Unlike many of his contemporaries, Henri Sauguet never agonized over a perceived need to expand musical language, a concern so typical of twentieth-century composers. While others were developing, or following, the many "isms," gimmicks, fads, and schools of composition, Sauguet simply wrote music. To him, music was not merely a way of life: it was life itself; and, in his mind, the mystery of music could not be codified, analyzed, or forced into a lifeless intellectual frame of reference. Indeed, upon entering the vast, intriguing, variegated world of Sauguet's music, the listener experiences a feeling of joyful anticipation, akin to a traveler's dream of a realm of many wonders. Indeed, working in a plethora of genres, including songs, chamber music, delicate instrumental vignettes, and thought-provoking symphonic compositions, Sauguet offers us a rich, multifaceted, almost kaleidoscopic vision of life, a musical vision which, engaging the full sonic potential of tonal, and harmonic, color and depth, translates the composer passionate experience of life into an accessible, charming, authoritative, and irresistible musical language.
If true music, essentially, is devoid of bombast, declarative fervor, intellectual pretense, and pontificating narration, then Sauguet exemplifies the quintessential musician. Unforunately, because it does not lend itself to intellectual scrutiny and analytical obsessiveness, his music has been criticized as exceedingly spontaneous—to the to point of ignoring the hierarchical universe of musical aesthetics. Thus, for example, in a 1938 article, the eminent French philosopher and music critic Gabriel Marcel upbraided Sauguet and other composers of his generation for yielding to inspiration and diffuse creative impulses, thereby supposedly failing to rise above a certain materiality, which, in the philosopher's opinion, diminishes a work of art. The ever-inquisitive and open-minded Sauguet, who not only wrote for such "lowbrow" media as film, radio, and television, and even experimented with concrete music [a combination of recorded natural sounds, which may be modified or altered] would have probably agreed with Marcel's assessment. Nevertheless the assessment is unfair. True, there is something uncanny about Sauguet's facility and spontaneity, but his astonishing fluency never burdens the listener with banality or superficiality. Critics who believe that great music must transcend its material, physical nature to attain the purity of a spiritual statement are mistaken, for music, as Sauguet's works exemplify best, is spiritual and material at the same time.
When commentators are asked to describe Sauguet's music, they often invoke his verve, charm, energy, lightness of touch, and, above all, his spontaneity. Playful, disarming, and almost scintillating, Sauguet's spontaneity is far from a manifestation of blind, unthinking facility, for his compositions, whether they be brief flashes of inspiration or thought-out and thought-provoking symphonic pieces, reveal the unavoidable impatience of an artist who has too much to say. In essence, Sauguet's music provides glimpses of his immensely rich inner world: a charming miniature may reflect an atmospheric moment, or a fleeting mood; a symphony may reveal a deep contemplative struggle.
Thus, for example, his gentle, delicate, dreamy, diaphanous Six Easy Pieces for flute and guitar beautifully conjure an atmosphere of grace, elegance, bittersweet longing, and repose. An entirely different, but hardly atypical, work is his profoundly contemplative, even metaphysicial, Symphony No. 4, in which Sauguet meditates about old age with a gentle forcefulness, revealing the experience of old age in its tremendous, tragic, overwhelming, and yet profoundly human immenseness, allowing us to feel the mystery of mortality in our bones.
Born Henri Pierre Poupard in 1901 in Bordeaux, the composer studied the piano as a young boy and worked in his teens as an organist and choirmaster. Recognizing composition as his vocation, he went to Montauban, where he started working with Joseph Canteloube in 1919. There, a teacher and kindred soul acquainted the young composer with the works of Darius Milhaud, Erik Satie, and Charles Koechlin. As a result, Poupard started corresponding with Milhaud. Knowing that his businessman father wanted to keep the family name untainted by an "undignified" profession, the composer took his mother's maiden name, presenting himself as Henri Sauguet at his first concert, with two colleagues, in 1920.
Intrigued by the young man's intensity and enthusiasm, Milhaud invited Sauguet to Paris, in 1922. Thanks to his friendship, Sauguet was warmly received by the artistic elite of Paris. He met Jean Cocteau and Max Jacob, writers whose work he admired, and established ties with the composers known as "Les Six." He also welcomed the influence of Erik Satie, the original, highly eccentric composer, who, just like Sauguet, combined an extraordinary sense of humor with a lucid style. Always eager to learn, Sauguet, following Milhaud's advice, studied composition with Charles Koechlin until 1927.
While Sauguet openly declared his debt to older composers, the works that first established him as successful composer in the 1920s, reveal an original, self-assured artist. Interestingly, Sauguet's first success was a comic opera, Le plumet du colonel (The colonel's plume), produced in 1924, in which one hears not only echoes of Satie's austere style but also the influence, frankly acknowledged by Sauguet, of Richard Strauss's opulent orchestrations. By 1927, when his first ballet, La chatte (The cat), a work composed for the Ballets Russes, triumphed in Paris, Sauguet had established himself as a composer for the stage.
