Saturday, January 23, 2016

Withdrawn Month - Jean Barraqué's Sonata for Solo Violin

There's a trend among French composers that one could see as a blessing in disguise - many French composers end up writing few works but take great care in writing them, sacrificing prolificness for craftsmanship.  This obviously doesn't afflict too many French composers that it's a big problem - just look at Darius Milhaud and his 400+ opus'd pieces - but I can't help but find it a bit troubling.  The French "tradition" of self-suppression and -destruction has many cases, from Ernest Chausson to Henri Dutilleux, and most famously Paul Dukas with only 13 pieces published in his lifetime, leaving everything written before 1891 unpublished and abandoning or destroying many later works.  Another notable case is Maurice Duruflé, whose completed opus'd compositions only reach op. 14.  The most extreme case, however, is that of Jean Barraqué (1928-73), one of the most enigmatic and difficult figures of French Classical music.

Barraqué was a highly meticulous, self-critical artist, so much so that when he completed his large, unwieldy Piano Sonata (1950-52) -

- he decided to really, really declare it his de facto OPUS ONE and suppressed/destroyed all his earlier works.  He was a devout serialist and took the Boulez-Piano Sonata no. 2 approach to composition in his Sonata, that being the mood of running through a spanking machine.  A stir was caused the year of its publication when the critic André Hodeir, in his book Since Debussy, declared the then-unperformed Sonata the greatest piano sonata since Beethoven, a pretty absurd claim for a piece by a composer with only two premiered works under his belt and the most insane sonata since Boulez waiting for someone to mistakenly stick their hand in looking for a candy bar.  This of course caused laughter and skepticism, but his later accomplishments have gained some serious praise from critics and adventurous concertgoers.  His use of multiple, unrelated tone rows in a piece, what he called "proliferating series", makes his brand of serialism not only somewhat unique but doubly difficult to analyze, as new rows are gradually insinuated into pieces rather than clearly announced, though I've often found that composers who are terribly worried about an audience of theorists crying foul if they can't easily pick apart every formal detail of their works are often composers with little to no musical personality.  That being said Barraque's music is highly combative and thorny, though at times highly compelling in its drama and overwhelming sense of doom, such as in the pieces from his unfinished Death of Virgil cycle like Les Temps Restitué (1956-68):

His biography doesn't lessen the doom much, as he was involved in a car accident in '64 and his apartment caught fire in '68, not to mention his frequent health problems and sudden death at age 45.  Altogether only 10 completed Barraqué works survive to this day, and it would have only been presumed to be 9 if today's piece hadn't been found among Barraqué's papers less than a decade ago.

Written sometime in the late '40's, the Sonata for Solo Violin was long considered one of the approximately 30 works Barraqué wrote and destroyed prior to the Piano Sonata, excluding a short piano piece titled Retour that escaped into a 2009 anthology by Bärenreiter.  The violin Sonata was discovered around the same time and is available on special order from Bärenreiter, though you apparently have to leap through some asking-nicely hoops to get a copy.  This is a way of saying I couldn't find the score for this review, though from this excellent performance we can suss out a good feeling for the piece without the physical notes.  In contrast to the slamming despair of the Piano Sonata and some other Barraqué works, the Sonata for Solo Violin is a playful, charming piece, still serial and jagged but far more manageable and sly, kind of like Giselher Klebe's Sonata for Solo Violin no. 2 (now there's a composer I need to talk about).  These kinds of pieces are all about turning on a long series of dimes with the skill of a mountain goat, the drama largely drawn from snippets of ideas colliding with one another, forcing the performer on as many toes as they can muster.  If done well the playfulness shines through and the performer here, Rachel Field, clears all the hurdles with style and passion.  I'm not sure what the opposite of not letting a clown be serious would be, but it seems that this fine-'n'-fun Sonata was repressed because, or at least I'd like to think so, it wasn't a serious enough a statement for Barraqué to let it out of the box.  Whatever the true reason it's no outrageous claim to say that there's a lot about Barraqué that we may never understand, but at least we don't have to let him stomp on any piece of his that may garner a smile.  Especially since he's dead now.



  1. Rachel Field is an excellent musician,

  2. I might add that his Sonate is still under editing as a new autograph source has been discovered. Several other smaller piano pieces (already premiered by Nicolas Hodges) have been prepared, as well as a string quartet and some early songs. I'm glad this great composer is finally getting more attention.