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Beyond Debussy & Ravel: Discovering the Piano Music of Déodat de Séverac

Due to a long association with C. Leonard Coduti, a musicologist who specializes in French music, I became intrigued with his knowledge of French keyboard music "beyond Debussy and Ravel." I began exploring his many recommendations and have found myself fully entranced, fascinated, and amazed at the prolific output of so many wonderful French composers who remain relatively obscure in the United States, but whose works are regularly performed in France and other parts of Europe. I hope this article will inspire readers to reach "beyond Debussy and Ravel." And as much as I wish that the music of many French composers could be explored—such a wish amounts to a book—I've chosen one of my favorite "unknowns," Déodat de Séverac, followed by a discussion of one of his more accessible works.

Déodat (Day-oh-dah) de Séverac (1872–1921) is a fairly unknown composer. This is mostly due to the fact that he was based in the southwestern French region of Languedoc and had a relatively short life. But in reevaluating his musical output, one finds a treasure of well-crafted, exceptional compositions that deserve a place in the mainstream repertoire. A testament to this fact is the recent resurgence of interest in his life and works and a number of recent recordings and re-releases representing a wide sampling of his catalog.

After Séverac completed his academic studies at the Collège de Sorrèze, he briefly attended law school in Toulouse before deciding that music was his true calling. In 1893 he enteredtheConservatoireofToulouseandtrainedtherefor three years. In 1896 he entered the Conservatoire in Paris. It was at this time that Vincent d'Indy, along with Charles Bordes and Alexandre Guilmant, founded the Schola Cantorum—mostly as a counterbalance to the Paris Conservatoire, whose main focus was opera performance and composition. Bordes convinced Séverac to leave the Paris Conservatoire and he became one of the Schola's first pupils, studying composition with D'Indy, counterpoint with Albéric Magnard, and organ with Alexandre Guilmant.

He remained at the school for ten years, was named valedictorian, and received his diploma in July 1907. The next few years were very productive, with Séverac composing piano works, songs, orchestral pieces, and receiving the premiere of his first opera, Coeur de Moulin, at the Opéra- Comique in December 1909.

Séverac was his own person. He refused to affiliate himself with any composer, group, or school. He was not enamored by artistic life in Paris, the fast-paced lifestyle, or the
cliques. In his final thesis at the Schola, Séverac wrote that "present-day composers create music of and for Paris. Thus they are becoming more and more remote from the local genius of the various regions in which they were born." Séverac left Paris for his beloved Languedoc, a region known for its sunshine, beautiful countryside, vineyards, wineries, and gourmet cuisine; he remained there for the rest of his life. 

A regionalistic composer, Séverac's compositions reflect the atmosphere and influences of Languedoc-Roussilon through their use of folksongs, rhythms, and colors. His piano music is foremost in reflecting this spirit, depicting varied and colorful pictures of daily life in the country.

Hisfirstimportantpianowork,ChantdelaTerre(Songof the Earth, 1903) was written during his studies at the Schola and pays homage to his teacher, d'Indy. Comprised of seven pieces, it presents an impressionistic depiction of life in Languedoc—painting the colors of the people, scenery, and overall spirit of the region. His next set of five pieces, En Languedoc (In Languedoc, 1905), reveals a more mature Séverac, demonstrating a more individualistic style. Over the next few years, Séverac continued to develop his craft through occasional pieces such as Le Soldat de plomb (The Lead Soldier, one piano, four hands, 1905), Pipper- mint-get (Peppermint-Get, 1907) and Stances à Madame de Pompadour (Stanzas of Madame de Pompadour, 1907), Les Naïades et le faune indiscret (The Naiads and the Indiscreet Faun, 1908), and Baigneuses aux soleil (Sunbathers, 1908).

All of these formative pieces led to the work that is considered Séverac's piano masterpiece. Cerdaña (Cerdanya, 1919), comprised of "5 études pittoresques" (5 picturesque etudes), shows the composer at full maturity, with its vivid painting of the beautiful Cerdaña region of Spain—similar to Albeníz's regional piece Iberia. Each study is inspired by folk themes from the Pyrenean region of Spain and provides an expert depiction of the culture and daily life. This piece ranks as one of the premiere pieces of French piano literature of the early twentieth century.

For those desiring a recording of Séverac's piano music,
a highly recommended compact disc is that of the French/ Italian pianist, Aldo Ciccolini. His recording of Séverac's complete solo piano works was released in 2008 (EMI Classics France, 3 compact discs, UPC: 724357237222).

There is an anthology available currently that contains most of Severac's works for piano solo. Published by Salabert as part of its Collection "Compositeurs du XX Siècle" ("Composers of the 20th Century"), it is entitled simply "Piano Album: Déodat de Séverac."