In 1936, after a decade of work, Sauguet completed the opera La chartreuse de Parme (The charterhouse of Parma), which was produced in Paris in 1939. Sauguet's most ambitious work, this opera, with its traditional melodiousness, seems almost at odds with his the clarity and concision of his earlier style. Upon scrutiny, however, Sauguet's seemingly traditional works, including the opera La gageure imprélvue (The unexpected challenge), an evocation of rococo charm, do not evince a spirit of sentimental regression but simply reveal a particular aspect of Sauguet's complex genius.
Released from military service after a short period, Sauguet resumed his work, using his influence as an eminent composer to help his Jewish friends. Deeply saddened by the tragic events of World War II, Sauguet turned to themes of sorrow, atonement, and solitude. Exemplifying the composer's deep awareness of human fragility is the ballet Les mirages, a poignant evocation of solitude. In 1945, the year the war ended, Sauguet completed his Symphony No. 1, known as "Expiatoire" (Expiatory), a moving musical tribute to the war's innocent victims. In the following years, Sauguet composed some of his most magnificent music. The death of his mother in 1947, inspired his profoundly spiritual String Quartet No. 2; a year later, he wrote the song cycle Visions infernales, a haunting setting of poems by his friend Max Jacob, who had died in a concentration camp.
It seems absurd to talk of a "late period" in Sauget's career, for his irrepressible creative impulse drove him constantly to ambitious musical projects, including operas and symphonies. Furthermore, he composed with the energy and enthusiasm of a young man starting his musical career. Thus, even in the Symphony No. 4 (1971), a serious meditation on old age, the listener discerns an unmistakably youthful spirit of insatiable curiosity. Sauguet also wrote about music, working as a music critic throughout the 1930s and 1940s. He founded the Union des Compositeurs, also devoting his time to Una Voce, an organization that works to preserve Latin and traditional chant in the Roman Catholic liturgy. Sauguet died in 1989; an autobiography, Musique, ma vie (Music, my life) was published in 1990.
For the Record …
Born Henri Pierre Poupard on May 18, 1901, in Bordeaux, France; died on June 21, 1989, in Paris, France. Education: Studed the organ with Paul Combes; studied composition with Joseph Canteloube and Charles Koechlin.
Organist and choirmaster; composer; worked as music critic and journalist from 1929 to the late 1940s; served as president of several organizations, including l'Avadémie du disque franç:ais, l'Union des compos iteurs, and Una Voce.
Awards: Elected to l'Académie des Beaux Arts, 1976.
Trois françaises (piano), 1923.
Piano Sonata in D major, 1926.
La chatte (ballet), 1927.
La chartreuse de Parme (opera), 1927-36, revised 1968.
La contrebasse (opera), 1930.
String Quartet No. 1, 1941.
La gageure imprévue (opera), 1942.
Les mirages (ballet), 1943.
Les forains (ballet), 1945.
Symphonie expiatoire, 1945.
Trio (oboe, clarinet, and bassoon), 1946.
String Quartet No. 2, 1948.
Visions infernales (voice and piano), 1948.
Mouvement de coeur (bass voice and piano), 1949.
Symphony No. 2 "Allégorique," 1949.
Les caprices de Marianne (opera), 1954.
Symphony No. 3 "I.N.R.," 1955.
Le chant por l'oiseau qui n'existe pas, 1957.
Pie Jesu Domine (chorus and organ), 1957.
L'oiseau a vu tout cela (cantata), 1960.
Concert des mondes souterrains (two pianos), 1961-63.
L'espace du dedans (bass voice and piano), 1965.
Poèmes à l'autre moi (voice and piano), 1965.
Symphony No. 4 "Du troisiè âge," 1971.
Je sais qu'il existe (bass voice sand piano), 1973.
Pour regarder Watteau (harpsichord), 1975.
Six pièces facile (flute and guitar), 1975.
Sept chansons d'alchimiste (voice and piano), 1978.
String Quartet No. 3, 1979.
Sonate crépusculaire (violin and piano), 1981.
Ombres sur Venise (piano), 1986.
L'oiseau a vu tout cela, Arion, 1993.
Complete Piano Works, Discover, 1994.
Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4, Marco Polo, 1995.
Works for Two Pianos, Arcobaleno, 1995.
Chamber Music. Vol. 2, Sonpact, 1996.
Symphony No. 1, Marco Polo, 1996.
Symphony No. 2, Marco Polo, 1997.
Sadie, Stanley, editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Macmillan, 2001.
