Jacques Ibert

1890 1962

Jacques Ibert

Composer

Biography

Jacques Ibert was an early 20th century French composer. He composed in many genres including opera, orchestral, and solo instrumental. His music is very traditional in form and harmony, with splashes of modern sounds. By 1927, he had already taken his place among the most well-known composers of his generation.

Ibert was born in 1890 in Paris. His mother was a talented pianist who had studied with Marmontel and Le Coppey at the Paris Conservatory. At home, she often played the music ofChopin, Bach, and Mozart on the piano, which Ibert enjoyed. He began playing violin at the age of 4 and started piano lessons with Marie Dhéré. After receiving his baccalaureat, he decided upon his profession as a composer. He also gave lessons, accompanied singers, and wrote program notes, but his true passion was composition. He worked for a time as a cinema pianist and began composing songs, some of which are published under the pseudonym William Berty. In 1910, he attended classes at the Paris Conservatory. There, he followed harmony classes with Émile Pessard and counterpoint with André Gédalge and from 1913 he studied composition with Paul Vidal. Gédalge also gave advice on orchestration and held a private class for his best students, which also includedHonegger and Milhaud. Gédalge proved to be the most influential teacher for Ibert during his three years at the conservatory.

Ibert’s career was put on hold for four years due to his military duties during WWI. He worked as a nurse, a stretcher-bearer at the front, and as a naval officer in Dunkirk. Hereafter, in 1919, he won the Prix de Rome on his first attempt and launched his career as a composer, with his wife’s help.

The first premiere of his works was given at the Concerts Colonne in 1922. His La Ballade de la geôle de Reading(1922) was conducted by Pierne and was positively received. Two years later, Paray conducted hisEscales (1920-22) with the Lamoureux Orchestra, again to a positive reception. These two works became popular both in France and abroad. He then wrote two successful collections for piano,Histoires (1922) and Les Rencontres (1924), on the advice from his publisher, Alponse Leduc. The ballet fromLes Recontres was his first piece to be performed at the Opéra. His success was further defined by his comic opera  Angélique in 1927.

In addition to composing, Ibert sat on various committees and in 1937 was appointed director of the Académie de France at the Villa Medici by the government. Despite criticism of this decision, Ibert was a great ambassador of French culture in Italy. During this time, he also conducted his own works in France and abroad.

World War II proved a difficult time for Ibert. In 1940, under the Vichy government, his music was banned and he was forced to seek refuge. He escaped to Antibes, in southern France. It was here that he composed the String Quartet (1937-42) andLe songe d’une nuit d’ete (1942). He then travelled briefly to Switzerland before returning to France where he was appointed administrator of the Reunion des Théâtres Lyriques Nationaux in 1955. With this position, he was in charge of the Opéra and the Opéra-Comique. However, he was not able to hold the position for very long and resigned due to health reasons. He later filled the vacancy left by Ropartz’s death at the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

Ibert’s music covers a variety of genres and moods. He did not belong to the French group,Les Six. His Divertissement (1930) from Un chapeau de paille d’Italie(1927) represents one of his more festive works, while Escales (1920-22) represents a more lyrical and evocative piece. Much of his music contains a light trace of humor. Ibert preferred harmonies that related to the classical tradition. He never used atonal or serial methods and rarely used polytonality. His use of extended chords and motoric contrapuntal writing gives his works a sense of modernity, but the tonality is always evident through his standard use of traditional cadences.

Many influences can be found in Ibert’s work, including in the form of homages and quotes. Evidence ofDebussy’s influence can be found in Persée et Andoméde (1929); a quotation fromBartók is featured in Symphonie concertante (1950). He also pays homage toDukas and Roussel in La Ballade de la géôle de Reading (1922) andOuverture de fête (1940), respectively. Though these influences are very strong in his music, his originality is found in his blend of “tenderness, irony, lyricism, and the burlesque.” A clear influence from Chabrier can also be observed in Ibert’s music, along with the music of Poulenc, Milhaud, and Sauget. Their music sought to revive French virtues through the use of clear melodies and tonality and transparent textures. They also strived for a fresh sense of inspiration.

Ibert is also known for having publicly defended film music and for criticizing the working conditions of composers. He also made his views clear about the uncertain future of opera as a genre and as an institution. He publicly acknowledged his admiration of Wagner and Schoenberg and his interest inmusique concréte.Sound effects produced in Don Quichotte (1957) appear to be influenced by the techniques developed inmusique concréte.

Ibert was attracted to the theatre and much of his work is dramatic. He also displayed enthusiasm for both film and broadcast music. He wrote 7 ballets, includingLe chevalier errant and Les amours de Jupiter, 5 symphonic works adapted for dance, and 6 operas. Two of the operas were a collaboration between himself andArthur Honegger. Their first opera, L’aiglon (1937) strikes the perfect balance of being accessible for the public while providing enough sophistication for the music critics. His opera,Angélique (1926), which attempted to renew opéra-bouffe, featured a libretto written by his brother-in-law.

Between 1920 and 1930, Ibert produced many works in the mélodie genre, which he was drawn to early in his career. Thereafter, he only wrote songs as parts of dramatic works. His works for solo instruments include 30 works for solo piano, among other works for flute, harp, guitar, violin, cello, bassoon, trumpet, and saxophone. HisCello Concerto and Flute Concerto and Concertino da Camara <> for solo saxophone and small orchestra are widely performed and recorded.

His chamber music consists of many gems, including Trois pièces brèves for wind quintet andCinq Pièces en Trio for oboe, clarinet and bassoon. His String Quartet (1937-42) has appeared on several recordings, usually alongside those ofDebussy and Ravel.

His orchestral works show the most evidence of inspiration. They are confident, clear, and balanced; they feature transparent orchestration and a thorough understanding of the instruments. These works include 3 concerto, 2 symphonies (1 was left unfinished), and 8 symphonic movements.

Jacques Ibert died in Paris, France in 1962 at the age of 72.

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