Psaume 136 (1897) * Dimanche (1911) * Nocturne (1926) * Les Vêpres sonnent (1927) * Le Miracle de Saint Nicolas (1905)
Without doubt the impressive mass of compositions by Ropartz sometimes seems surrounded by the mists of the Celtic dream: this would be, however, to minimise the range of an enormous output, the importance of which is only beginning to be rediscovered, reducing its importance to the simple expression of musical regionalism. Like Paul Le Flem, Ropartz was much more than a Celtic bard. A vast and noble culture, an insatiable curiosity open to all forms and all styles, the primacy accorded to the universality of language over local colour make of him a humanist in the best sense of the term. This is attested by the variety of the music recorded here, which reflects a career bewildering in the exceptional richness of its products.
Perhaps, moreover, having chosen exile from his native Brittany to pursue his artistic ideal, Ropartz brings a contribution to his country all the more moving in that it finds expression in nostalgia, absence and dreaming: he is much more the musician of the appeal of the country than the depository of a tradition of folk-lore experienced in the place itself and it is no accident that his lyric masterpiece Le Pays deals with the irresistible force that propels towards their native country those who have experienced exile from it. He himself chose in 1929 to return to his own part of the country, at the height of his fame, abandoning his position as director of the Strasbourg Conservatoire to settle definitively in the family manor of Lanloup. He was born not far from there, in 1864, at Guingamp, into an old Breton family. Following family tradition (his father was a barrister) he completed in 1885 his legal studies, but his vocation for music was stronger and he settled in Paris. Rejecting the traditional royal road of the Prix de Rome that could have allowed him lessons with Massenet, he succumbed to the irresistible attraction of Franck, one of whose favourite pupils he was. His first compositions were performed at the Société Nationale where he associated with the pioneers of the French musical reformation, Fauré, Chausson, dIndy, Duparc, Magnard. He already had to his credit incidental music for Pierre Lotis Pêcheurs dIslande (a play drawn from the famous novel by the Breton writer Louis Tiercelin) when he became in 1894 director of the Conservatoire in Nancy, the youngest conservatoire director in France. His literary gifts, comparable to his musical successes, had meanwhile been attested by the part he took in the edition, with Tiercelin, of the Parnasse Breton Contemporain in 1889. The text of the Nocturne here recorded bears witness to the quality of many of Ropartzs poems.
The life of Ropartz thereafter tends to be in good part occupied by his immense work as an administrator and teacher. In Nancy in a few years he made of an insignificant orchestra one of the best ensembles in France. The high level of his programmes, intended to introduce to the public the best music from a wide repertoire, in which many contemporary works appeared next to the great classics, and the quality of teaching at the Conservatoire raised the city to the rank of a real musical capital. Enriched by this experience, in 1919 he turned his attention to the reorganization of the Strasbourg Conservatoire and to the restoration of French art with the public of Alsace after more than forty years of German-dominated music, revealing to the audience masterpieces of the French classical and contemporary repertoire. This double activity as conductor and teacher did not diminish his work as a composer: at his death at Lanloup on 22nd November 1955 he left no less than 165 opus numbers, including dramatic works (Le Pays, Oedipe à Colonne), ballets (LIndiscret, Prélude dominical), religious works (including a fine Requiem), six symphonies, seven symphonic poems (including the admirable Chasse du Prince Arthur), an enormous contribution to chamber music repertoire, songs, piano pieces and so on. If we add to this the pedagogical publications and his activity as a musicologist in the rediscovery of Couperin, Rameau, Destouche, Campra or the revaluation of Breton folk-lore and that of critic, guided by scrupulous intellectual honesty, we remain flabbergasted by the manifold aspects of the activity of this real musical giant.
The development of this work bears witness a constant renewal that can be assessed from the music here recorded from the Franckian setting of Psalm XXXVI (1897) to the limpid serenity of Les Vêpres sonnent (1927) or the impressionist atmosphere of the Nocturne (1926). In addition to the differences of language, we find there the same personality, more inclined to inner feeling than to the more external search for novelty in writing. Ropartz does not reject this last: for himself at least musical vocabulary must be controlled by interior demands. He has expressed this admirably himself: "If the originality of a composer dwells much more in the way of feeling than in the manner of expression, it is permissible for him to clothe his thoughts in traditional forms, without losing in any way his true quality." This originality results in his work in a mysticism attributable to his Celtic origin which breaks through under the serenity and seriousness of his music. The Ropartz phrase, with its long tranquil meandering seems to wander beyond time. It takes its course over a rich harmonic basis, of which the imprecise mist of chromaticism blurs the contour, while polyphonic richness underlines the turns it takes. The music of Ropartz thus belongs to his native region, even if he has repudiated more immediately folkloristic superficiality.
