Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Birthday: Louis Durey (1888-1979)

Louis Durey is the least-remembered of the early 20th Century group of French composers known as Les Six, which included Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Germaine Tailleferre, and Georges Auric. A profile of Durey appeared in the Winter 2000 issue of The Musical Times, and the author, Marc Wood, especially recommended his String Quartets No. 1 (1917) ("a marvellous work that deserves to be much better known") and No. 2 (1922) (the final movement of which "allies adventurous and expressionistic harmony to increasingly fluid rhythmic development"). (There is also a third quartet, from 1928.)

Wood also identifies a number of concert works from Durey's later years - a Fantaisie-concertante for cello and orchestra from the Forties, a Concertino for piano and wind instruments from the Fifties, a Mouvement symphonique for piano and strings and a Sinfonietta for strings from the Sixties. He also mention's Durey's lone opera, the 1929 L'occasion (one act or full-length?), from a story by Prosper Merimee.

I had long been curious about Durey, and had hoped to learn more about him, so this article (unfortunately not freely available on the Web, although it is on JSTOR) was a godsend. There does not appear to be any full-length biography of Durey yet, in any language.

But such a biography would make an interesting read, not least for the light it would shed on the committed French Communist movement of which Durey was an enthusiastic member. He is rather notorious for setting poems by Mao Tse-tung and Ho Chi Minh to music. He suffered for this in terms of his "career," which was also under-powered by his non-self-promoting nature. But he never stopped composing, for films (I was interested to learn this) as well as for the concert hall.

Not all his political music is that easily pigeon-holed as extremist. For one thing, it is easy to forget that Ho initially rose up against French colonialism, which is something that Durey and many French intellectuals applauded (and I am sure I would have, too). This anti-colonialism found other expression as well, such as Durey's "powerful plea for Tunisian and Algerian independence, the Cantate a Ben-Ali of 1952, [which] was deemed subversive by the authorities and rehearsed by the choir clandestinely."

I find artists' political commitments interesting to consider, without making them a litmus test for whether I am willing to look at an artist's work. That seems silly to me. I am creatively interested in Albert Speer, Leni Riefenstahl, and Hans Pfitzner; I am just as interested in Bertolt Brecht, Hanns Eisler, and Louis Durey.

 Here is Durey's Op. 25 Sonatina for Flute and Piano:


And here is a Wind Trio (oboe, clarinet, and bassoon):

These refined pieces are really hitting the spot for me tonight! This disc of Durey songs looks appealing as well:

François Le Roux - Songs by Louis Durey

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