and lifelong friend Claude Debussy, winning first prize for piano, at the age of sixteen, in the class of Julien Francois Marmontel; for harmony, at seventeen, in Emile Durand's class; and for organ, counterpoint and fugue, with Cesar Franck, at eighteen and nineteen. He also studied composition with Massenet. Although Pierne was a year younger than Debussy, he won the Prix de Rome at the age of eighteen, two years before Debussy, for his cantata Edith, in 1882. The period from January 1883 to December 1885 was accordingly spent at the Villa Medici in Rome, where, in contrast to some other winners, he had the time of his life and met Liszt and Grieg. Back in Paris, he became renowned as a pianist and habitue of the salons and also taught at his father's conservatory, which soon moved to neighbouring rue Christine. In 1890 Pierne married his piano pupil Louise Bergon, and upon the maitre's death succeeded Franck as organist of Sainte Clotilde, a post he relinquished in 1898 to Charles Tournemire in order to dedicate more time to composition and conducting.

From 1890 the newly-weds lived in the same building as their friend Camille Saint-Saens, in rue Monsieur le Prince, before moving in 1900 to no.6 rue de Tournon, near the Odeon theatre and the Luxembourg Gardens. Pierne had been composing light, salon music for some time, but his first major work was the opera La coupe enchantee, produced in Royan on 24 August 1895. He was, however, devoting most of his time to conducting, becoming Assistant Conductor of the Orchestre des Concerts Colonne in 1903 and, in 1910, its Principal Conductor. That same year he directed the premiere of Stravinsky's Firebird at the Paris Opera on 25 June. In 1924 Pierne was elected to the Institut Francais, in place of the recently deceased Theodore Dubois, and his life became ever busier. On Saturdays, for instance, he would take an orchestral rehearsal in the morning and then attend meetings at the Institut in the afternoon, before conducting the main concert at the ChAtelet in the evening.

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