1867 — 1950
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Fading into borderline obscurity since his death, Charles Koechlin is an underappreciated link between musical generations. Taught by the greats and later a teacher to the greats, Koechlin’s personal quest for greatness has fallen short, however his teachings had a lasting impact on French music.. Whether or not deserved, his reputation has not successfully withstood the test of time.
Charles Louis Eugène Koechlin was born in Paris on 27 November 1867. He was the seventh child of Jules and Camille Koechlin. His family was well off, but socially conscious. His father often sought to raise the wages of the employees at his textile plant. He first developed his musical tastes hearing his older sisters practicing. The harmonics of the Massenet songs sung by Mathilde fascinated him and the Bach Elisabeth played on piano gave him a lifelong appreciation for his work. Frustrated with the piano early on, hearing Charles-Wilfred Bériot in a recital encouraged Koechlin to renew his efforts, though he himself said he was ‘certainly no prodigy’.
In 1882 Koechlin’s father died and that summer he spent time at his grandfather’s estate on Lake Geneva. This time to recover over the summer would later be the inspiration for hisL’ancienne maison de campagne, written in 1932-33. He started to study piano with Monsieur Natter and attempted his first composition, a suite inspired byA Little Mermaid.
Koechlin entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1890. There his teachers included Massenet and Fauré. Fauré would prove to be a major influence on Koechlin’s writing style throughout his career. From Massenet he received advice, to never reject his own ideas, a suggestion that was perhaps misunderstood by Koechlin. This idea from his teacher would push the composer to try – maybe too hard – to complete and have performances of all of his works.
In 1899 Koechlin started giving lessons to his first student, an important step to the career for which he may be best remembered. That same year he read Mowgli’s Brothersby Rudyard Kipling, inspiring him to write a massive symphonic cycle based on the writings that would end up taking him over forty years. He met Suzanne Pierrard in 1902 and the next year they were married. The couple would go on to have five children together. Over their engagement period, Koechlin was able to secure many performances of his music, often in friends’ homes.
From the time he left the conservatoire until around 1909, Koechlin wrote predominantly vocal music, inspired by his teacher Fauré. After this time he preferred to focus on the instrumental music. He felt this gave him complete artistic control, having removed the poet from the process. His academic career began in earnest in 1915, with a series of lectures, though he said this was out of necessity, not ambition. He also found work as a critic for theChronique des artsand writing programme notes for the Concerts Colonne.
Koechlin would spend years as a teacher, lecturer, and external examiner, but the financial stability of a permanent teaching position at the conservatoire was not to be. At the end of World War I, Koechlin went on a lecture tour of colleges in the United States, which began with a lunch at the White House with President Wilson. He found the trip very exciting, seeing and writing about much of the trip, from Niagara Falls to the Grand Canyon. He was a champion of French art and, believing that art came from pain and sacrifice, felt that the materialistic Americans could never achieve truly great artistic levels. He would make more trips to America over the next few decades, as a performer, lecturer, and honoured guest.
Koechlin would spend his life looking for the credit he felt he deserved. He spent what little money he earned on performances of his works. In Brussels in 1946 he would finally have a performance of hisJungle Book Cycle. Throughout the 1940s he worked endlessly, composing, giving radio talks, books on fellow French composers, and writing letters. The only variation in his schedule was to focus on the orchestration of his works during the summer months. It was only in 1950 that he began to slow down. On New Year’s Eve 1950, Charles Koechlin died at his Mediterranean home, La Canadel.
Forty years in the making, Koechlin’s Les Bandar-Log is a setting of The Jungle Bookto music. Subtitled “Scherzo of the Monkey”, the piece is a combination of many twentieth century styles, from impressionism to twelve-tone technique. The piece shows his uneasiness with the styles of the time as the work both attempts their use and seems to mock them. Premiered in Brussels in 1946, it is perhaps the composer’s best-known work.
Opus 71, Koechlin’s bassoon sonata, was written in 1918 and revised in 1919. Written around the same time as several sonatas, quartets, and piano pieces, it comes from his chamber period. Its first performance was in 1938 by M. Dhérin and J. Guieyesse on bassoon and piano respectively. It was not printed however, until 1990, fifty years after his death. The first movement shows an influence of Fauré, with the arpeggiated chords in the accompaniment. The second movement shows Chopin, a cross between his Barcarolle and Nocturne. Originally four movements, Koechlin cut the fourth and used it for hisSilhouettes de comedie for bassoon and orchestra.
Though started in 1902, Koechlin’s Viola Sonata did not receive a performance until 1915, with Darius Milhaud on viola. Even then he was not satisfied. Feeling the piano part was overwhelming, he intended to rework it into an orchestral accompaniment. Corresponding with Milhaud before the premiere, Koechlin showed some doubt, wondering if the scherzo had to be revised to be playable. Studying the piece and songs from Koechlin made the young Milhaud a supporter of Koechlin’s work, comparing his appreciation of Koechlin’s writing to his tireless enjoyment of Schubert.
Charles Koechlin, it must be said, has been largely forgotten by modern audiences. With a few exceptions, like hisLes Bandar-Log and bassoon sonata, much of his music has fallen out of the current repertoire. His legacy is better felt in the students he had, including two members ofLes Six, Germaine Tailleferre and Francis Poulenc. He orchestrated works for Saint-Saëns, Debussy, and Fauré. In his time though he was a respected theorist and teacher, writing text books on music theory. His lectures led to his three American journeys. While perhaps not the best known composer, he was respected by many of his contemporaries and in many other ways, he had a lasting impact on French music.
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