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JEAN RIVIER (1896–1986)

Born on July 21, 1896, in Villemonble, Jean Rivier died on November 6, 1987. A composer who left his stamp on the musical life of the 20th century, he was also a remarkable man. His family, his students, friends and acquaintances, all knew that his whole life was governed by the same principles : harmony, generosity, tenderness, modesty and professionalism. Music filled his life._Music was his life. As he himself once said, “I could not have done anything else”. Indeed, some time before he died, he would tell us he still had “so much music in his head”.

A most sincere, fiery, sometimes “over enthusiastic” personality, he could also show great sensitivity._Whereas some people are merely trying to find their own way, Jean Rivier met his destiny : music._It is interesting to point out how much his family respected and even supported his decision, although they moved in very different circles (real estate and pharmaceuticals). Jean Rivier’s interest in music was aroused at an early age. Whenever he composed or played an instrument, he did so with a passionate intensity._His beloved piano remained his inseparable companion, even though he learned to play other instruments as well.

Jean Rivier studied music at the Paris Conservatoire where he would be appointed teacher, a few years later. He is regarded as one of the most outstanding personalities of French neo-classicism. Weary of flimsy new trends, distrustful of dogmatism of any kind, he never took the easy way out. His works, which often show perfect command of his skill and express his sensitivity and emotion, reveal a real flesh and blood artist, and not a dry “theoretician”.

Jean Rivier’s world revolved around his music, his wife Marie and his home._He spent most of his life in Paris, but always try to stay as long as possible in his villa on the Riviera, especially during the summer. The quiet surroundings provided the “divine” environment which was an inspiration to him. Thus he was able to unfold all his artistic qualities, with the help and presence of my grandmother. Together, they were but one. His deep-rooted faith was another major influence._Yet, Jean Rivier’s life was not always so serene. A World War I volunteer, he acted truly heroically. One of the rare survivors of the worst battles, he was nonetheless a mustard gas victim and suffered severe lung damage. It was during his long and painful recovery that he met my future grandmother. No doubt his long stays at the family home in Marencène (Charentes) also helped his convalescence._He certainly owes it to his good pre-war physical shape to have survived injuries.
A philosophy major at college, Jean Rivier also received a thorough musical education at the Paris Conservatoire._A pupil of Jean Gallon (harmony), Georges Caussade (counterpoint) and Emmanuel Maurice (music history), he passed his counterpoint and fugue diplomas with flying colours, as he often told me. He also studied piano with Mr._Braud, and cello with Paul Bazelaire, whom he affectionately called his Master._At his own request, I have kept his manuscripts of pieces dedicated to people he admired, or to whom he was grateful. Playing the cello was an ear-opener to chamber music. Very soon he composed a Rhapsody with orchestra (1927), four string quartets and trios, a “Grave e Presto” which attracted much notice and other works.

Between the two world wars, he rapidly rose to prominence in the so-called “Triton” group of which he was a founding member. Succeeding the famous “Group des six”, “Triton” soon became a byword on the Parisian music scene. Although he was a keen architect of sound, composing his music with the meticulous precision of an engraver, it became more and more obvious that inspiration was his main driving force. Technique as such was never an end but a means to express his creativity.

Conductors, ensembles and artists of repute started to perform his works, both in Europe and in America._From 1936 to 1940, Jean Rivier, Pierre Octave Ferroud and Henry Barraud - the Group du Triton - were quite active. Well before 1940, he already embodied a Romantic trend, rather unusual at the time, which gave musical expression preference over exaggerated “abstraction”. The ease with which he tackled many musical genres and styles, expresses a marked sense of humour as well as a very convincing dryness. He could be very moving and even downright pathetic.

Appointed composition teacher at the Paris Conservatory in 1948, he shared the position with Darius Milhaud, who spent every other year abroad._From 1962 until 1966, when he retired, he had whole tenure. Stepping back was a painful moment, but he got over it. Many of his students turned out to be very gifted young composers who made very honourable careers. He was a much appreciated teacher, and the high standard of his teaching left his stamp on the Conservatoire.

As Frédéric Robert rightly pointed out, Jean Rivier was very open-minded and interested in various forms of expression, be it Le Corbusier’s theories on architecture or poetry (Ronsard, Du Bellay, Péguy, Chalupt, Valéry, Apollinaire...) all of which inspired some beautiful, albeit lesser-known works.

A true artist, Jean Rivier was also a dreamer, a thinker, a creator, and a very imaginative man._Although he never wavered from his firm composition principles, he was nevertheless keen on novelty during the interwar years._In a rather cold and rigid musical environment which pretty much stifled personal expression, my grandfather combined lush stylistic elements with a distinctive individual language._He also made a few forays into the abstract, which prompted Claude Rostand to nickname him the “abstract man”._He composed numerous symphonies and concertos showcasing his creative thinking process in a very assured technique and an original, precise style. Among his greater works, the most remarkable are Christus Rex, the impressive Requiem, and the wonderful Psalm LVI (as yet unpublished). Affected by eyes problems in his old age, he had to give up working on longer pieces.

My grandfather’s humanity and authenticity always impressed me and so, too, did his music. One listens to it and just wants : ..._MORE...MORE... “More” - that is what I used to say as a child, so carried away and spellbound was I, so deeply did his music stir and move us all.

My only wish is to see my grandfather’s music live on. I hope his publishers will contribute to that, as I am sure they will so that, as Antoine Goléa said, you may enjoy the way it rises above the anecdotal, and carries you away in more senses that one.

Your grandson, Didier Rivier

The Villemonble Conservatoire was named after Jean Rivier, in his presence, on December 7, 1986.
For further information concerning Jean Rivier’s works, please contact Éditions Billaudot, among others publishers.
Jean Rivier bequeathed many manuscripts to the Bibliothèque Nationale, where they can be consulted.


Jean Rivier, Frédéric Robert.
La musique, Antoine Goléa.
Le saxophone, n° 2, April 1988.
Dictionnaire de la Musique Contemporaine, Claude Rostand
Family documents and papers.

See all works composed by Jean RIVIER

Works composed by Jean RIVIER

See all works composed by Jean RIVIER


Grave et presto, pour quatuor de saxophones
Quatuor Defayet Pathé/E.M.I. C069.14187
Quatuor Mule Erato STU 70306
Quatuor Mule Erato LDE 3312
Brabants Saxfoonk Wartet Munich Record Hollands MK 103908
Quatuor Mule Decca LX 3142

Concerto pour saxophone alto, trompette et orchestre
Orchestre de l'O.R.T.F. Barclay 995.006
Solistes : R. Delmotte et Deffayet
Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra - CD Marco Polo 8.225127

Concerto pour saxophone alto et trompette (version piano)
Saxophone : Shyen Lee
Trompette : Joseph Bowman
Piano : I-An Chen
Shyen Music CDP - 11001

Concerto pour saxophone alto, trompette et piano
Daneels, Vannetelbosch et Capelle Buffet B.C.B. 101B
Solistes : daniel Gremelle (sax) et Antoine Curé (trp).
Mule, Menardi, d'Arco Decca LXT 5287

Concerto breve, pour piano et orchestre
Orchestre de l'O.R.T.F. Barclay 995.006

Concerto pour flûte et orchestre
Orchestre Lamoureux Erato LDE 3307
Flûte : Jean-Pierre Rampal