Henri Sauguet: Springing Surprises

By Wood, Marc | Musical Times, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview
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Henri Sauguet: Springing Surprises

Wood, Marc, Musical Times

In his second article MARC WOOD introduces the music of another neglected French petit-maitre

LIKE SO MANY FRENCH composers of the mid-twentieth century, Henri Sauguet is mostly known to British audiences as just a reference in a textbook, mentioned in association with the circle of composers influenced by Satie. His music is virtually never played in Britain and remains largely unrecorded on British record labels. The centenary of his birth, on 18 May 1901, provides a welcome opportunity to re-evaluate the life and music of this quintessentially French composer, whose oeuvre contains not a few surprises.

Sauguet was born Henri Pierre Poupard in Bordeaux in 1901, only later taking his mother's maiden name as his surname on the insistence of his father, who feared that his family name be besmirched by association with avant-garde musical antics. Sauguet displayed an interest in music from an early age, becoming a choral scholar and studying the organ. Much taken with the church, he thought at first of becoming a priest, before being appointed as a church organist at the age of just fifteen. For the young Henri, the organ was the main medium through which he heard music: he was bowled over by the music of Debussy despite having heard it only on the organ, an instrument for which it could not be less suited.

At the age of sixteen, inspired by Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande, Sauguet attempted his own Maeterlinck opera, one based on the Belgian symbolist's esoteric drama Aladine et Palomides; only a Prelude from this piece now survives. The following year Debussy died, an event which greatly upset Sauguet, but he none the less continued to write music. Eventually a friend showed one of his compositions to Joseph Canteloube (18791957), the renowned composer of the Chants d'Auvergne, who offered to teach him in his home town of Montauban and even found him a job in the Prefecture there so that he could stay with him and study for a year. Under the influence of Canteloube, Sauguet developed an interest in the local folk music and also in the similarly folk-inspired music of Deodat de Severac (1872-1921) and moved away from the harmonic richness and ambiguity of Debussy. Presaging his later development, Sauguet also became fascinated by the description of Les Six written by Henri Collet and accordingly purchased Cocteau's seminal collection of aphorisms Le coq et l'arlequin. Following the vogue for music inspired by black jazz musicians, he wrote a Danse negre for piano duet.

THE concept of Les Six obviously influenced Sauguet profoundly, for, upon returning to Bordeaux at the end of the Great War, he formed his own Bordeaux version of the group, Les Trois, with two of the other leading lights of Bordeaux musical life Louis Ernie (a poet and musician acquainted with Cocteau and other leading artistic figures) and Jean-Marcel Lizotte (a contemporary of Milhaud and Honegger at the Conservatoire national de Paris). Sauguet was very much the least experienced of the three: like his friends Satie and Poulenc, he had not enjoyed a conventional academic musical training, nor had he yet been to Paris, the artistic centre not only of France but of Europe. The group presented a joint concert at the salle Delmouly in Bordeaux on 12 December 1920, at which Sauguet and Lizotte performed the two-piano version of Satie's Parade in addition to works by Les Trois and Les Six. Emi had invited Cocteau to attend, but he was unable to, and so Emie proceeded to read out a supportive message purporting to be from his friend. He later admitted to his colleagues that he had in fact concocted the speech himself from extant press-- cuttings, poems and speeches by Cocteau - a jape that Jean himself would doubtless have appreciated.

Sauguet, ever confident, sent the manuscript of a song to Darius Milhaud, who advised him to keep on composing. At this time Sauguet claimed that he and his colleagues in Les Trois were writing aggressive music, but that he wanted to write more pleasing music and go to Paris to join the musical scene there.

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