Psalm XXXVI belongs to the period at Nancy (1897). The text, dealing with the captivity of the Jews in Babylon, has inspired many musicians since Bach. Ropartz makes of it a massive work of powerful dramatic force. To the usual full orchestra (double woodwind) he adds the sonorities of the organ. The tragic atmosphere is established by the full orchestral prelude, contrasting the principal theme in an emphatic B flat minor with the lower strings (cellos and double basses) with a pleading countersubject (cellos and woodwind). As it should, the Psalm accords great importance to polyphony: there are successive entries of voices in canon (first verse), imitations of the second verse contrasted with the grandiose unison of the chorus (with the lamentations weighed down by the very Franckian chromaticism of the orchestra), a fugue in D minor in the fourth verse, savagely punctuated by the wild rhythms of the organ. In the first verse (repeated in conclusion) the ostinato B flat minor arpeggios of the clarinet suggest the majestic course of the river. The first theme achieves a degree of Babylonian barbarism with an emphatic fortissimo on the word Jerusalem in the third verse, with the brutality of the harmonized sequence on A mort! (fourth verse), recalling the most demoniac moments of Francks Béatitudes. It is also on a balancing of chords an augmented fifth apart very much in the manner of Franck that the curse is pronounced with the principal theme in the fifth verse. The tragic vision shades off into a poetic conclusion that has this theme in the foreground, chromatically treated, before the final passage coloured by the substitution, prompted by Franck, of the augmented sixth for the traditional dominant. This lofty and moving score shows Ropartz at the height of his power. It was first performed on 13th March 1898 at the Concerts of the Conservatoire of Nancy under the direction of the composer.
It was also at Nancy that Ropartz wrote in 1905 Le Miracle de Saint Nicolas on a text by René Avril. This legend in sixteen scenes introduces the story, familiar to the people of Lorraine, of St Nicholas bringing back to life the three boys murdered and pickled by the butcher. Its innocent simplicity contrasts with the rich polyphony of the Psalm: the prologue in popular form (Aeolian mode on F) draws from its fugal exposition a discreetly archaic air and the predominant atmosphere is that of a luminous pastoral (the first scene is repeated in the minor at the sunset of the fifth). Naive imitations of the sounds of night can be heard in the sixth scene and the irresistible progress of scenes fifteen and sixteen lead to a majestic chorale of faith, in B flat major, for unison chorus and orchestra. For the performance of this legend seventeen pictures were conceived by the Nancy painter P. R. Claudin and their fresh colours reflect the luminous poetry of the score.
Les Vêpres sonnent (1927) follows the Dimanche of 1911 as a piece for chorus or three female voices, the limpid clarity of which is characteristic of the later Ropartz. It is dedicated to the Trio Vocal de Paris. Here there is a sweetly melancholy winter landscape, illuminated at the beginning and at the end by the joyful sound of bells (chords in fourths) which, at the end of a concluding section in the Aeolian mode, dissolve into the resonance of a Lydian D major (bells on B, E and G sharp added).
The admirable Nocturne (1926) is dedicated to the Swiss musician Gustave Doret. This intensely poetic score for mixed chorus (five parts) and orchestra uses a text by the composer himself. Here the mystery of evening as it falls is suggested by the pianissimo entry of the chorus vocalising on the note C in music of a Lydian flavour. This dreaming, lulled by the last bird-calls and the sound of the steps of those late abroad, rises little by little until, with the low throbbing of the orchestra, the mighty voice of the sea is heard. The sea breeze mingles with the scents of the woods and meadows and the sweet sensuality of the perfumes of evening lead to a moment of intense meditation before the immortality and profundity of the night sky. The thought of the composer climbs towards God in an act of serene faith and gratitude. Then in a sweet and sad plagal conclusion this landscape of the soul rests on a gentle chord of F major, with added sixth and seventh. The inexpressible lofty height of such a score puts Ropartz among the ranks of the great philosopher-poets of twentieth century music (Koechlin, Strauss, Vaughan Williams). The Nocturne enjoyed great success in 1939 at the Société des Concerts under the direction of Charles Münch.