Music: Charles Koechlin—‘Alchemist of Sound’

In the latter half of the 19th century, German music so dominated the European continent that the French were left wondering what could be distinctively theirs, aside from French insouciance, wit, and whimsy. France could not com­pete in the symphony (Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, etc.), and Wagner had swamped the opera world. Erik Satie (1866-1925) came to the rescue. As he wrote, “I was in no way anti-Wagnerian, but thought we should have a music of our own—if possible, without any sauerkraut.” Satie’s inge­nious solution was for French music to imitate French painting. Why not look to “the means that Claude Monet, Ce­zanne, Toulouse-Lautrec and others had made known? Why could we not transpose these means into music?”

The fruit of Satie’s suggestion is the brilliant Impressionist music ex­emplified by the works of Claude De­bussy (1862-1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). This music is French in its sheer refinement of sound, its transparency, and, most of all, its pref­erence for evocative imagination over more formal concerns. A single color­ful chord can be left suspended in the ether, unresolved in an overall har­monic scheme, if it creates the right impression. One can daub with notes as Georges Seurat daubed with bright pigments on a canvas. This is an art of allusion and depiction.

One of the most interesting mem­bers of the Impressionist generation was perhaps its least known: Charles Koechlin (1867-1950), who was born in Paris only five years after Debussy, but who outlived him by more than 30 years. Koechlin came late to music, after illness waylaid his military engi­neering career. He discovered in his courses with fellow student Ravel that “sometimes a single bar by an inge­nious colleague is enough to open the door to enchanted gardens.” Koechlin stepped through that door and himself became a sorcerer of the first or­der. French composer Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) called him a “magician,” and conductor Heinz Holliger an “alchemist of sound.”

It is thanks to Holliger and the Hanssler Classic label that we can now fall under Koechlin’s spell. Hanssler has undertaken a major effort to bring Koech­lin’s neglected works to light—a huge challenge, as there are 225 works in Koechlin’s catalogue. Hanssler has made an ex­cellent beginning with six CDs of vocal works with orchestra, major orchestral works (featuring the su­perb Stuttgart Radio Sym­phony Orchestra), and very charming chamber compositions with flute (CD 93.157). Most of these are world-premiere recordings. When you listen to the music, you will wonder: How can this be? How, for instance, can an

Impressionist nocturne as gorgeous as Vers la Voitte Etoilee (Towards the Vault of the Stars), composed in 1933, have been unperformed until 1989? How many masterpieces are still lying around in Koechlin’s drawers?

As a late starter, Koechlin did not gain full confidence in his orchestral abilities until 1900, but excelled to the point that he orchestrated works for Debussy (Khamma) and Faure (Chanson de Melisande). His future promise can be heard in the Hanssler two-CD collec­tion of his Vocal Works with Orchestra (Hanssler CD 93.159), composed dur­ing the 1890s. But the word “promise” sounds patronizing when applied to these magnificent, fully mature compositions. Harkening back to Berlioz and Gounod, pointing forward in his use of wild, coloristic effects, Koechlin could, whenever he wished, bathe his music in the Impressionistic glories of De­bussy and Ravel, or give it the delicacy of Faure, and then toughen it up with some Roussel-like grinding rhythms. All these resources are brought to bear for expressive use in the texts Koechlin sets. Two particularly affecting ones are the Trois Melodies, Op. 17, and the Chant Funebre à la Mémoire des Jeunes Femmes Defuntes, Op. 37. The latter employs the text of the Requiem in a spellbinding 21-minute treatment.

