Saturday, March 19, 2016

Short-Shrifted - Pierre-Octave Ferroud

There's a saying in Hollywood: "you're only as good as your last picture".  It's an unsympathetic reminder of the fact that most people only value others in so much as what they can do for others and the quality of those actions, and the only way to stay relevant is by a continuous string of quality.  The goal is to create a legacy, a good reputation that ensures that you won't have to keep proving yourself, but nobody knows where legacy's goal line is - which brings us to the ultimate obstacle to creating a legacy, death.  It's always easy to look back fondly on someone's works, especially artists, right after their deaths (such as how this year there'll be a Bowie-shaped hole in every record store), and how rose-colored our lenses become is due to a complicated tangle of factors including the artist's reputation just before their death combined with what it was in the previous years as well as which works entered the popular consciousness most recently.  However, few incidents incite this kind of backward praise than an untimely death or incapacitation, such as how Death to Smoochy never got respectable viewership until after the suicide of lead actor Robin Williams.  This effect is no stranger to Classical composers, though admittedly the niche nature of those who actually follow composers' careers, even back when that was a thing, means that not many of the Short-Shrifted, subjects of my new series on Re-Composing, have gotten the same attention as those in more popular genres.  The most consistently remembered of these are composers whose work or lives were snuffed by Totalitarian regimes and the Nazis, their resurrection part of a large-scale movement in the later decades of the 20th century - the most successful of these were concentration camp composers like Erwin Schulhoff and early Soviet modernists like Roslavets, Mosolov and Lourié.  A scant handful of composers are actually better known for dying young than for any one piece that they wrote, such as the Belgian-born Guillaume Lekeu, dead at 24 from contaminated sorbet and author of the pseudo-famous Adagio pour quatuor d'orchestre, and the thoroughly disappointing William Hurlstone who was at least able to contribute to the distressingly small bassoon sonata rep before his death at 30 from bronchial asthma.  The most dramatic of these has to be Heikki Suolahti, a Finnish composer who died at age 16 after writing the Sinfonia Piccola, a work that fascinated Sibelius (though not myself).  Short-Shrifted aims to praise composers who died well enough before their time that their works quickly fell out of view, possibly never to be appropriately revived, and I'd be hard pressed to come up with a better opener to the series than Pierre-Octave Ferroud (1900-36).

The above set of pieces for flute is not only one of Ferroud's earliest pieces but also the only piece of his to remain performed in this day and age, a slightly unfortunate case as they're his least challenging and, more importantly, representative works in his oeuvre.  Their universal claim to public domain status, something the rest of his music lacks, has a hand in this as well, and the effect is as if the only piece by Beethoven that got performed was that blasted Minuet in G major.  For a more impressive introduction we have to get both later and a bit goofy:

A disciple of Florent Schmitt, the most outlandish of the Impressionists, Ferroud broke on the Paris scene in the 20's, one of the most exciting places and times to be a composer, and the above piece, Types (1922-24, originally for piano), is as good as any for an unofficial breakout piece.  The piece is a trio of satiric character sketches - an old lothario, a self-important society woman and a frantic businessman - and shows Ferroud's budding language with clarity and flair.  Ferroud was unique among French composers in his ability to synthesize Impressionist harmonies and colors with Neoclassical rigor and acidity, creating works both enchanting and forceful, a difficult feat and a singular achievement in his scene.  These qualities didn't go unnoticed by his peers, among them Maurice Ravel, one of his chief influences.  There's a double-fisted irony in this: a.) Ferroud parodied Ravel's more precious works in the second Type, and b.) they have a common cause of death, effects from car accidents.  However, while Ravel's death was a drawn-out exacerbation of a possibly pre-existing brain condition brought on by a car accident, Ferroud's was the much more immediate effect of decapitation.  While that doesn't quite scale the dramatic death heights of Albéric Magnard (burned along with his house by German invaders in WWI) or Enrique Granados (drowned trying to save his wife from drowning) it's still one for the books and, if I may suggest comical conspiracy, makes a case for him being a victim of necessary peacekeeping between the warring camps of Impressionism and Neoclassicism, as naturally ne'er the two shall meet.

