Monday, January 4, 2010

Guy Ropartz: A Truly Forgotten Great Composer

"Who? Ropartz? Never heard of him," you say. Well, neither has anyone else, let alone how to pronounce that first name (Guy is pronounced "Gee" with a hard "G" as in gift).

Allow me to take the story back to 1968 when I first discovered the writings of the mystic Corinne Heline that created for me a new direction in music, and showed me how the twelve notes of the chromatic scale were applied to the astrological chart, thus facilitating my discovery of what I called the duochord. Corinne Heline wrote about three composers of the romantic era whom she credited with giving birth to the most important spiritual music: Richard Wagner, Alexander Scriabin, and Cesar Franck.

In 1974, I began a deep research into the lives and music of these three composers. I intended to write a book about them, but that project quickly turned into three separate books, one for each composer. I actually completed my short book on Scriabin, but while researching Wagner, I realized that not only would I have to learn German (which I began doing), but it would take the rest of my life to finish the book because of the level of depth that I wanted to achieve, and it would take all of my energy to accomplish this work, so complex and misunderstood was the man Wagner and his music.

I shelved the idea of the three books, but continued my study of Cesar Franck, whom I found to have created some of the most beautiful and spiritual music that I had ever heard, and who, like Scriabin and Wagner, has also been completely misunderstood.

My research into the music of Cesar Franck continued sporadically over the next thirty years, spreading into the lives and music of his students. During this thirty year period, I discovered not only a very important master teacher and composer in Cesar Franck, but a very important tradition of French music emanating from his students that somehow has just not yet been accepted for its importance. Uncovering this music has not always been easy. Early on, scores and recordings were very difficult to find, and many still are not all readily available.

The students of Cesar Franck? During his lifetime, Franck was not accepted by the French music academia... at least not as a composer. He taught organ at the conservatoire, Paris' major music institution, but much to the chagrin of those in charge, his classes were filled with eager composition students. He also taught composition to students in his home. His students are too numerous to name, but there are seven that I have found so far to be, in my opinion, the most important:

1 - Vincent d'Indy (1851 - 1931) was an aristocrat and a devoted student of Franck. He wrote a large number of works that deserve to re-enter our concert halls and be heard again. His most important function, however, was as a great educator and reformer. Along with Charles Bordes and Alexandre Guilmant, he founded the Scola Cantorum music school in Paris in 1894. It's alumni include many of France's 20th century composers. d'Indy brought to his students the music of Franck for serious study, as well as that of the almost completely forgotten great composers of the Renaissance, and the German tradition of Bach, Beethoven and Wagner that had fallen out of favor among many French composers. d'Indy was also responsible for the awakening of interest in Gregorian chant, and personally introduced the great 17th Century composer Claudio Monteverdi to the modern world, with d'Indy's own transcriptions and productions.

2 - Charles Bordes (1863 - 1909) became maître de chapelle at the église Saint-Gervais in Paris in 1890, and there he created the Saint-Gervais singers choir. In 1892 he organized the Saint-Gervais holy weeks where the mass was accompanied by French and Italian sacred choral music from the Renaissance. This composition student of Cesar Franck effectively brought out of almost complete obscurity one of the greatest bodies of music ever created: the sacred music of the Renaissance and the great composers of that time: Josquin, Palestrina, Victoria, Gallus and Lassus. The Saint-Gervais concerts had a very important effect on the very alive artistic community in Paris at that time, most notably Claude Debussy.

3 - Guillaume Lekeu (1870 -1894) died when he was only 24. A composer of great promise who left just a few very beautiful works.

4 - Henri Duparc (1848 - 1933) was one of the greatest writers of classical song who ever lived. Listen to the gorgeous songs that he orchestrated.

5 - Charles Tournemire (1870 - 1939). His early works are greatly influenced by Cesar Franck and very difficult to find. I was very fortunate to hear his Poem for Organ and Orchestra, Opus 38 performed in Amsterdam's great Concertgebouw, but have never found a recording. Tournemire, like Franck student Louis Vierne, later in the century became influenced by the 20th century discordant styles, and his music became more and more discordant.

6 - Ernest Chausson (1855 - 1899) died in a bicycle accident at an early age. His music is wonderful… filled with parfum français. Among his great works is the Poème de l'amour et de la mer, Opus 19 (Songs of Love and the Sea), his opera, Le roi Arthus, the Poème for violin and orchestra, his chamber works, and his songs.

7 - Joseph Guy Ropartz (1864 - 1955) came to Paris and studied at the conservatoire and privately with Franck. He was told at conservatoire that he must discontinue his lessons with Franck, but Ropartz told them he would drop out of the conservatoire instead! After consideration, he was allowed to continue his lessons with Franck. Ropartz moved to Nancy in 1894. From 1919 to 1929 Ropartz was the director of the Academy of Strasbourg. He retired in 1929 and withdrew to his manor in Lanloup, Brittany where he died in 1955.

Two other composers who were influenced by Cesar Franck, but were not considered students, were Claude Debussy (the string quartet and early choral works), and Ernest Chabrier. Following in the tradition of Cesar Franck and French romantic organ music were the twentieth-century composers Charles-Marie Widor, Marcel Dupré and Maurice Duruflé.