How good was he compared with his Impressionist confreres? Lis­ten to the Etudes Antiques, Op. 46, on the second disc of the Vocal Works release, to sample the level of en­chantment. The Trois Poemes, Op. 18, are an example of this same high art with voice and orchestra. But after 1900, Koechlin moved on to compose on huge orchestral canvases in a lan­guage uniquely his own. In his mas­sive orchestral tone poems, the music is splashed on in ways that may seem haphazard. In Federico Mondeli’s words, “Koechlin wrote with great freedom. His use of atonality, tonality, and modality creates a unique atmo­sphere, often dreamy, naïve, and time­less.” The music can often seem to drift—not aimlessly, but as in a dream, with an extremely spacious sense of time. Koechlin is not afraid to keep the music barely above the level of audibility, as if it were a haze settling upon you, or to engage in raucous out­bursts of Mahlerian proportions.

Perhaps the defining composition of Koechlin’s career is The Jungle Book, a series of enormous symphonic po­ems written over a period of 40 years, inspired by Rudyard Kipling. There is nothing quite like this more-than-80-minute piece—intoxicating evocations of spring, the atonal chattering of the monkeys, banality and ecstasy conjoined. Much of it is gorgeous, but when Koechlin reaches for the outer limits of harmony, the music can be quite grating, and purposely so. There is a complete recording of The Jungle Book on an RCA BMG import (24321 84596-2), and one of its main move­ments, La Course de Printemps, Op. 95 on Hanssler, coupled with Le Buisson Ardent, an impassioned evocation of rebirth.

Le Docteur Fabricius , Koechlin’s last main composition, is paired with Vers la Voiite Etoilee on another stunning Hans­sler release (CD 93.106). Le Docteur was written to a scenario by Koechlin’s un­cle about the indifference of nature to man and man’s ultimate transcendence of it. It is a strange, wonderful piece. Injustice is appropriately portrayed by an atonal fugue. Contemplation of the night sky brings calm, followed by con­solation, and then ecstatic joy, made all the more special by the marvelously loopy sound of the Ondes Martenot, one of Koechlin’s favorite instruments. Though some of this music may sound old-fashioned for 1949, it also seems to presage the still-stranger music of Oli­vier Messiaen that was soon to follow.

Koechlin’s photographic hobby may provide some insights into his unique and complex style. He took pictures with a device called a Verascope, which produced an early ver­sion of 3-D when developed on glass plates and viewed through a stereo­scope. Koechlin took his Verascope everywhere and produced some 3,000 photos. Two intriguing examples deco­rate the jacket cover of the L’Abbaye release from the Skarbo label (of a Gothic ruin) and an inside page of the Hanssler release of Les Heures Persanes, Op. 65 (of Arab riders passing through an arch in Fez, Morocco). His photo­graphic interests reveal Koechlin’s at­tempts to express multiple dimensions of reality at the same time.

Is there a 3-D aspect to Koechlin’s music? Sometimes it sounds as if there is—simply because of the music’s ex­traordinary richness and complexity. In fact, some of Koechlin’s works can sound like the aural equivalent of a Verascope photo without the stereo­scope to see it through. He employs techniques that are polytonal, using more than one tonal center or key alongside, and sometimes against, another; polyrhythmic, and even polystylistic. This can get confusing. It can produce a huge sonic welter, a veritable jungle of sound. However, because of it, it is all the more breath­taking when suddenly, stereoscopically, things are snapped back into focus, resolving themselves in a magnificent, arching melody.

Why was Koechlin’s work not more popular? Perhaps it was his at­titude to the music of his time. Of one of his compositions, he said, ‘It is situ­ated at the antipodes of our present life (factories and sporting matches) and of current music aesthetics (dy­namism and ‘constructivism’).” Also, he remarked that Mowgli, at the end of La Course de Printemps, “lingers, rath­er apprehensive at his glimpse into the mystery of creatures and things. Thus the work concludes with a sort of question mark.” There is always a question mark in mystery, that is why it is mysterious. If you prefer a strong resolution to things, Koechlin may not be your man.

About Vers la Voute Etoilee, Koechlin said, “My dream has remained the same from the very beginning, a dream of imaginary far horizons—of the infinite, the mysteries of the night, and triumphant bursts of light.” If you would like to listen to this dream, take ample time, and try these magnificent Hanssler Classic CDs.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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