ANNIVERSARIES: Serial Composer Jean Barraqué Born 85 Years Ago


Though French composer Jean Barraqué (January 17, 1928 - August 17, 1973) was not destined to be the best-known of the post-WWII Serialists, he was perhaps the most dedicated to 12-tone technique. Though this naturally limited his appeal to mainstream listeners, it did make his life's work more coherent than, for instance, Karlheinz Stockhausen's. It is also considerably more concentrated. Due to the painstaking compositional process inherent in his sizeable and extremely complex works, alcoholism, a 1964 car accident, and a 1968 house fire, and his early demise of a cerebral hæmorrhage, Barraqué's published output comprises just seven completed pieces, not counting juvenilia. Yet the concentrated essence of those works is so intense that in total they seem quite a satisfactory output for the two-decade span of his career.

Barraqué's family moved to Paris when he was three years old. Eventually he studied there with Jean Langlais and Olivier Messiaen; it was the latter who prompted Barraqué's interest in Serialism. Early on, he was actually a relatively prolific composer, but he destroyed most of his previous work after achieving his first great artistic success with his most notorious work, his epic Sonata for Piano, composed in 1952.

Not that the world actually heard that achievement until many years later; none of his works were published until 1963, and it took years for the Sonata, incredibly demanding of performer and listener alike, to gain its premiere. Pianists have to parse its intricate rhythms and sustain its monumental structure (performances last three-quarters of an hour or longer), while listeners are confronted with those factors plus the piano's relatively limited variety of timbre, which emphasizes the Sonata's abstract quality. Yet those with a taste for Serialism will find it a fascinating work. It's in two contrasting movements marked Très rapide (very fast) and Lent (slow). They contrast not only in speed but also in density, with generally thicker textures in the fast movement and lengthy pauses in the slow movement. Working out the tone row at such great length results in semi-motifs, or at least similar gestures, whose reappearances lend the movements intuitable logic.

Herbert Henck's 1996 recording for ECM delivers a most compelling case for the work. By taking the first movement faster and the second movement slower (with longer pauses) than the norm and emphasizing their differences, Henck makes the piece more dramatic and less dry. ECM provides typically vivid, "wet" sound (though not exaggerated as in some of their recordings) and fine clarity. This release is a compelling introduction to Barraqué's work, and with the advantages of Henck's taut interpretation and the superior sound is worth acquiring even if one owns another version. In particular, Henck's reading is more exciting than Stephen Litwin's on CPO’s three-CD set of Barraqué's complete mature works, but serious collectors should acquire both.

That CPO set shows that Barraqué's other six compositions are considerably more colorful, and delà du hasard (Beyond Chance) is an outright masterpiece. delà du hasard, written in 1958-59, Le temps restitué (Time Brought Back), from 1957 but revised in 1968, and Chant après chant (Song After Song) of 1966 are for vocalists and instrumental ensembles and draw their texts from Herman Broch's novel The Death of Virgil. delà du hasard in particular has a tensile grace to its vocal lines (for three female singers), while the instrumentation and the division into 13 short sections lend welcome variety. Even more colorful is the Concerto (1962-68), which though primarily featuring clarinet (in a stunningly demanding virtuoso part) manages to spotlight many instruments over its half-hour-plus length.

The anomalous Etude, a 1952-53 piece for tape, is Barraqué's only foray into electronic music and sounds dated. Séquence, for voice, percussion, and instruments, was his first mature work (1950), though in 1955 he changed the texts to extracts from Nietzsche's poetry, and is rather arid in effect, though not without interest.

Regardless of the merits of the latter two pieces, as a comprehensive collection, the CPO box is an invaluable contribution to an understanding of the French Serialists and a superb tribute to a quirky personality and pivotal composer. - Steve Holtje

steve-holtjeMr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.