Canal, Marguerite (1890–1978)

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Canal, Marguerite (1890–1978)

French composer and teacher, who was the first woman in France to conduct orchestral concerts. Born in Toulouse, France, on January 29, 1890; died in Cépet, France, on January 27, 1978; married Maxime Jamin.

Born into a musical family in Toulouse in 1890, Marguerite Canal revealed her musicality in her earliest years and began her studies at the Paris Conservatory in 1903. Under the direction of Paul Vidal, Canal proved to be an outstanding pupil, earning first prizes in harmony, piano accompaniment and fugue. Drawn to composition, she began to write songs, some of them to accompany her own poems. Her phenomenal talents were recognized in 1917 and 1918 when she became the first woman to conduct orchestral concerts in France (at a series held at the Palais de Glace). In 1919, she was appointed teacher of solfège (music theory) for singers at the Paris Conservatory, and the next year she won the Premier Grand Prix de Rome for her dramatic scene for voice and orchestra, "Don Juan."

In the early 1920s, most observers of the French musical scene predicted a significant future as a composer for Marguerite Canal. During these years, she married Maxime Jamin, who became the publisher of several of her most important compositions. One of her most moving works from this productive phase was the 1922 Sonata for Violin and Piano, which is in the grand lyrical tradition of Franck and Fauré. Many critics felt that this touching piece was very likely an autobiographical evocation of the emotional life of a young woman. Another chamber music work that elicited much favorable critical comment was Spleen, a 1926 composition for cello and small ensemble. A great number of Canal's most important songs were written at this time, many of them of great beauty and sensitivity, and set to some of the best works of French poetry, including Baudelaire and Verlaine. One of her most delicately crafted vocal works was the song cycle, Amours tristes, set to her own verse and that of other poets.

Although her teaching responsibilities kept her busy, Canal was able in the early 1920s to make considerable progress toward the completion of her most ambitious project to date, a full-scale opera. Based on a Jack London story, Tlass Atka (Le pays blanc) was an ambitious work, but unfortunately the pressure of her teaching responsibilities and personal turmoil (she eventually was to be divorced from her husband Maxime Jamin) precipitated an artistic crisis that led to a greatly diminished output. A number of half-finished works, including a Requiem, were not brought to final state and remain unpublished. She continued to compose into the 1940s, but it was clear that Canal had made a decision to concentrate on teaching.

Marguerite Canal's compositions are sensitive and often poignant. Her songs, particularly those set to the verse of Paul Fort, display her love of the sea and the coast of Brittany. Others, including a 1948 setting of four lullabies derived from the poetry of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore , testify to her passionate love of children, and are a commentary on one of the great sadnesses of her life, never having had a child. Largely unknown even to connoisseurs of modern French music, the creative efforts of Marguerite Canal represent an aesthetic treasure yet to be discovered by music lovers. She died in Cépet, near her home city of Toulouse, on January 27, 1978.

John Haag , University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia