CLASSICAL MUSIC / The king of the jungle: After Gorecki, Charles Koechlin? Michael White on French music's missing link
Sunday 17 April 1994
But if Zinman's hunches are anything to go by, history could be about to repeat itself, with music as hypnotically spacious as Gorecki's, by a composer almost as obscure (and tricky on the tongue). He is called Charles Koechlin (pronounced Keklan). Koechlin died in 1950, but he has definite post-mortem cult potential as one of the weirder minor masters of French music - not least for a bizarre, 75-minute cycle of symphonic poems called Le Livre de la Jungle which Zinman has just recorded with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Written over 40 years from 1899 on, Le Livre de la Jungle was Koechlin's masterpiece, reflecting a lifetime's obsession with the works of Rudyard Kipling: not, you might think, standard reading for a literate Parisian. But there was a vogue for the Jungle Books when they first appeared in French translation at the end of the last century, generating the cross-Channel phenomenon of le scoutisme in their wake - a phenomenon so thoroughly absorbed into French culture that generations of scouting garcons were brought up with no idea of the true nationality of Baden-Powell. It all provided Koechlin with a powerful creative stimulus, equalled only in his large output by the allure of American cinema. Run through Koechlin's catalogue and you find titles like Cinque danses pour Ginger (Rogers) and Epitathe de Jean (Harlow), as well as 123 scores dedicated to his special favourite, Lilian Harvey.
Koechlin's son Yves, who still lives in the Paris apartment to which the family moved in 1934, remembers that the focus of family activity was 'a small cinema in the rue d'Arras. You could see three films for a franc, which was good because my father's money was running out. What do I remember best? Oh, Elephant Boy. We saw it again and again. It was the jungle - anything to do with the jungle my father adored.'
The thought of pere Koechlin and his family adoring Elephant Boy in the rue d'Arras wouldn't be so extraordinary but for the fact that Koechlin was, by then, a distinguished figure at the heart of the French musical establishment. It had taken him a long time: by his own admission he was a slow starter, and a background cushioned by industrial bourgeois wealth had more or less predestined him to dilettantism. It wasn't until he contracted TB and was sent to convalesce in Algeria that he discovered music and decided, at a rather mature age, to study at the Paris Conservatoire. But once there, he entered exalted company.
Koechlin's teachers were Massenet and Faure, his contemporaries Ravel and Florent Schmitt; and before long he fell in with Debussy and Satie, who drew him into a composers' collective (with Milhaud and Roussel) that served as a precedent for the more celebrated Les Six. Throw in the fact that Poulenc became Koechlin's pupil - as did Cole Porter, who took orchestration lessons from him at the Ritz Hotel - and you appreciate that almost everyone who mattered in that golden age of modern French music had some kind of Koechlin connection.
What's more, they all filtered into, and out of, Koechlin's own musical personality. He belonged resolutely to no school of composition; but his work was both eclectic and idiosyncratic, absorbing what was happening around him into something of his own. It's impossible to define a Koechlin style, because every major score was an experiment and sui generis. But that said, you might broadly place him as a link to Messiaen from Debussy. He liked long, modal, unaccompanied melodies (whole chunks of Le Livre de la Jungle feature unison playing) and extravagantly late-Romantic gestures. Yet he also liked sustained stillness. Some of the most extraordinary sections of Livre de la Jungle hang suspended in a time-void, with little or no movement: the sections that provide, a la maniere de Gorecki, the balm of young executive stress-relief.
But it insults the potency of Koechlin's writing to describe it in those terms. Oddball as he may have been, he was also a superb technician and a masterful manipulator of orchestral colour - which is how he came to be an honoured orchestrator of other composer's works, including Faure's Pelleas et Melisande. His own works never quite got off the ground, and when the family money ran out he was increasingly forced back on teaching and academic writing.
Otherwise, Koechlin retreated into eccentricity. A long, gaunt figure with, eventually, a long white beard, he cultivated the appearance of an Old Testament prophet, walked the streets in carpet slippers and travelled with all his possessions in paper bags, declaring a disdain for suitcases.
More significantly, he remained fiercely independent of musical fashions. One of the Livre de la Jungle pieces, Les bandar-log, depicts the mindless chatter of forest monkeys in peculiarly pointed terms. For Koechlin they became an aural image of French critics chasing one enthusiasm to the next; and the score accordingly bounds through a lunatic succession of Debussyan parallels, Schoenbergian serialism, atonality, polytonality and back-to-Bach neoclassical counterpoint. It isn't subtle, but you don't forget it. Nor did David Zinman when someone first played the piece to him at a party and challenged him to identify it. 'Of course, I couldn't. This was in the Sixties, and it sounded like everything and nothing I knew about French music. Unbelieveable.'
At that time Zinman was a young protege of the conductor Pierre Monteux and taking a keen interest in all things French; so he followed the piece up and started planning to perform Livre de la Jungle complete. It was only true to the spirit of Koechlin that the project took 30 years to realise: partly because orchestras didn't want to tackle it ('The music is extraordinarily hard - the violins have their fingers up their noses half the time') and partly because no record company would touch it.
'I guess', says Zinman, 'the Gorecki gave me some bargaining power. Who would have predicted the pull of that symphony? It was off the wall, but we believed in it. I believe in Koechlin. So maybe . . ?'
'Le Livre de la Jungle' is a two-CD set on RCA Red Seal (09026 619552).
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