1863 — 1937
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Gabriel Pierné was a French composer, organist and conductor from the late Romantic and early 20th century. He was the highly respected conductor of the Concerts Colonnes and a tireless advocate of contemporary French music.
Pierné was born in Metz in 1863 to musical parents. His father, a baritone, introduced him to the art of singing, while his mother introduced him to the piano. Pierné showed great musical talent from a young age and became a student at the Paris Conservatoire in 1871 after the family moved to Paris, following the annexation of Lorraine by Germany.
Pierné studied at the Conservatoire until 1882, where he won multiple premiers prix, in harmony, counterpoint and organ; he also won the second prix in organ and composition. He studied organ with Marmontel and Franck, harmony with Durand and composition with Massenet. At the age of 19, Pierné won thePrix de Rome for his cantata Édith (1882).
After graduating, Pierné spent three years in Rome at the Villa Medici before returning to Paris to teach at the private music school his parents had founded for piano and singing. One of his students at the school, Louise Bergon, became his wife in 1890.
At the age of 27, Pierné succeeded Franck as the organist at Ste Clotilde, where he stayed until 1898. He was later succeeded by Tournemire. After leaving this post, he turned his focus to composition and conducting and became the deputy conductor of the Concerts Colonne in 1903. After the death of Edouard Colonne in 1910, Pierné was appointed principal conductor, where he remained until 1933. While there, he conducted the music of not only Mozart, Beethoven and Berlioz, but he introduced many works from leading French composers at the time; he especially performed many works by Franck, Debussy, Ravel and Roussel. Between 1928 and 1931, the Concerts Colonne orchestra made many recordings with the French Odéon company, among which are some unique Berlioz performances and works by Ravel. Pierné also became the conductor for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and premiered Stravinsky’sFirebird.
During the summers, Pierné went to Brittany with his family and focused on composing. His compositional activity occurred in three periods between 1880 and 1936. His first period contains mostly piano works, incidental music, light operas andmélodies while his second period, occurring at the turn of the century is comprised of three oratorios (La croisade des enfants (1902), Les enfants à Bethléem(1907) and Saint François d'Assise (1912)), a piano quintet (1917) and numerous concertante works. Pierné’s final period, between 1916-36 contains mostly chamber music and his best ballet scoreCydalise et le chèvre-pied(1914-15).
Pierné’s compositional style can be described as very traditional and classical in form while possessing a modern spirit. He was able to eloquently balance his own personal language with the elements of both discipline and instinct. Evidence of his studies with both Massenet and Franck are very evident. From Massenet he acquired a sense of melody and lightness, while from Franck he developed a sense of structure and consciousness of art, along with an inspiration for religious music. An example of the light touch developed through his studies with Massenet can be found in his operatic comedyOn ne badine pas avec l'amour (1910), while an example of Franck’s influence can be found inPaysages franciscains (1919). Pierné was also able to successfully blend his sense of seriousness with lighter music.
Pierné was open to the compositional styles of his colleagues and was further influenced by Saint-Saëns’ ‘ars gallica’ style, which also became a motto for the Société Nationale de Musique. Many of his works also feature early French dance forms, exoticism, and Spanish-Basque rhythms. Pierné preferred to write in a typical French style comprised of orchestral poems and character pieces, as opposed to using symphonic form.The Guardian describes Pierné’s traditional three movement Piano Concerto in C minor (1887) as a “bombastic mix of Saint- Saëns and Tchaikovsky.”
An example of his use of Basque rhythms and themes can be found in both of the colorfulRamuntcho Suites (1910), which continues the tradition of French music celebrating Spain, like Ravel and Lalo. The music is extracted from the 1908 plays by Pierre Loti, about a Basque hero who returns to his village after serving in the military. Upon his return, he discovers his fiancée in a convent. In a moral struggle to choose between him or God, she dies.
From his position at the Concerts Colonne, he was able to follow the current musical trends, incorporating elements into his own music. Much of his later music is influenced by Deussy’s harmonies, Ravel’s orchestration and Roussel’s dynamism.
Pierné’s output includes eight operas, oratorios, instrumental and orchestral works and songs. Some of his most successful works include the large scale works such as the operetteSophie Arnould (1927), a lyrical comedy based on the life of the singer, the operaVendée (1897) and the oratorios L’an mil (1897) and Le Croisade des Enfants(1905). His popular chamber works include his Sonata for Violin (1900), Sonata for Cello (1919), piano quintet (1917),Introduction et variations sur une ronde populaire(1930) for saxophone quartet and the two piano piecesMarche de petits soldats de plomb and Entrance of the Little Faun (1914-15).
His Canzonetta (1888)for clarinet and piano is also an enchantingly light piece of music. TheDivertissements sur un Theme Pastoral (1931) is a very popular work, written for his own orchestra, and features virtuoso scoring. This work features elements of jazz, dance rhythms and a saxophone solo, in combination with traditional roots.
Pierné also became involved in education as a member of the board in charge of the direction of studies at the Paris Conservatoire. He was also elected a member of the Académie des Beaux Arts in 1925, made commandeur of the Légion d’Honneur in 1935.
Though much of his music is overshadowed by other French composers from his day, it is because his time was devoted primarily to conducting, which is what his fame rests on.
Gabriel Pierné died in 1937 in Finistère.
Header image courtesy of Voix Plurielles Other images courtesy of Enrichment Studios and public domain