Lucien Durosoir, Composer

The admirable devotion of Luc Durosoir to bring his father’s works to life, in concert and through recordings, now makes it possible to analyze his music and talk about Lucien Durosoir as a composer.

In 1919, when Lucien finally had the time and the peace of mind to take up his pen, his musical style was well-formed and had only to be put on paper. The content, the process of composing, the choice of forms were all there. He had no piano, only his violin; he wrote what he heard in his head.

Though a lover of the great German and French composers—Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Debussy—and very impressed by the music of his friend Caplet, Durosoir never sought to imitate them. Nor did he make an effort to conform to what was happening in music during his lifetime. Durosoir’s musical style is very French, but one with very little connection to the dominant trends of the music of the early 20th century in France.[12]

The structural base of Durosoir’s music is contrapuntal, linear in form. This is not surprising when we consider his appreciation and understanding of the music of Bach. He was copying a Bach fugue at the time the war broke out. Throughout the war, he speaks of working on counterpoint, never on harmony.

Durosoir uses counterpoint in new and inventive ways. His lines are set at unusual musical and melodic intervals, a technique that creates unexpected harmonies, clashes that may be heard as violent, shocking, certainly surprising. Rhythmic complexity adds another layer of interest. His music has been described as:

extremely expressive, varied and contrasted in its effects, alternately fiery, plaintive, cajoling, harsh. Rich in ideas and twists, not always going where we expect it, it doesn’t always end up where we expect, both with regard to the harmony that often belies the tonal character announced, or to the runs which sometimes take unexpected turns.[13]

Most of Lucien’s musical output was either inspired by or has connections with poetry that he admired. Since his youngest days, he had considered poetry the highest of the arts. It is not surprising, therefore, that is was poetry that inspired his musical creativity.[14] He gave at least fifteen of his works the title of a poem; the theme, the rhythm, the imagery of the poem infuse his music with a sort of aura.

One example is the first of the delicate tone poems which make up the Cinq Aquarelles. Entitled “Bretagne,” the inspiration is the Cuban-born French Parnassian poet José Maria de Heredia’s poem, Bretagne. The haunting lyricism of the music evokes the Brittany that Lucien so loved, echoing the poetry. [15]

Pardessus la rumeur de la mer et des côtes
Le chant plaintif s’élève, invoquant à voix hautes
L’Étoile sainte, espoir des marins en peril.

Et l’Angélus, courbant tous ces fronts noirs de hâle,
Des rochers de Roscoff à ceux de Sybiril,
S’envole, tinte et meurt dans le ciel rose et pâle.[16]

The Violin Sonata in a-minor, completed on 19 September 1921, contains echoes of a couplet by the Parnassian poet Charles Marie René Leconte de Lisle:[17] The brilliant, free episodes of the first movement, in quick tempo, seem to express the exaltation of youth, while the slower and more reflective introduction and conclusion create a frame of disenchantment:

Et j’ai suivi longtemps, sans l’atteindre jamais, la jeune
Illusion qu’en mes beaux jours j’aimais.[18]

Another example is Idylle for wind quartet (flute, clarinet, horn, bassoon), completed at Nyons on 3 March 1925 and inspired by André Chénier’s translation of Plato.[19]

Là reposait l’Amour, et sur sa joue en fleur
D’une pomme brillante éclatait la couleur.
Je vis, dès que j’entrai sous cet épais bocage,
Son arc et son carquois suspendus au feuillage.
Sur des monceaux de rose au calice embaumé
Il dormait. Un sourire sur sa bouche formé
L’entr’ouvait mollement, et de jeunes abeilles
Venaient cueillir le miel de ses lèvres vermeilles.[20]

In this piece, the music clearly follows the structure of Chénier’s poem. The poet first describes the sleeping god, and then the scene floods the senses with explosive colors, the fragrance of the flowers, the sounds of the bees. The stillness of Cupid’s sleepcontrasts with the teaming life of the flora and fauna. Durosoir brilliantly captures both qualities: the lull of sleep by means of repetitive ostinato passages and the activity of the natural surroundings through quivering, rhythmic figures, bariolages over wide intervals, and pictorial details such as the sonorous image of bees collecting honey from Cupid’s lips.

Jouvence,[21] completed on 26 March 1921, is a fantaisie symphonique for principal violin and octet. It is considered by some the most illustrative of Durosoir’s compositions, with its unusual combination of instruments and construction.

The octet consists of a string quintet with flute, horn, and harp, which play in concerto fashion with the principal violin. The choice of instruments is unusual, but reflects the Lucien’s interest in intermingling the distinct timbres of bowed strings, plucked strings, brass, and wind instruments. Lucien preceded his score with a literary program, a sonnet of the same name by Jose-Maria de Hérédia:[22]

Juan Ponce de Léon, par le Diable tenté,
Déjà très vieux et plein des antiques études,
Voyant l’âge blanchir ses cheveux courts et rudes,
Prit la mer pour chercher la Source de Santé.

