Coda: The Perfectionist


Coda Duparc lg 712
Afflicted genius: Duparc at eighty-four
© Lebrecht Music & Arts 2012

Henri Duparc's published legacy consists of sixteen famous mélodies, a duet, a motet, a symphonic poem and two short orchestral excerpts — barely an hour and a half of music. But that brief, burnished span encompasses the apex of the French song repertoire. Duparc pruned the vines of creativity harder than any other composer, but what magnificent wine his cultivation yielded! Ravel judged his mélodies flawed, "but works of genius." Critic Georges Servières found them without affectation, saying, "Their dominant qualities, sincerity, spontaneity and energy, reflect those of the man — that openness of character and exuberant enthusiasm that made him so dear to his friends." Debussy could say nothing about the songs, "because they're perfect." Perhaps not perfect, but they do show us a personality we find hard to resist.

Born in Paris in 1848, Duparc did not suffer the great expectations of his parents and a dour Jesuit education without injury. What was intended to strengthen the young man instead disfigured him, and while his native talent, ambition and humor blossomed above, a debilitating self-doubt took root below. Could these wounds be part of his appeal? When the signal theme of a composer's life is stifled creativity, don't we love him the more for his struggle? Rightly or wrongly, I'm afraid I do.

Duparc's mélodies demand total technical control in the service of total textual responsiveness. He preferred the "violin-voice, capable of fluent, flexible phrasing and a real intensity of tone." In the hands of artists such as Gérard Souzay or Léopold Simoneau, one hears a marvel of synthesis in voice and piano — the poem as music. 

His first, "Chanson triste," composed when he was about twenty, was an auspicious start; its glorious, soaring lyricism marked my introduction to Duparc years ago, by way of Bidú Sayão. "Lamento," also from 1868, is dedicated to his lifelong friend Gabriel Fauré, whose mélodies eclipsed Duparc's for many years. But where Fauré's songs run a little cool, toward the classical, Duparc's run hot, toward the romantic. It's a controlled romanticism to be sure, for all the careful detail, but with bolder melodic lines, more rhythmic flexibility and greater verve than the songs of his colleague. Fauré admired Duparc tremendously and struck the word "master" from the dedication "à mon maître et ami G. Fauré," penciling over it the word "pupil."

Fauré wasn't alone in his admiration. César Franck, to whom Duparc was devoted, considered him the most gifted of his students and familiarized him with the music of Wagner. Duparc traveled to Munich, first in 1869 with fellow student Vincent d'Indy for the premiere of Das Rheingold,then later with his friend and mentor Camille Saint-Saëns for Die Walküre. At Liszt's home in Weimar, he was introduced to the Master himself. 

Duparc's two greatest songs, "L'Invitation au Voyage" and "La Vie Antérieure," are settings of poems by Baudelaire. In the former, the dream world of the poem is perfectly reflected on the sleepy, bittersweet surface of the music. The latter follows the more concrete imagery of its text, this time to a darker place, and as it is the last song Duparc composed, it's tempting to imagine this "former life" a harbinger of his impending creative crisis.

"Phidylé" is my hands-down favorite — the song that has it all. Leconte de Lisle's love poem is magnificently illuminated within this delicate tabernacle of sound, and it glows, ember-like, with a serene longing. Dedicated to his close friend Ernest Chausson, it provided the supreme model for the mélodies Chausson would go on to write. In 1879, Chausson, Duparc and Emmanuel Chabrier finally witnessed Tristan und Isolde in Munich, although Duparc had been familiar with the score for years. His "Extase,"a sensuous nocturne,was deliberately modeled on its musical language in defiant response to the anti-Wagner factions in Paris. 

His mélodies were enthusiastically received by the Société Nationale de Musique, founded in 1871 to promote the work of living French composers. Duparc's symphonic poem Lénore was enough admired to merit a transcription for four-hand piano by Franck, and for two pianos by Saint-Saëns. But by the early 1880s, Duparc's creative genius, never robust, began to wither. Neurasthenia, the nineteenth-century term used to describe any number of conditions — nervous exhaustion, neuralgia, anxiety and depression — was posterity's diagnosis. It was also the culmination of a lifetime of pathologies: beset from his youth with severe headaches, he was likewise given to bouts of sleepwalking and fits of agoraphobia. Hobbled by brutal self-censure, which caused him to write very little and destroy much of what he did write, his well at last ran dry.

Duparc tried to put a brave face on his creative paralysis, but his condition only worsened. It wasn't until 1911 that thirteen of his mélodies were published together for the first time, an event that secured his place in the pantheon of French composers. His final years were spent in Mont-de-Marsan, blind and unable to walk, but still affable in correspondence with his friends, adulated by musicians who passed through and possessed of a deepening mysticism and benign resignation. "I live in the regret for what I have not done," he wrote, "without troubling about the little I have done." 

When he died at eighty-five in 1933, Duparc joined a thousand afflicted geniuses who carried a thwarted ambition to their graves. Yet the overwhelming human and emotional directness of his mélodies somehow redeems the tragic footnote of his later life. To this day, when the attribution "H. Duparc" appears on the evening's program, it's usually a stranger among familiar company. But when the music starts, Duparc's little garden blossoms into a riot of color and fragrance, and what his friends most loved and valued is suddenly ours. spacer 

JAMES C. WHITSON is an architect and writer based in Seattle. 

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