Dans l’Obscurité

Elsa Barraine

Elsa Barraine

Last night YouTube made me really angry.  I don’t mean that I was offended by being presented with some fratboy inanity, the cavorting of a former child star, or the rantings of a deluded fanatic.  No, what got me enraged was a symphony written in 1938.

It’s one of the more surprising facets of YouTube that it has become a repository for recordings of thousands of works by obscure classical composers.  And by ‘obscure’ I mean really obscure.  I’ve been hunting down lesser known composers since the late 60s—marking programmes in Radio Times (usually at odd hours in the afternoons or late at night), setting up timed recordings and, more recently, sampling some of the rarities offered by Naxos and other adventurous CD labels.  Despite that, what I’ve found on YouTube is a host of composers whose very names—never mind their music—were completely unknown to me.

Needless to say most of this music has never made it onto CD, and so can’t be found on sites like Spotify. Dedicated enthusiasts are posting these recordings on YouTube, sourced, presumably, mostly from radio broadcasts around the world, or in some cases from old LPs that were never digitally transferred.  Ah, the nostalgic sound of a stylus settling into a vinyl groove, immediately followed by a pervasive hiss and the occasional click…

Most of the music, it has to be said, rarely rises above the pleasantly competent, but every now and then I hear something that really makes me sit up. For fellow enthusiasts of obscurity, let me drop the names of: Vaino Raitia, Nikolai Peiko, Alessandro Solbiati, and Yngve Sköld.  Believe me, they’re all worth hearing.

Last night, I had YouTube running in the background while I was doing something else, and I found that my attention was being caught by a really distinctive piece of music: spiky, witty, energetic, with a sharp edge to it that was really engaging.   I went over to see what was playing: the Second Symphony by Elsa Barraine.     That’s right, Elsa.  Unlike the list of men in the previous paragraph, this was a female composer that I’d never heard of.

Thank goodness for Wikipedia, as I doubt if I would have found much on Elsa Barraine in more conventional works of reference.  Her story is a remarkable one, and her present day neglect is certainly not due to her having lived a quiet or cloistered life.  She was a pupil of Paul Dukas (of Sorcerer’s Apprentice fame), who also taught Messiaen, with whom Barraine became lifelong friends. On either side of the war she worked in radio, and during the war was active in the French Resistance, a particularly brave move as she may have had Jewish ancestry.  In 1972 the French Ministry of Culture named her Director of Music, giving her charge of all French national lyric theatres. She died in 1999 at the age of 89.

So why is it that this excellent Second Symphony, written when she was just 28, seems to be the sole composition by her that is in any way accessible? (There is also a YouTube recording of a short organ prelude, but it’s an amateur film and the sound is poor). Even then, given the apparent audience noise, this seems to be a radio transfer, not a commercial recording.  Given the quality of the work—one comment on the site rightly compares it to Martinu or Roussel—it surely deserves to be better known.  And while it’s true that there are such things as ‘one work’ composers (think of Reznicek’s five minutes of delight, Donna Diana, long time favourite of BBC’s ‘These you have loved’, and then try his tediously pompous symphonies!) I don’t somehow think Barraine falls into that category. Nor is her style old-fashioned—the language of this symphony is directly comparable with pieces being written in the 30s by Honegger, Milhaud or Prokofiev.

So that’s why I’m angry: the only reason, it would seem, for the neglect of Elsa Barraine is her gender.  That seems particularly odd for a French female composer, because France has a longer and more illustrious list of women composers than almost any other country, from Louise Farrenc in the mid 19th century through Germaine Tailleferre and Cecile Chaminade to the great Boulanger sisters.  But that list seems to end with the Second World War, and I can think of no post-war French female composer to stand alongside those from Britain, Finland, the US, and Russia. Perhaps by living so long, Barraine ended up eclipsed by her male contemporaries such as Messiaen and Dutilleux, even if she was an almost exact contemporary of Simone de Beauvoir, author of The Second Sex!

So thank goodness for YouTube and Wikipedia, which have introduced me to this remarkable woman.  Here’s hoping those dedicated hunters after musical truffles will unearth some more examples of her work!

© Robert Livingston

Ps French music fans will recognise that the title comes from Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande

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3 responses to “Dans l’Obscurité”

  1. Adam Stern says :

    Dear Mr. Livingston,

    I couldn’t agree with you more about Elsa Barraine’s Second Symphony. I discovered it during a session of random YouTube browsing, and was enthralled from first bar to last. Happily, I’m in a position to do something about it — I’m a conductor in Seattle, and I have programmed this glorious symphony for performance with the Seattle Philharmonic in April of 2017. I also received from Ms. Barraine’s publisher a perusal score of her First Symphony, which I easy rate as comparable in quality to the Second and which I intend to perform sometime in the next several seasons. I don’t know where home base is for you, but if you happen to be in Seattle on April 1 of 2017, you would be a welcome guest at the concert.

    Best regards,

    Adam Stern

  2. Adam Stern says :

    Dear Mr. Livingston, I don’t think it will be available online, but if one of us reminds the other after next Aoril 1, I’m sure I can send you a digital copy somehow or other. Very best regards, Adam

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