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Thursday Evening Classics
Composer Capsules for
January/February 2010

January 7

Francis Poulenc
Birth: January 7, 1899 in Paris, France
Death: January 30, 1963 in Paris, France
Poulenc is regarded as one of the most important 20th century composers of religious music and French art song. Poulenc excelled in chamber music as well. His series of wind sonatas, his trio for winds and piano, and his Sextuor for winds and piano are all repertory classics. He wrote in a direct and tuneful manner, often juxtaposing the witty and ironic with the sentimental or melancholy. He was also a pianist of considerable ability. Poulenc was born into a wealthy family of pharmaceutical magnates. The agrochemical giant Rhone-Poulenc is the present-day corporation started by his forebears. His mother was a talented amateur pianist who began giving him piano lessons at age 5. Later Poulenc studied with a niece of César Franck, and then with the eminent Spanish virtuoso Ricardo Viñes. Despite this training, Poulenc was largely self-taught. At age 18, Poulenc wrote Rapsodie Nègre for baritone and chamber ensemble, which made him an overnight sensation in France. The young composer served in the military from 1918-1921, during which time he composed the popular Trois Mouvements Perpétuels. In the 1920s, Poulenc was part of Les Six, an informal confederation of French composers who wanted to turn music away from Impressionism, Germanicism, formality, and intellectualism and create a new French music. In 1923, Poulenc wrote the ballet Les Biches, which Diaghilev staged the following year with great success, the public finding its mixture of lightness, gaiety, and moments of sentimentality irresistible. Poulenc continued writing steadily in the late 1920s and early 1930s, producing many piano compositions, songs and other works. In 1935, Poulenc returned to the Roman Catholic Church when close friend, Pierre-Octave Ferroud, was killed in an automobile accident. The period following includes among its masterpieces the organ concerto, Litanies à la Vierge Noire, Mass in G, and Quatre Motets pour le temps de Pénitence. During the war, Poulenc remained in German-occupied France, writing antiwar or defiantly anti-Nazi music, sometimes writing songs on texts by banned authors. He also wrote a ballet Les Animaux Modèles, Sonata for violin and piano, and Figure Humaine, a cantata which is a hymn to freedom. In the postwar years, he produced his Sinfonietta and Piano Concerto. In the period 1953-1956, Poulenc produced his most ambitious work, the opera Dialogue of the Carmelites, considered by many the greatest French opera of the 20th century. His final period produced other masterworks: Stabat mater, the sonata for two pianos, and a beautiful Gloria. Poulenc's last major work was his Sonata for Oboe and Piano, dedicated to the memory of Prokofiev, whom he had befriended in the 1920s. Poulenc died suddenly of a heart attack in 1963.

January 21

Henri Duparc
Birth: January 21, 1848 in Paris, France
Death: February 12, 1933 in Mont-de-Marsan, France
Although he would live nearly another 50 years, Duparc stopped composing in 1885, at age 36, in the midst of a promising career. He wrote 13 songs, some incomplete works like his opera Roussalka, and a few other compositions. His greatest contribution was in his songs, which demonstrated sophistication in blending the text with the music, in using elaborate contrapuntal elements in the accompaniment, and in eschewing overly sentimental moods often heard in the songs of other French composers of the time. While Duparc was not a major composer, he clearly demonstrated talents that might have elevated him to the front rank. As a child and teen Henri Duparc showed an interest in many fields and possessed an extraordinary intellectual capacity. Yet, he also exhibited a sensitive, sometimes hesitant nature. He initially began studying for a career in law, but concurrently took piano lessons from César Franck. Later he studied composition with him and began writing music. He typically destroyed his early works, not satisfied with aspects of his style, or with the entirety of the piece itself. In 1868, his Five Mélodies, for voice and piano, were published, marking his first major surviving song collection. Shortly afterward he expressed doubts about three of them, though he ultimately allowed their survival. From this early period there exists an unpublished Sonata for piano and cello. In 1869, Duparc received his first substantial exposure to Wagner's music when he traveled to Munich for several performances. There he met Liszt, who introduced him to Wagner at that year's Bayreuth Festival. Wagner became a hero to Duparc, and at times a noticeable influence in his music. By the early 1870s Duparc was turning toward the orchestra. In 1874 he wrote Poéme nocturne, which was premiered in April that year at a Société National concert. Only the first of the three parts, however, has survived. Also, Duparc composed the symphonic poem, Lénore, in 1875. Four years later, still in the thrall of Wagner, though not stylistically now, he began work on his opera Roussalka. In 1885, Duparc abruptly abandoned composition, at least in part owing to a neurasthenia, which may have had psychological manifestations. The composer had an acute sense of pain and other physical discomforts, but managed a reasonably normal life with his wife and family. Though he composed no new music after 1885, in the early 1900s he did revise some earlier works, like the Five Mélodies and the Poéme nocturne. In the early 1900s Duparc became blind. Always a religious man and growing more so in his later years, he traveled to the shrine known for miracles in Lourdes, France, in 1906. He seemed to accept his blindness, and toward the end of his life he suffered from paralysis.