American Record Guide, January-February 1995; November-December, 1996; March-April 1997; July-August 1997.
Henri Sauguet (1901-1989) was one of the most important composers, writers, and thinkers on French art and music in the latter half of the 20th century. He contributed notable works in all musical genres, particularly ballet and opera. He was the most important heir of the compositional style of Erik Satie, which was characterized by clarity and simplicity.
Henri Sauguet was born in Bordeaux, France, on May 18, 1901. As a young child Sauguet studied piano and was attracted to the music of Bizet, Schumann, and Debussy. He received organ lessons from Paul Combes, and after a brief appointment as an organist at a local church he studied composition under J. P. Vaubourgoin and Joseph Canteloube. He soon became interested in the music of Igor Stravinsky and Erik Satie.
After reading Jean Cocteau's Le Coq et l'arlequin, the most important work of this literary Dadaist, Sauguet organized the Bordeaux counterpart to the Parisian "Les Six." "Les Trois" consisted of Sauguet, the composer J. M. Lizotte, and the poet Louis Emié. Sauguet actively corresponded with Darius Milhaud, who encouraged his compositional endeavors. In 1923 he produced his first collection, Trois Françaises for piano, which reflected the influence of Satie with its spontaneity, simple lines, and tender emotions.
Later that year Sauguet relocated to Paris, where he became involved with the "École d'Arcueil," a collaborative group whose members included Cliquet-Pleyel, Maxime (Don Clement) Jacob, and Desormie‧re. The group, named in honor of Satie's place of birth, gave their inaugural concert at the Sorbonne with the assistance of both Satie and Cocteau. As a result of this successful presentation, Sauguet received his first major commission for stage. When Le Plumet du colonel was presented on a double bill with Stravinsky's L'Histoire du soldat at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Stravinsky congratulated the young Sauguet: "22 years old; that's good… . Don't search for yourself. You've already found yourself … but work hard, and seriously."
Sauguet excelled as a writer for the stage. His second commission, Les Roses (1924), was technically cohesive and critically successful. La Chatte (1927), danced by Balanchine, was a major success for Sergei Diaghilev and considerably furthered Sauguet's reputation as a composer. It was followed by David, written and danced by Ida Rubinstein, and La Nuit (1930), presented in London, based on a scenario by Kochno, with choreography by Lifar and scenery by Bérard. These led to the culmination of his stage work, Les Fourains (1945), first performed by Petit's company. Based on the story of a melancholy yet hopeful troop of traveling players, the work captured the playful manner of Chabrier.
Sauguet also wrote notable operatic works. After Le Plumet du colonel, Sauguet produced La Contrebasse in 1930, an opera buffa by Troyat, after a story by Chekhov. It was successfully revived in 1981. His La Chartreuse de Parme (1927-1936) remains his best work in this genre. While it has been described as a somewhat "featureless" work, it was directly emotional, containing the simple, flowing, melodic lines which perfectly embody the French sentiment of that period. La Chartreuse de Parme, revised for the Winter Olympic Games in Grenoble, France, in 1968, was well received.
Sauguet's chamber and orchestral works tended to be programmatic. The first of his four symphonies, Expiatoire (1945), was a heartfelt lament for the victims of World War II; Concert des mondes souterrains (1961-1963) suggested the dripping water and strange lights of an underground grotto; Melodie concertante (1964), written for the famous cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, tried to recapture the vision of a young female cellist whose expressive interpretation of Debussy's music touched the composer in his youth; and Suite Royale, written and performed by Sylvia Marlowe in 1962, was reminiscent of the harpsichord suites of the 18th century and recalls the brief and tragic life of Marie Antoinette. The themes were tender and moving.
Satie was an important link in the genesis of the modern French symphony. Except for the two symphonies by Dom Clement Jacob (Maxime Jacob's name after he received religious orders), Sauguet's four works were the only embodiment of Satie's style in this genre.
Sauguet's career was marked by individuality. A neoromantic, he continued to write emotional music of unusual expressivity throughout his career. Sauguet avoided complicated and cluttered structures, preferring clarity and simplicity to create mood. According to the composer, art was saying something in everyday words that no one had ever said before.
Sauguet continued as a strong voice in the arts until his death in 1989.
Sauguet remained active as a composer, writer, and thinker of French art and music as an octogenarian. A member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts beginning in 1975, Sauguet contributed articles to the Courrier de Musique France (no. 38, 1972) and Revue de Musicologie (nos. 316-317, 1978). Two biographies were available, one by M. Schneider (Paris, 1959) and one by F. Y. Bril (Paris, 1967). Information on the composer may also be obtained from Henri Sauguet: A Bio-Bibliography (Bio-Bibliographies in Music, No 39) by David L. Austin (1991). □