Sur sa belle Armada, d’un vain songe hanté,
Trois ans il explora les glauques solitudes,
Lorsque enfin, déchirant le brouillard des Bermudes,
La Floride apparut sous un ciel enchanté.

Et le Conquistador, bénissant sa folie,
Vint planter son pennon d’une main affaiblie
Dans la terre éclatante où s’ouvrait son tombeau.

Vieillard, tu fus heureux, et ta fortune est telle
Que la Mort, malgré toi, fit ton rêve plus beau;
La Gloire t’a donné la jeunesse immortelle.[23]

Jouvence consists of three movements: I. Prélude, Allegro giocoso; II. Aria; III. Introduction, Funeral march, and Finale. The music alternates heroic narration and lyric contemplation, set against an aural backdrop—a lush evocation of the tropical, sunlit Floridian shores that suddenly appear through the sea mist. The solo violin, with its virtuosic effects in the instrument’s high register, personifies the conquistador Ponce de Leon. The progress of the music is easily relatable to Hérédia’s poem:

Prélude depicts the explorer’s discovery of Florida, as related in the first half of the sonnet; Aria is a short, lyric interlude; and Introduction, Funeral march, and Finale depict the conquistador’s madness, his death, and his immortality in the second half of the sonnet.

The composition does not adhere to the spirit of Héredia’s sonnet. The composer, Durosoir, had lived, observed, shared in and exhibited true heroism, total commitment despite fear, risked his life, and harbored no illusions about the human price exacted by war—especially upon the infantrymen, the lowliest caste of soldiers. The heroic idealization of Ponce de Léon no longer touched him; the pursuit of the Fountain of Youth, the discovery of Florida, left him indifferent.

What in Jouvence makes listeners no longer believe in heroism? Something ironic, something sardonic, challenges them, suggesting that the composer has superimposed his own vision on that of the poet: Juan Ponce de Leon, puppet hero, toy of human vanities? The unease only really appears in the third movement, with the strikingly ironic “Funeral March” and “Final maestoso grandioso.” Above the tonal harmony, the solo violin utters a vast, fiery song in constantly dissonant double stopsat the interval of the seventh. The effect produced is just what is needed—an unpleasant, sarcastic smile, but a smile all the same.

Durosoir’s use of poetry is his own. And it went counter to the trend in French music after the Great War. After that cataclysm, there was a strong reaction against the whole idea of a fusion of the arts; artists intentionally kept their arts “distinct and independent of each other.” The movement was toward ‘pure’ music, ‘pure’ poetry and ‘pure’ painting, rejecting any semblance of subject or content or, especially in music, expression.[24]

Lucien Durosoir did not compose for the public, nor for the critics, but for himself. Indeed, the very act of composing for Lucien was a very personal experience—one that was enriched by his intellectual understanding of the repertoire he had played during his concert career, and by his critical study with André Caplet of contemporary French scores. Just as the young Lucien never became the disciple of any one violin teacher, as a composer he did not attempt to imitate the styles of the great masters. True to himself, from his youngest years, Lucien Durosoir sought his own creative path.

Elizabeth Auld
Paris, February 2022

John Powell
Portland, Maine, February 2022

[12] Francis Lippa, “La Poésie inspiratrice de l’œuvre de Lucien Durosoir: Romantiques, Parnassiens, Symbolistes, Modernes,” in Lucien Durosoir: Un compositeur moderne né romantique, Actes du colloque, ed. Lionel Pons(Albi: Éditions Multilingues Fraction 2013) 115-16.
[13] Jean-Marc Warszawski, Bulletin musicologique N.113. 20 November 2006. From Durosoir, Une rétrospective, 11.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Parnassian refers to a French literary style of the 19th century, between romanticism and symbism.
[16] Above the murmur of the sea and the coasts, the plaintive song rises, crying out loud to the holy star, the hope of sailors in peril.And the Angelus, causing all weather-beaten heads to bow from the rocks of Roscoff to those of Sybiril, rises, rings out, then dies away in the sky rosy and pale.
[17] Leconte de Lisle (1818-1894). Excerpt from Bhagavat, one of the Poèmes antiques,
[18] And I have long followed, without ever attaining the youthful illusion that I loved in my finer days.
[19] André Chénier (1762-1794). From Les Bucoliques in Œuvres poétiques, (Paris : Garnier), 1889, Volume 1, 89. Translation by John S. Powell.
[20] There Cupid reposed, and upon his rosy cheek  shone the color of a bright apple. I saw, as soon as I entered this thicket, his bow and quiver hanging from the boughs. Upon some heaps of fragrant roses hips he slept. His smiling mouth was gently open and young bees came to gather honey from his ruby lips.
[21] Youth.
[22] José-Maria de Hérédia, 1842-1905, Cuban-born French Parnassian poet. Jouvence, in Les Trophées. (Paris: Gallimard, 1981).Translation by Edward Robeson Taylor, Sonnets of José-Marie de Heredia (San Francisco: William Dorsey At the Sign of the Lark, 1898).
[23] Juan Ponce de Leon, by the Devil led, with years weighted down, and crammed with antique lore, seeing age blanch his scanty hair still more, the far seas scoured to find health’s fountainhead. By vain dream haunted his Armada sped three years the glaucous wildness to explore, till through the fog of the Bermudan shore loomed Florida whose skies enchantment shed. Then the Conquistador his madness blessed, and with enfeebled hand his pennon pressed in that bright earth which opened for his tomb . Old man, most happy thou: thy fortune sooth, is deathlike, but thy dream bears beauty’s bloom, for fame has given the immortal youth.
[24] Rollo Myers, Modern French Music. (Boston; Da Capo Press, 1984), 70-71.

