Charles Koechlin: A Dead Man Lives
He was a friendly man with the Tolstoy beard. Children would ask him why he grew his beard so long. "Because I like it!," was his response.
Charles Koechlin is finally getting some deserved attention on record 56 years after his death. Thanks to conductors like David Zinman, Heinz Holliger and the German record label Hanssler (who are currently committing many of the Frenchman's works to disc for the first time as part of an ongoing series dedicated to him) us ignorant bastards can put down the Mahler, another once forgotten composer, and listen to some of the most unique and fascinating music to come out of Europe in the first half of the century.
Koechlin has appeared rarely on disc since his death, and was mostly thought of as an eccentric loner who orchestrated Debussy's neglected ballet Khamma
and his teacher Fauré's Pelléas et Mélisande
(with it's famous 'Sicilienne') and wrote some complicated polytonal/modal orchestral music inspired by films and Kipling's The Jungle Book.
He is also widely considered a large inspiration for many of Darius Milhaud's polytonal music. (Milhaud was a young friend of the elder master who was in many ways a mentor, and always had the utmost respect for him
later in life.)
But after listening to some of these recordings it soon becomes indisputable that Koechlin is one of the more 'individual' composers from the first half of the 20th century.
His style, alternately coolly ethereal and schizophrenic, was borne out of an intense musicality. Koechlin mastered every academic style taught in French conservatories in the days of D'Indy but ultimately broke away from it to form a peculiar and inimitable musical language. In some ways a pedagogue later in life, he wrote thousands of pages on his idol Bach, Gregorian chant, fugue and chorale, and most famously, a gigantic orchestration treatise still highly regarded today. It has yet to be translated from the original French, but I have looked at the book (which is about 30 pounds and could easily kill a small horse if thrown from a few feet away) and found it interesting. Koechlin was an incredible orchestrator admired by no less than his friends Ravel and Debussy and his treatise is filled with examples drawn from his own orchestral works, Bizet's two operas, Debussy's Pelléas
, Massenet, Lalo, Mozart, Berlioz, Wagner, Bach, Gounod, Stravinsky and even Schoenberg's Erwartung.
Upon listening to Koechlin's best known masterpiece, Le Course de Printemps
, a sort of four movement symphonic poem drawn from his massive work inspired by Kipling's famous book, Koechlin's orchestration is the first thing that really draws you in. An absolute master of polyphony, layering, color and most of all harmony, Koechlin's large orchestra is a bubbling beast of entangled lines and strongly constrasted coloristic effects: an Alto saxophone mournfully sounds above a muted organ, antique cymbals strike up a choir of flutter-tongued woodwinds over a canon in the double-basses. This sort of thing is everywhere in his orchestral music. Koechlin is above all else a magician of sound. Orchestration and 'effect' are intrinsic to his music, which places himself firmly in the French tradition. His work sometimes has the Germanic testikels
in it's brassy strength and fervor, much like Honegger, Roussel and that other fascinating and forgotten 20th century French musical magician, Florent Schmitt . Surprisingly, Koechlin usually wrote the music in piano form first (with usually three or four staves-much like Ravel). However, it is nearly impossible to imagine this music in any other form than what Koechlin writes for orchestra.
'The Spring Running,' the second section of Course du printemps
, is a work of startling imagination and craftsmanship, and chugs along like a machine taking detours into everything from long modal woodwind chorales to rhythmically jaunty four-layer polytonal polyphony moving at different speeds (an apt musical metaphor for the jungle), to slow moving gigantic chords of fifths and fourths superimposed played by the strings with harmonics and mutes.
Koechlin's orchestral works contain most of his most inspired music, and the man had little time, or perhaps talent, for the theater. He loved film though, and wrote hundreds of pieces inspired by his favorite movies and film stars (almost causing a couple of Hollywood starlets to think of him as a obsessed stalker type), but his music is at its best when it tells its own strange tales. After all, this is a man who defended the symphonic poem as valid mode of artistic expression even till his death when Boulez and Stockhausen and their disciples were preparing to firebomb the establishment with total serialism in pieces with titles like "Stukken 2304.59" and "Anarchie X". Koechlin's so-called 'tone poems' can all be enjoyed as 'pure music' without any knowledge of what they are attempting to represent, but when the programs are found they actually show Koechlin's to be a quite talented 'tone painter' as it were, as the Debussy of Le Mer
His chamber music is more acidic and austere, though as his Epitaphe pour Jean Harlow
for piano, flute and alto saxophone shows he could spin a light-as-a-feather 'French' melody as bittersweet and cutesy as any Poulenc. Some of his compositions for small ensemble seem to be a chance for him to experiment with his ideas on monody and chorale, and likewise bring new meaning to the term 'astringent' with their severe modal language and rate of change.
His piano music is also fairly interesting. A lot of it is terribly difficult to play, and does not always pay off for its challenges. His greatest piano work, a suite of Middle-East inspired meditations entitled Les Heures Persanes
('The Persian Hours') is a perfect example of why Koechlin isn't always for Grandma Mimma. Over an hour long, the work makes no attempt to seduce the listener with orientalist perfume. Koechlin's Middle-East, though a land of whirling dervishes, mysterious caravan phantoms in the desert night, Arabian rose gardens and muezzins calling for noon-day prayer behind the oasis, is mostly deathly slow, unmelodic and with pedal-points so long even Sibelius would be shocked. It takes many listens to be able to begin to understand what Koechlin is trying to do and most listeners, unless fantastically high on Afghani opium, will be bored to tears by 10 minutes. If you are in the right mood however, the piece creates an air of mystery that is hypnotic. The music itself, the careful performer with attention to the music's subtleties and the listener with an open mind and ample concentration will operate together in a sort of trance state. "Turn off the lights and light the Yankee Candle 'Desert Rose' bright burner and prepare to enter another world" as it were.
...Or be bored to tears.
Either way, its simultaneously archaic modal and harshly dissonant poly-tonal language combined with the almost ritualistically slow tempo and wandering rhythms Les Heures Persanes
is quite unlike any other piano work from the 20th century and indeed is quite revolutionary in it's stubborn inward nature that is based on nothing but the composer's own idea of the fanciful subject. It's 'impressionistic' music that paints no elegant or pretty picture for you and your lover to frolic through.
Koechlin was prolific, but not incredibly consistent. Perhaps this is due to his eclectic but profoundly personal musical language. His biggest failings in hindsight seem to be the sections of endlessly snail-paced modal melodies over a harmonically static center, a rhythmic sense that often seems random and apathetic and a lack of melodic invention. The first half of his Le Docteur Fabricius
is a perfect example of these nagging qualities. When writing a 40 minute orchestral piece, it is not always a good idea to make the first 20 minutes as dull as Rice-Cakes. Also, three Ondes Martenots might seem
cool on paper, but when played at loud volumes 'presto' it sounds like a remote control car chasing a cat.
Koechlin is often at his best when his music is fast moving and polytonal, as his wonderful sense of harmony and brilliantly colored orchestration makes an exciting and curiously strange impression. His late symphonic poem from his 'Jungle Book' series, Les Bandar-log
is a perfect example of what he does right. The music scatters and gathers itself together, instruments squeal and intone obsessed small fragments at fast speeds, stunningly beautiful chords played with startling combinations before disolving into primordial bubbling in the lowest half of the orchestra; Koechlin's jungle is alive as all get-out.
The best place to find Koechlin is still his Le Course de Printemps
which has to be one of the most underrated pieces of large instrumental music in the last 150 years. Listen and be amazed you haven't heard this guy before. He can be that good.