Program Notes

Sonata, Piano and Violin, op. 36 (1900)

HENRI CONSTANT GABRIEL PIERNÉ
Born 16 August 1863, Metz, France.
Died 17 July 1937, Ploujean (Brittany), France.


Composer, conductor, pianist, and organist Gabriel Pierné belongs to one of the most fertile periods in the history of French music. His birth and death dates overlap those of the foremost composers of his generation – Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918), Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937), Gabriel Fauré (1845 – 1924), and Vincent d'Indy (1851 – 1931) – and his music reflects the kaleidoscope of thinking about the art of composition that distinguished the period. Although his name is unfamiliar to most modern-day American concertgoers, his music was popular in France in the early 1900s. He is best known for his body of chamber music and music for the stage, although he also wrote ballets, choral music, and orchestral works. His major compositions include the ballet Cydalise et le Chèvre-Pied, the lyric comedy La Fille de Tabarin, and the Sonata for Violin and Piano.

Pierné's biography is similar to that of many musicians. He was born into a musical family and he began his formal study of music at an early age. His father, Eugène Jean-Baptiste, was a tenor and voice teacher, and his mother, Marie-Hortense Souteyrant, was a pianist and piano teacher. The family moved from Metz to Paris in 1879 to escape the Franco-Prussian War; shortly thereafter, the young Pierné entered the Conservatoire de Paris, where he studied piano with Antoine Marmontel, counterpoint and fugue with Jules Massenet, organ with César Franck, and solfège with Albert Lavignac. He distinguished himself in each field, winning five of the Conservatoire's coveted awards for exceptional performance. In 1882, he won the Prix de Rome in composition for his cantata Edith. This prize, the most prestigious in composition in France at the turn of the century, allowed the young composer to spend two years in Italy and devote himself entirely to the perfection of his art. Upon his return to Paris, in 1885, Pierné commenced a career as piano virtuoso and composer. In addition, he was named chief organist at Sainte-Clotilde, a position formerly held by Franck. Pierné's most noteworthy occupation, however, the one on which his reputation today chiefly rests, was as musical director of the Concerts Colonne. Founded in 1873 by the violinist and conductor Edouard Colonne, the Colonne Orchestra and its concert series were dedicated to programming contemporary music of the period, with a particular emphasis on the works of French composers, including Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, d'Indy, and Chabrier. Pierné held this position from 1910 – 1933.

Pierné's place in the worlds of French music in the early 1900s is curious. By most accounts, he was overshadowed as a composer by the elite of his generation, many of whose music he championed during his illustrious career as director of the Concerts Colonne. His body of compositions, despite the breadth, paled in comparison to that of his contemporaries who sought their place in the swirl of musical composition and thinking about music between 1890 and 1930. This period was a glorious time for the arts in France. The Impressionist movement was in full blossom, as was the Symbolist movement in literature. Music responded to both, seen especially in the "Impressionist music" of Debussy and Ravel, and a young generation of composers educated at the Conservatoire de Paris and at Vincent d'Indy's Schola Cantorum, among them Erik Satie, Darius Milhaud, and Albert Roussel. This period is also noted for its intense musical "battles," evidenced particularly in the divergent philosophies of the two foremost schools of music in France, the Conservatoire de Paris and the Schola Cantorum, and in the "feud" between the Debussystes and d'Indystes. Because he was an outsider to these inner circles that shaped the creative new directions in French musical composition, Pierné found himself at a safe distance from those particular cabals. He composed music that was popular for a brief period, and he immersed himself in the two occupations for which he achieved renown – as organist and, especially, as head of the Concerts Colonne. Despite his intentional refusal to involve himself in the politics of French music by affiliating with any one school of thinking – or perhaps because of it—Pierné was well

respected among his colleagues. In 1924 he was made a member of the venerable Institut de France, a learned society comprising five divisions, among them the Academy of Fine Arts. He occupied the seat formerly held by Théodore Dubois, director of the Conservatoire de Paris from 1896 – 1905.

Pierné's Sonata for Violin and Piano, op. 36, was completed during a marvelously rich period in French composition. Known more for intimate chamber music than for huge, multi-movement orchestral works, the French excelled at writing for small combinations of instruments. Many of these works from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – including Fauré's Piano Quartet in C minor (1879), Piano Quartet in G minor (1886), and Piano Quintet in D minor (1890); Debussy's Piano Trio (1879), String Quartet (1893), Sonata for Cello and Piano (1915), Sonata for Violin and Piano (1916) ; and Ravel's String Quartet (1902), and Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet, and String Quartet (1905) – are staples in the performance literature. By 1900, when Pierné's violin sonata was completed, several important sonatas for violin and piano had been written and premiered by the notables of the day. These include Fauré's charming Violin Sonata in A, op. 13 (1875); Franck's exquisite Violin Sonata in A (1886); as well as the hauntingly beautiful, but little known, Violin Sonata in G (1893) by Guillaume Lekeu.

Pierné's sonata is in three movements: Allegretto, Allegretto tranquillo, and Andante non troppo. It is an intensely chromatic work that recalls Franck in its constant modulation and unstable tonal center. The work is also cyclical – another nod to Franck, the master of cyclical writing in France – in that some or each of the movements contains elements of the others. The first movement has two main themes: the first is at once lively, playful, and melancholy, while the second is tranquil and lyrical. A dotted rhythm pervades the accompaniment, interrupting – yet complementing – the fluidity of the rippling arpeggiation that so characterizes French piano accompaniments of the early twentieth century. The first theme moves through several meters (10/16, 2/4, 6/8), flirting with all three yet never really settling in any one. The second primary theme is introduced in the middle of the movement. Its chordal piano accompaniment, which is markedly different from the constant motion of the first theme, provides momentary respite from the frenetic pace and allows the listener to focus on the melody in the violin. The second movement is based on a lilting melody whose graceful, dancelike theme is bandied between the violin and piano. The third movement begins with a bold restatement of the second theme of the first movement. Its slow and lyrical declaration, with a spare, chordal accompaniment, quickly gives way to an agitato and fast-paced tempo. Rapid shifts in tempo and mood distinguish this movement, as does a recurring descending chromatic motive. The sonata's opening theme, on which the first movement is based, is reprised midway through the third movement, reintroduced by a flurry of trills in the violin. The work ends in a fortissimo explosion of violin arpeggios and chords in the piano.

Gail Hilson Woldu