See Exhibit 1 for a list of pieces in this publication.

Much of the music by French composers from the era of Debussy and Ravel is equally as difficult as that of the two more frequently played composers. In listening to the above-mentioned compact disc and studying the scores, the most accessible work for pre-college students is En Vacances, 1er recueil (On Vacation, First Anthology), a suite consisting of eight pieces.

 A very brief analysis and description of the suite, En Vacances (On Vacation) follows. An important note regarding the edition used for this article is that the expression, tempo, dynamics, phrasing, and pedal markings are superb. However, there are very few fingerings. None of the works are rhythmically complex and are, in fact, quite simple.

The harmonies are less "impressionistic" than Debussy and Ravel, thus rendering easier reading and more ease of pedaling. In the truest sense, En Vacances consists of character pieces for children with enticing and descriptive titles and content.

En Vacances (1er recueil) On Vacation (first anthology) "Invocation à Schumann" ("Invocation to Schumann") This is most certainly an homage to Robert Schumann with the dotted rhythms, repeated patterns, lovely chromatic voicings, and relaxed Allegretto tempo (Leggiero ma espres- sivo il canto). The similarities and reminiscences between this piece and Schumann's familiar Child Falling Asleep and About Strange Lands and People from Kinderscenen are unmistakable, touching, and gratifying (see Excerpt 1).

Excerpt 1: "Invocation à Schumann" from En Vacances, by Déodat de Séverac, mm. 1–4

 It would be interesting to pair one or both of the fore- going Schumann pieces with the Séverac movement being discussed. Technically, an octave reach is required because the right hand thumb leads the alto melodic line throughout the A section. In the B section, a complete octave is required in the right hand on beats one and four with inner voices occurring on beats two and three. This movement is not numbered, with the next piece starting with number one.

I. "Les caresses de Grand' maman" ("Grandmother's Caresses") An extremely uncomplicated three-note rhythmic motive of an upbeat of two eighths followed by a downbeat quarter note—which, to this writer, evokes soft caressing—begins with simple harmonies (see Excerpt 2).

Excerpt 2: "Les caresses de Grand' Maman" from En Vacances, by Déodat de Séverac, mm. 1–2 

The piece then expands to more voices, thirds, grace notes, and use of a pattern of four eighth notes (see Excerpt 3).

Excerpt 3: "Les caresses de Grand' Maman" from En Vacances, by Déodat de Séverac, mm. 8–12 

Using primarily dotted-rhythms, Séverac continues to expand slightly the underlying rhythm patterns, while adhering mostly to the two-eighth notes/quarter note caressing motive. This motive appears almost exclusively in the B section with more movement (meno lento) occurring, and a dynamic range to forte, possibly implying that Grandma's caresses have increased in frequency and intensity. In four brief measures in the B section, three-note octave chords are required in the right hand; expansive left-hand rolled chords create the B section's apex. If I were teaching this to a pre-teenaged or teenaged student, I would be inclined to use the words, "I love you," and "yes, I do" for the two eighth notes/quarter note rhythmic motives. In the soprano voice of Excerpt 3, I'd sing, "I love you, yes, I do, Grand-ma-ah (Grand-ma-ah coinciding with the eighth, grace note, eighth notes in measure 2 of Excerpt 3) loves you, yes, I do." How lovely for a child to play a beautiful piece that sounds so full of caresses and, yes, love!

II. "Les petites voisines en visite" ("Visit from the Little Neighbor Girls")

Excerpt 4: "Les petites voisines en visite" from En Vacances, by Déodat de Séverac, mm. 1–4 

 The music descriptively portrays the title—and perhaps even more—in this very accessible movement. In the bright key of C Major, it is happy, buoyant, lilting, playful, and presto! The B section changes dramatically with a profusion of sharp left-hand chords against a right-hand melody full of accents. Could it suggest that the neighbor girls have had some kind of disagreement? But the return of the A 1 section ends everything peacefully with a coda that begins piu lento, but ends with a four-measure presto. Perhaps the neighbor girls have suddenly departed?

III. "Toto déguisé en suisse d'église" ("Toto Pretends to be a Verger (layman) of the Chapel")

Excerpt 5: "Toto déguisé en Suisse d'église" from En Vacances, by Déodat de Séverac, mm. 1–4 

As the above excerpt clearly demonstrates, this movement is written in chorale style throughout, with lovely, lush harmonies. Perhaps having a student play a simple, but majestic hymn, or a Bach chorale at lento espressivo e pomposo would assist in achieving a good mood and style for this movement. An even slower tempo than indicated might be more effective. Pedaling is marked to occur each time the harmony changes.

