© Photo : R. Paul
CHARLES KOECHLIN (1867–1950)
In his unpublished autobiography, Charles Koechlin wrote : “It is in his Alsacian Heredity that his characteristics are to be found : his energy, his ingenuousness, - and on the contrary his horror of brainwashing, - his absolute and very simple sincerity”. This should also throw light on his music, and tell us how to listen to it. In describing others, we paint our own portrait, and what he said of his friend Albert Roussel is equally true of him : “He was a complete artist, a musician, a thinker, a man”.
He was born in Paris on 27 November 1867. His parents belonged to the rich industrial bourgeoisie of Mulhouse, where his father was a textile designer.
In this world, the Arts are respected. His sister played the piano. He listened to her, and already certain harmonic sequences made an impression on him, evoking “silvery moonlit nights, and the depths of the sea with unreal forests from his beloved 20 000 Leagues under the Sea”. Most of all, he was moved by Bach’s Cantata for Pentecost, the first sign of a constantly-growing admiration which made him say later : “Perhaps it is necessary to love Bach in order to understand Koechlin”.
Around the age of fifteen, he tried to write a musical commentary on Andersen’s Littel Mermaid. At that time, he was a pupil at the Ecole Monge, and later at the Lycée Carnot, and he was admitted to the Ecole Polytechnique in 1887. He had to leave two years later, following a serious illness. This misfortune made it possible to devote himself entirely to music, and he entered the Paris Conservatory. He studied under Massenet and Gédalge who taught counterpoint and fugue. When Théodore Dubois was appointed director of the Conservatoire, on Ambroise Thomas’ death, Massenet resigned, and was succeeded by Gabriel Fauré. Many have paid tribute to his qualities as a teacher. He quickly recognised Koechlin’s abilities : “he showed his trust by appointing me to take his fugue and counterpoint classes when he was unable to do so (i. e. during his tours of inspection of provincial school of music).
He started to compose, writing his Opus 1, Cinq rondels for voice and piano, at the age of 23. Shortly before his death at 83, he completed his Motets de style archaïque. Between the two, for sixty years, he produced a vast collection of works which, in the words of Henri Sauguet, are “so numerous and so complex that no one today can claim to know them completely”. And the spirit that breathes in them is, as he said himself, “above all a spirit of freedom”.
This love of freedom is found not only in the popular nature of most of his music, but also in what he called “ his worship of the sea, mountains, trees and the whole nature”. His most representative piece in this field is no doubt Le livre de la Jungle, a large-scale symphonic suite with soloists and chorus, which began in 1899 with the Berceuse phoque, and was completed in 1939 with the symphonic poem Les bandar-Log, and included Chanson de nuit dans la Jungle (1899), Le chant de Kala-Nag (1899), La Course de Printemps (1925) and the symphonic poems La Méditation de Purum Baghât (1936) and La loi de la Jungle (1939).
During so long a life in which his inspiration never flagged, his language developped, always determined by expression but also, as he acknowledged, “in the direction of the great movement towards freedom of writing, with Franck and Chabrier, Fauré and later Debussy, and then finally polytonal and atonal music”. But at the same time as this contemporary language which he ultimately adopted, the importance which he attached to the chorale and the fugue, and the spiritual nourishement which he found in his constant familiarity with the works of Bach, also led him to write in a more traditional style, using passing notes freely. Perhaps this was the result of his Protestant origins and his Alsatian heredity which, he said, gave him “that balance of discipline and freedom (in keeping with the idea of Protestantism)”. This conception of counterpoint, both new and traditional, so striking in the Chorale in F minor for organ, was enhanced by his fondness for the old modes, with which he had become acquainted at the Conservatoire, in Bourgault-Ducoudray’s admirable lectures on the history of music, realising their importance in the works of the composers who meant the most to him - Chabrier, Fauré and Debussy. This modal harmony, in which he sets sail on dark seas haunted by the gloss of the flying Dutchman and Tristan and Heads for the warm, clear light of Attica or the rich spirituality of our Middle-Age, impregnates much of his music.
