Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Gustave Samazeuilh: Le Chant de la Mer (1918-19) for piano

It’s not British music…but…this major piano work was one of my major discoveries in 2015. I revisited this music whilst on holiday in the Mediterranean in recent weeks. The entire piece, lasting more than 20 minutes, seems to sum up my impression of the blue skies and turquoise sea of that wonderful region.
In 2015 I submitted a review of Olivier Chauzu playing the complete piano works of Gustave Samazeuilh to MusicWeb International. I quote much of what I wrote there in this blog post.

First, a few biographical notes about the composer will help the listener. Firstly, Gustave Samazeuilh, born in Bordeaux in 1877, was destined for a career in law, but turned to music. He studied with Ernest Chausson and Vincent d'Indy at the Schola Cantorum de Paris and subsequently with Paul Dukas. Secondly, Samazeuilh became lifelong friends with Maurice Ravel and was influenced by his music. However, the most important impact was Claude Debussy. And thirdly, Samazeuilh’s catalogue of music is not extensive. Grove notes some half-dozen orchestral works, a good quantity of chamber music for a variety of instruments, several songs and the present collection of piano works. One interesting item mentioned is a Piano Sonata composed in 1902 which is not featured in the present ‘complete’ piano works. One can only assume it has not survived.  There are also a few transcriptions for piano of other composers’ music.
Stylistically, Samazeuilh’s music owes much to the impressionists, especially Debussy. Yet, there is sometimes something a little more neo-classical in these pages as well as backward glances to his two teachers.

Le Chant de la Mer (1918-19) is a massive three-movement work that is surely one of the most undervalued pieces of 20th century piano music.  The Chant is highly structured and follows a ‘well-thought out temporal and symbolic scheme’. I imagine that listeners will immediately think of Claude Debussy’s orchestral suite La Mer and wonder if Samazeuilh has created a piano companion for this work. The actual progenitors of this work are once again Ernest Chausson and Vincent d’Indy. The opening Prelude is slow and majestic as a peaceful ocean ought to be and features ‘static layers of sound’.  It is possibly more MacDowell than Debussy. The ‘Clair du lune au large’ can be perceived as an allegory of human passions expressed in terms of the movement of the tides with ‘moonlight on the waves’. The composer has not been blind to Debussy’s achievement in giving an impressionistic picture of the sea, and there are certainly several nods to La Mer, especially in the final movement, ‘Tempête et lever du jour sur les flots’ which musically paints ‘tempest and daybreak on the waves’ Here Samazeuilh makes use of ‘rapid flourishes, ostinatos and tremolos, chromatic broken-chord ascents and descents, and alternating black-and-white key glissandos…’  It is also clear to see the pianism of Liszt in this movement. 
The three movements, in order, were dedicated to Francis Planté, Marguerite Long and Alfred Cortot respectively.
I am indebted to the liner notes for my understanding of this work. There is also a section in Alfred Cortot’s major study of French piano music which is available (in French) online.  Since writing my review, I have found helpful words about Le Chant de la Mer in Norman Demuth’s essential French Piano Music with notes on its interpretation (London, Museum Press, 1959).

At the time of uploading this blog post, there are two complete versions of Gustave Samazeuilh’s Le Chant de la Mer currently on YouTube.
The first in two parts is played by Stephane Lemelin (Part I and Part 2). My preferred version is by Marie Catherine-Girod recorded in 1997. The recording I reviewed is by Olivier Chauzu and was released on GRAND PIANO GP669 in 2015. His playing on this CD is always sensitive and presents a huge range of musical colour in Gustave Samazeuilh’s largely impressionistic, but often romantic, piano works.  


mathias broucek said...

Have you heard his string quartet? Lovely work albeit slightly derivative of the Debussy and Ravel works

John France said...

Thanks for that. I have not, but will look out for it!