(This recording is too slow; listen to this (if you're in the U.S.) to hear the true potential of the opening movement)

His Symphony in A major (1930) is arguably his masterpiece, a dense blast of extraordinary Neoclassical writing and one of the best symphonies written by a French composer in any time.  Any Neoclassical work walks the rickety tightrope of tasteful irony, trying to acknowledge that the newer old ways are dead and irreverently call back to the older old ways while still maintaining objective beauty and craftsmanship, and Ferroud's Symphony has aged better in this respect than most pieces from this time, keeping the quality high without seeming too stiff or too silly (I'm looking at you, Poulenc).  Among the Symphony's admirers was Prokofiev, who suggested a listening of it to his friend Boris Asafiev (whose sole claim to fame is writing a trumpet sonata nobody wants to play).  Prokofiev was less impressed with Ferroud's 1927 comic opera Chirurgie ("Surgery", of all things) but any comedy about grim subject matter has some intrinsic value and the music, snipped out here for an orchestral suite, has more than enough fine qualities to pique my interest:

The influence of Stravinsky is so obviously apparent in these works as to need little comment but Ferroud's music never feels cheapened by its allegiance to the cream of the crop (unlike some Poulenc pieces which are blatant Stravinsky ripoffs (start at 3:50)...son of a bitch...).  Likewise there is a great variety of moods in his works, such as the lovely opening to his concentrated, subtly orchestrated Serenade (1929), at times a dead ringer for Ned Rorem's early symphonies -

- or his charming-yet-impressive Trio d'anches (1933):

(Sorry if this doesn't work outside the U.S.)

But if there's one medium Ferroud got the most variety out of, and one that seems the most obviously resurrectable on the concert scene, it's his piano works.  I mentioned that Types was originally for piano -

- and as unplayable as it sounds, looks, and is it's clear that Ferroud had high hopes for the instrument's potential.  His piano works encompass the whole of his career and style, sometimes laying his techniques bare for the world to see, such as how the haunting Prelude and Forlane (1922) reveals his ingenuity at blending incongruous scales together to create liquid, novel lines:

Two piano works in particular beg for repeat performances.  The first is Fables, a collection of miniatures that span the whole of Ferroud's emotional range and are able to contain his unique language in a compact, playable style, and the fact that these highly likable quickies haven't been played regularly since their conception in 1931 infuriates me.

The other is the Sonatina in C-sharp minor, his "big piece" for the instrument.  Full-blown sonatas, while never all that popular among the French (despite some excellent piano entries by the likes of Paul Dukas and Vincent d'Indy), had fallen out of fashion during the latter half of la belle époque and sonatinas, once a shallow teaching medium, were totally revitalized as a dynamic platform for invention and charm.  While many countries, notably the Netherlands and Sweden experienced Sonatina Fever (with composers as disparate as Sibelius and Bartók trying their hand at them) the French were particularly deft at them and Ravel, Roussel, Milhaud and Hahn all wrote excellent works in the genre, though the champion was the sadly neglected Maurice Emmanuel at six varied, luscious pieces (now there's an article I need to write).  Ferroud's Sonatina isn't quite as dense as the Symphony but takes a great crack at it and all the Ferroudian hallmarks are here - primitive melodies juxtaposed on illusory arpeggios, earnestness on top of foreboding, and remarkably tasteful virtuosity.

Many of Ferroud's score can be downloaded at his IMSLP page, further proof that we are living in the best world we've ever had right now (except for Trump's existence, of course).  There's such greatness for new players to explore that there's no way to go into it here, but I can leave you with a contrasting pair of works: the Central Park in the Dark-style Foules (Crowds) (1924) and the teenage-conceived Andante Cordial (1919/1926).  Here's to meager vindication of the untimely deceased and hopefully more articles to come.