Alexander Tcherepnin
Birth: January 21, 1899 in St. Petersburg, Russia
Death September 29, 1977 in Paris, France
Alexander Tcherepnin was a composer, pianist and conductor known for his cosmopolitan style that displayed influences from France and the Far East. Tcherepnin's father, Nikolay, was an important composer and conductor, and it was his influence and teaching that formed Alexander's early training. In 1921 Tcherepnin's family fled the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution, and the young composer began his career in their adopted home of Paris. From the beginning he favored new and experimental techniques, and during the 1920s he formulated his own 9-tone scale (now called the Tcherepnin scale), consisting of three overlapping major and minor tetrachords. This allowed for the simultaneous sounding of major and minor sonorities. He also developed a new form of counterpoint — called "interpoint" — which allows for the combination of several self-contained contrapuntal structures. These musical devices were not so much abstract concepts as attempts on the part of the young composer to codify his instinctive and individual approaches to sound and rhythm. These tendencies had already been expressed in early works, such as the bitonal Pièces sans titres. From 1934 through 1937, he toured the Far East, using Tokyo, Shanghai, and Peking alternately as bases of operation. He would have considerable influence as a teacher of both Japanese and Chinese composers of the period. He also met his wife, the pianist Lee Hsien Ming while in China. The newly married couple returned to Paris in 1938, but the turmoil of WWII put a stop to musical activities. Immediately following the war, however, he resumed his creative output, eventually relocating to Chicago in 1950, and finally settling in New York in 1964. Although Tcherepnin's style was Russian at heart, it lacked much of the Romantic melancholy and overt nationalism heard in other Russian composers. Instead, his earlier works are characterized by a French leanness and clarity and an emphasis on the clean articulation of form. Some, such as the Second Piano Concerto, bear a similarity to the works of Prokofiev in their motoric rhythms. Tcherepnin himself considered his style to be "Eurasian." Tcherepnin produced a wide variety of works in every genre. Notable pieces include the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos, the Cinq études de concert, Serenade for Strings and his opera The Farmer and the Nymph.

February 11

Andre Ernest Modeste Gretry
Birth: February 11, 1741 in Liège, Belgium
Death September 24, 1813 in Montmorency, France
Grétry learned music from his father, a violinist, and joined the local choir. After the young Grétry was brutally beaten for tardiness, he developed the habit of arriving so early for each of the three daily services that he spent long periods shivering on the church steps during winters. This may have accounted for his susceptibility to respiratory infections that eventually led to tuberculosis. In 1761 Grétry traveled to Rome, where he spent some years as a student of Casali. Despite the city's burgeoning operatic scene, he produced mostly sacred music during the 1760s. As a music teacher in Geneva in 1766, Grétry met Voltaire and at the writer's suggestion, he went to Paris, where he soon established himself as an operatic composer. Grétry's central position in French comic opera was undisputed during his lifetime, though the ascendancy of younger rivals such as Cherubini and Méhul eventually stole some of his thunder. Despite bouts of ill health, he maintained a more or less regular composition schedule of two new operas a year. He was decorated and received a pension from the King which, of course, was rescinded after the Revolution. However, he found favor with the new regime and received a doubled pension by order of Napoleon, who also accorded him the Legion of Honor. Grétry eventually purchased Rousseau's "Ermitage" near Montmorency and eased into retirement there as his musical style became outdated. Though never repertoire mainstays after the composer's lifetime, Gretry's operas enjoyed renewed interest as opera companies and audiences began to rediscover such unjustly overlooked composers of the Classical era. Richard Coeur-de-lion remains a seminal masterpiece of the opéra comique style. Grétry's operas are notable for a distinctive declamatory style, inventive use of ensembles, and graceful charm.

Copyright©WWUH: January/February Program Guide, 2010

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