In his early career he was most attracted by choral music and songs. Then, becoming bolder, he turned to symphonic poems, with Les Vendanges (1896-1906), La nuit de Walpurgis classique (1901-1907), Chant funèbre à la mémoire des jeunes femmes défuntes (1902-1907), Jacob chez Laban, first performed at the Théâtre Bériza in May 1925, and a ballet, La divine Vesprée (1918) given only in a concert version, in 1937.
He now felt sufficiently sure of himself to write chamber music. The Sonata for flute and piano (1911-1913) was the first of a long series of sonatas for a wide variety of instruments, solos ans duets, including the Ballade for piano and orchestra (1913-1919) and the Sonata for basoon and piano (1918). Also from this period are the three String Quartets, the Piano Quintet (1912-1921), which he considered as “perhaps the most outstanding of his works”, the Trio for flute, clarinet and basoon, (1924), the Trio for reed instruments and the Septet for wind instruments (1937)._Koechlin said that each of these works was “a unique piece, the form of which is determined by the living evolution of the themes and feeling, by their very life, and never decided in advance”.
Financial difficulties, at the age of fifty, compelled him to teach. He did not regret what he started through necessity, and said “I am my own best pupil”. Koechlin wrote treatises on harmony and counterpoint, studies of the chorale and the fugue in the style of Bach, and a masterly treatise on orchestration. His music is considerably influenced by fugal writing, in particular Le Buisson ardent (1938-1945), L’offrande musicale sur le nom de Bach (1942), the Second Symphony (1943), and Le Docteur Fabricius (1941-1944), a symphonic poem based on a short story by Charles Dollfuss, fist performed in Brussels in January 1949.
Charles Koechlin, a free man and an independant artist, died in his home at Le Canadel, on the shore of the Mediterranean, on 31 december 1950. His funeral was very simple, as he had wished. Many of his works were still unpublished. Not long before his death, he complained how difficult it was to have his music performed : “Allow me to hope that it will nevertheless be possible, and that, if I live a few years more, I shall hear L’offrande musicale sur le nom de Bach and my symphonic poem, Le buisson ardent”. Although his wish was not granted, at least he died with confidence in his work. In 1947, with his characteristic frankness, he wrote : “in the evening of my life, I realise that although the accomplishment of my dreams as an artist has been incomplete, it has given me the intimate satisfaction of not having wasted my time on earth”.
We would like to thank Roger Delage for his kind permission to quote from his article published in the magazine “La Musique en Alsace hier et aujourd’hui” (Lib. Istra, Strasbourg, 1970).
Charles Koechlin’s works
Composer catalogue of Charles Koechlin[ pdf - 220 Kb ]
Ballade, for piano
SKARBO n°3932 CD 1995
Ballade, for piano and orchestra
Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo
Sol. : Bruno Rigutto
Dir. : A. Myrat
EMI CDM 764 369-2 P.M. 1731391
Dix études, for saxophone and piano
Sax : J. Desloges
Pno : A.M. Desloges Stéréo E.F.M. 012
Douze études, for saxophone and piano
Sax : P. Brodie
Pno : Antonin Kubalec
Classic Edition 16 Music Minus one 43W
61 Street New York N.Y. 10023
Les chants de Nectaire, for flute solo
Fl. : Jan Merry
Encyclopédie Sonore Hachette 320-2884
E.S.H. (5 discs) E.S.H. 50-84 LT
Les confidences d'un joueur de clarinette, for clarinet
Cl. : Arturo Ciompi
Music Orion - Master Recording ORS 82246 - U.S.A. (1982)
Offrande musicale sur le nom de Bach
M.F.B. 019 - Editions Bauer de Frankfurt - CD 1989
Deuxième sonate, for clarinet and orchestra
Ensemble Orchestral L'oiseau Lyre
Cl. : P. Lefebvre
Dir. : R. Désormière
EPM "The Classical Collecter 150-142