IV. "Mimi se déguise en Marquise" ("Mimi Dresses Up
as a Marquise") (Noblewoman) While the literal French translation is as stated above, the score's translation and/or sub-title reads "In powdered wig and hoop-skirt!" While one can discern a connection be tween the two titles, one can't help but wonder how Séverac might feel about the rather pedestrian sub-title as opposed to his more sophisticated one. It is in 3/4 minuet style with crisp staccatos, buoyant phrases, and quite a bit more harmonic and tonal variety than in some of the other movements. Likewise, dynamic marks and accents are in abundance.

Excerpt 6: "Mimi se déguise en 'Marquise' " from En Vacances, by Déodat de Séverac, mm. 1–4

 Although the majority of the piece's three-part form (see Exhibit 2) is in a minor key, a bright, swirling, joyful dance mood prevails.

Exhibit 2: Form of "Mimi se déguise en 'Marquise' " from En Vacances, by Déodat de Séverac 

Upon examining more Séverac music than discussed herein, it is slightly puzzling that so many pieces require octave stretches. As seen on beat two of Excerpt 6, a ninth is required from G to A with a C-sharp embedded within the ninth. Because Séverac indicates rolling large reaches in many other instances, I feel that teachers desiring to teach Séverac pieces to children not yet capable of octave or ninth reaches should take license and roll such chords. Upon even closer examination of large reaches in various pieces, especially when the buoyancy of Séverac is present (as it often is), rolled chords do not interfere with the intended nature of the piece.

V. "Ronde dans le parc" ("Games in the Park")

Excerpt 7: "Ronde dans le Parc" from En Vacances, by Déodat de Séverac, mm. 1–5 

This is the easiest movement of En Vacances, with note values consisting of only eighth and quarter notes and a few dotted quarter notes (see Excerpt 7). Gratefully, the pianist on the previously mentioned compact disc, Aldo Ciccolini, plays it considerably faster than the indicated Andantino; that tempo marking would not lead anyone to hear something in the music that would remind one of games in the park. The harmonies are not complex and the form is A B A Coda. In spite of its simplicity, it adds a respite at this point in the suite and with encouraged imagination by the student, it provides for a relaxed yet enjoyable day of games in the park! 

VI. "Où l'on entend une vieille boîte à musique"
("Listening to a Music Box")
This is the best-known number of En Vacances—so appealing with its sparkling delicacy and delightful contrivance—an aristocrat among musical boxes! Only two musical ideas are used in this thirty-six-measure piece. Excerpt 8 shows the dominant idea which is used in twenty-eight measures. Excerpt 9 appears only in measures sixteen through nine- teen, followed by a two-measure triplet figure on F and G in measures twenty-six through twenty-seven, which serves as a transition for the return to the A section. The morendo of the last two measures of the main theme leads to a simple ending of three B-flat-major dotted half-note chords, marked aussi pp que possible. The ostinato left hand is used through the entire piece until the final three chords.

Excerpt 8: "Où l'on entend une vieille boite à musique" from En Vacances, by Déodat de Séverac, mm. 3–4 

 Excerpt 9: "Où l'on entend une vieille boite à musique" from En Vacances, by Déodat de Séverac, mm. 16–17 

There are many, many "musical box" pieces in both the standard and the educational student repertoire. Many of them assist in building more facile technique by demanding rapid finger technique, as well as delicacy and swiftness of touch. I do believe Séverac's "musical box" piece can serve as a precursor to more difficult etudes—the singing top tone by the outer part of the right hand combined with the required soft right hand thumb is not unlike the technique required for many Chopin études. I find it to be one of the most charming, beautiful, and appealing "musical box" pieces I've ever heard. 

VII. "Valse romantique" ("Romantic Waltz")
This waltz is in the grand romantic style and, even though its harmonies are sparse, it reaches peaks of melodic grandeur usually heard in larger works. Variety is achieved with an occasional few measures of a soaring left-hand melody accompanied by right-hand after beats. The ultimate beauty and appeal of this robust waltz is limited only by the imagination of the performer. Séverac has provided all the elements needed for a unique experience with the eternal and lasting Romantic waltz!

Excerpt 10: "Valse Romantique" from En Vacances, by Déodat de Séverac, mm. 1–4 

So, teachers of piano, will you go beyond Debussy and Ravel? If you will, the journey will bring you many rewarding musical discoveries—as well as some new and wonderful repertoire for you and your students!

Note: An article with this subject matter appeared by Martha Baker-Jordan in the Music Teachers Association of California convention issue of California Music Teacher, Vol 34, No. 3 (Summer 2011). 

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