Charles Koechlin: Compositeur et Humaniste

By Olin, Elinor | Notes, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Charles Koechlin: Compositeur et Humaniste


Olin, Elinor, Notes


Charles Koechlin: Compositeur et humaniste. Edited by Philippe Cathé, Sylvie Douche, Michel Duchesneau and Marie-Hélène Benoit-Otis. (Musi - cologieS, no. 3.) Paris: Vrin, 2010. [609 p. ISBN 9782711623167. i44.] Music examples, illustrations, index.

The essence of good biography is found in the space between hagiography and apostasy, somewhere between a broadstroke overview and a dry reporting of archival statistics. This is no small undertaking, even when motivated by the impulse to rehabilitate a good name to its welldeserved place in the musical-or in this case, humanist-pantheon. The task is more manageable, which is not to say simpler, when shared by a consortium of authors and when the subject has been generous enough to leave an abundance of evidence, written and otherwise.

As editors Philippe Cathé, Sylvie Douche and Michel Duchesneau highlight in their introduction, the scope of this book is in itself evidence of Koechlin's "astonishing diversity" of interests and areas of intellectual expertise (p.11; translations throughout are mine). One of the founders of the Société musicale indépendante in 1910, Koechlin was a passionate advocate for musical modernism, yet refused to be limited by association with any aesthetic ideology or "school." A prolific author-of music criticism, public lectures, pedagogical treatises and radio broadcasts-as well as a composer of 226 works with opus number, Koechlin vigorously defied classification during his lifetime. This was no ordinary figure, as the twenty-four contributors to this volume make abundantly clear. Collectively, they present a nuanced portrait of a complex figure whose works contributed significantly to intellectual and musical life during the mercurial twentieth century. Their goal is to provide "the first French-language synthesis of Koechlin's oeuvre in the hope that new paths of inquiry will be opened" in exploring his extraordinarily diverse body of work (p. 14).

If form follows function, it is no surprise that this work exceeds the boundaries of ordinary biography. After an introductory survey of Koechlin's life and works by Otfrid Nies, the body of this volume is organized into five sections, each focusing on a different facet of Koechlin's wide ranging, humanist contributions. The lead section, "Music and Society," examines his activities as politically engaged lecturer and critic. Liouba Bouscant's two chapters provide an excellent overview of Koechlin's conférences between 1909 and 1948, then a closer look at his political activities during the 1930s. Aude Caillet presents a candid investigation of the lectures between 1915 and 1918, in the context of prevailing anti-German sentiments in France. Even more specific is Michel Duchesneau's examination of Koechlin's encounter and sympathies with socialism. In all, these chapters shed light on fascinating contradictions: a "musical elitist" (p. 75) who, in his ardent defense of the avant-garde, sought to enlighten a universal audience about "[artistic] freedom conjoined with respect for musical instinct and sustained by deep knowledge of craft" (Koechlin, quoted on p. 124).

Musical analysis takes the forefront in the next section, "Aesthetics and Compo si - tion," where specific works are discussed in detail. Sylvain Caron investigates Koechlin's religious ideology as manifested in his early work L'Abbaye for chorus and organ. Sylvie Douche makes the case for Koechlin as one of the most significant composers of the mélodie in the early twentieth century. Stéphan Etcharry's comparison of settings of Leconte de Lisle's "Colibri" by Ernest Chausson and Koechlin explores compositional characteristics of a single work, as does Patrick Otto's discussion of Koechlin's programmatic work for orchestra La Course de printemps. Christophe Corbier examines the influence of héllenomanie, or French enthusiasm for the spirit of ancient Greece. The strongest chapters in this section are François de Médicis's assessment of Koechlin as "quartomancier" in a cogent analysis of the mélodie "Améthyste" and Danick Trottier's consideration of Schoen - berg's considerable influence on Koechlin. …

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