After performing several of Durosoir’s pieces for cello and piano, Yale cellist Ole Akahoshiwrites: 

What struck me most at the beginning of working on these pieces was how “down-to-earth” each movement was. For instance, the Ronde is written in a highly contrapuntal style, almost to a point of severe and extreme discipline with no limits. Yet the music is most accessible – enjoyable, honest, simple, and straightforward without any pretentiousness. This movement is reminiscent of the Gamba Sonatas by Johann Sebastian Bach – quintessential epitome of beauty in contrapuntal writing. Durosoir masters contrapuntal writing to the highest possible level and uses this skill to make his music personal and unique.

These works by Durosoir are a reflection of his time, yet they are entirely timeless. There is wit, youthfulness, playfulness, irony, and perhaps even a bit of sarcasm in his writing. But underneath all the joie de vivre, one cannot deny melancholy, deep longing, love and pain.

French pianist Lorène Ratuld, who has recorded and played in concert Lucien Durosoir’s music, writes: 

When I discovered the music of Lucien Durosoir, through his work for violin and piano, I found myself at the heart of a new musical universe, resolutely modern and personal, of an astonishing complexity, sometimes confusing, where mysterious dissonances and the multiple threads woven by voices which become entangled like so many mixed thoughts, stretch the listening and upset the soul. Poetic, deep, voluptuous, sometimes tragic, lyrical, witty and funny at times, it fascinates. Fom the first notes Lucien Durosoir invites one to go deep within oneself; the tension is constant—in the best sense of the word. This is what forces one to continue listening. The imprint of the atmosphere that he creates is always very strong. It is music that goes “to the end of itself”, without taboos, stirring the listener or the musician. I am passionate about the strange and unique language of Durosoir which seems to condense several eras in a singular style, with personal harmonic tensions which “speak” to my heart as a musician. His pianistic writing requires from the performer a great deal of multidimensional listening because of its very dense contrapuntal mesh, a solid technique to achieve a clear voice, and virtuosity. Durosoir did not think about the difficulty of the game, he wrote down what his overflowing imagination dictated to him, for us to make it happen.  It was sometimes a challenge and always a fascinating job to give shape to this almost never heard music.

Catalogue of Lucien Durosoir’s compositions

1920Cinq Aquarelles, violon et piano
– Vision
– Ronde
– Berceuse
– Intermède
Berceuse pour violoncelle et.piano
Ronde pour violoncelle et piano
Poème pour violon, alto, et piano
Poème pour violon, alto, et orchestre
1ER Quatuor à cordes en fa mineur
1921Jouvence, Fantaisie pour violon principal et octuor
Jouvence pour piano et violon
Caprice pour violoncelle et harpe
Le Lis, Sonate en la mineur pour violon et piano
19222E Quatuor à cordes en re mineur
1923Légende, piano
Dejanira, étude symphonique sur un fragment des Trakhiniennes de Sophocle
1924Le Balcon, poème symphonique pour basse solo, cordes vocales et instrumentales
Le Balcon, poème symphonique pour basse solo, trois voix de femmes, et piano
1924-25Quintette en en fa majeur pour piano et quatuor à cordes
1925Idylle pour quatuor d’instruments à vent: flûte, clarinette, cor en Fa, basson
Rêve pour piano et violon
1925-26Aube, Sonate d’Été, pour piano
1926-27Trio en si mineur pour piano, violon, et violoncelle
1927Oisillon Bleu, bref poème pour piano et violon
1927-30Funerailles, suite pour grand orchestre
1930Sonate à un enfant, voix et piano
1931Trilogie pour violoncelle et piano
– Maïade
– Divertissement
Suite pour flute et petit orchestre
1932Prélude, Interlude et Fantasie pour deux pianos
1933-343E Quatuor à cordes en si mineur.
1934Vitrail pour alto et piano
Berceuse pour flute et piano
1935Au vent des Landes pour flute et piano
1937Fantasie pour cor, harpe, et piano.
1945Trois préludes (deux pour harmonium, un pour grand orgue)
1946Incantation Bouddhique pour cor anglaise et piano.
1949Nocturne pour piano
Prière à Marie pour violon et piano

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