I managed to locate many of Vincent d'Indy's scores over a 25-year period and even contributed to the publication of three scores in Germany by writing informative introductions (IstarJour d’été à la MontagneTableaux de Voyage). The music of Ropartz, however, eluded me for many years because I was unable to locate recordings and scores. It was only during the past three years, on my visits to Paris, that I began finding CDs and some of the scores. Fortunately, scores for his first three symphonies and many other important works are now available on

After purchasing the two CDs that contained his first, second, forth and fifth symphonies last summer, (Symphonies 2 and 5 Symphonies 1 and 4), I realized that these were great symphonies. I especially loved the second, which I began studying. I did not realize that the 3rd symphony had been recorded until just a few months ago, when I finally found it on Amazon (Symphony No. 3). This Third Symphony was Ropartz' one and only choral symphony, and it is a masterpiece! I immediately wondered how great it was compared to other symphonies of the 20th Century (it was written in 1905). To find such a great work by a composer that is unknown in America, and obscure even in Europe! The beautiful symphony in D Minor composed by Cesar Franck was severely criticized by the music intelligentsia, and it is a masterpiece! What will they do to Ropartz?

The "problem" with Ropartz is that he, like d'indy, refused to follow the herd into the world of discordant harmonies, and was therefore known as someone (like J.S. Bach) who was out of step with the times. Ropartz' music was sent to the scrap heap. A composer who never tried to tickle the tastes of the Paris music world and instead remained in the culturally distant towns of Nancy and Strasbourg, where he conducted his own orchestras, Ropartz' work lay in wait during the "Century of Discord."

Ropartz' Third Symphony is a masterpiece by any standards. When audiences, long alienated by Schoenberg and Stravinsky and the "modern" works that some composers are still trying concoct, finally get a chance to hear this work for the first time, live in concert, the tables will turn. Ropartz' music could never have fit into the 20th century; it belongs to the 21st. I believe that he, like J.S. Bach before him, is a man who because his music was considered to be obsolete, with an "archaic style," will take a century to gain recognition.

The greatness of this symphony? How does it compare the others from the 20th century? Perhaps we have to line it up with Sibelius' Fifth Symphony, also condemned by the intelligentsia because the music was "obsolete." (read about that here: Ostracism of the Tonal Composers). Which are the great 20th century symphonies anyway? The unpleasant Turangalia of Messiaen? The pompous Third Symphony of Copland? The caterwauling of Mahler? The pain of the unfortunate Shostakovich (a must read: "Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich" by Solomon Volkov)? The ugly Age of Anxiety symphony of Bernstein???

I propose that during the 21st Century, classical music will realign itself. I do not believe that the discords of the 20th century are going to be appreciated in the concert halls any more now than they were during the last century. And now we must certainly realize just how destructive the "progress" of the 20th century actually was to life on the planet and to the arts. We have to rebuild, and we have to rediscover. Do we want to continue to bathe in the mud, or shall we instead turn to something more directly responsible for helping us maintain our lives, and our sanity?

Don Robertson
Jan 1, 2010


  1. Well said. For too long now cacophonous and unpleasant classical music has been inflicted on the world's ears. The musical experiments of the 20the century must be considered a failure if the resultant music's popularity is anything to go by. As someone who used to work in the business I noticed that if a new piece was to ever get anything more than a token audience, it had to be programmed with one of the great masterpieces and even then it had to be in the first half of the concert. As my boss once admitted, "If we put the new work into the second half , the hall would empty at the interval!"
    Classical music has become a dry intellectual exercise in being different for its own sake: music that is written with the head, not the heart or the soul. And if you can find someone who is willing to say they like it, it's an even money bet the person in question will be a musical academic. Classical music has lost its way. It is meant to be food for the soul, to uplift and inspire those who hear it. It is not meant to be an elitist and niche market enterprise intended to pander solely to the intellectual snobbery of those who know how to write it.

  2. A fine, informative article underpinned by your evident love of beauty and timeless art. I'm increasingly of the opinion that the French 'school' (including such luminaries as Milhaud, Poulenc, Francaix etc) have managed to protect music in the XXth century from the onslaught of 'modernism' and composers such as Lutoslawski, progenitors of garbage, or Hindemith, a giant of intellect without a single aesthetic bone in his body.

  3. Good for you. I found Ropartz through a chance hearing of his string trio. Most string trios don't "sound" to me. (They want a second violin to fill out the sound.) Not so the Ropartz. Here was a real professional, I decided. As a cellist in the 21st century, the next thing I did was look him up on IMSLP. 2 sonatas. Score! I have been including the second on recitals since my pianist and I worked it up. I love this piece. I don't see it ever leaving our rotation.
    I don't know whether you'll appreciate this notion or not. But I have found that it's a great work to live with. By explanation, I did Civic Orchestra in Chicago when they did Mahler's Ninth. Months of Mahler 9 twice a week plus sectionals. This is not a good work to live with. I would say it's a great piece. But to have all that swirling in your head for months, not good - at least for me. Maybe that makes sense.
    Anyway, for writing to encourage an audience for Ropartz, I say, good on you.