Obituary: Jacques Chailley

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JACQUES CHAILLEY was a powerful force in the musical life of France for over half a century, and in several capacities. He will best remembered outside France as a musicologist of wide sympathies and considerable insight, and inside the "hexagon", as the French like to describe their territory, as a driving force in erecting the academic infrastructure on which the intellectual side of French musical life now rests. Whether his music will get a chance to overshadow those other reputations remains to be seen.

Chailley had a most musical beginning: he was the son of the violinist Marcel Chailley and the pianist Celiny Chailley-Richez, who was a pupil of Raoul Pugno and a favourite pianist of the great Romanian composer George Enescu.

Between 1925 and 1927 he took private lessons from Nadia Boulanger, and from 1933 to 1935 he studied composition at the Paris Conservatoire with Henri Busser and, again privately, with Claude Delvincourt). His conducting teachers were no less prominent: first (1935-36), in Amsterdam, Willem Mengelberg and Bruno Walter, and the next year Pierre Monteux. From 1930 to 1936 he was also steeped in the study of musicology. All the while another important element was being fed into his make-up: for four years, from 1932, he attended courses on French medieval literature.

Chailley's teaching career began in the Lycee Pasteur in 1936, though almost as soon he was working at the Sorbonne, gradually moving up through the ranks, becoming a full professor in 1952. In 1947, meanwhile, he was also appointed deputy director of the Paris Conservatoire, where he had been leading the choral classes, and in 1952, boosted by the successful defence of his thesis L'cole musicale de Saint- Martial de Limoges jusqu'a la fin du XIe siecle (one of two theses he presented for his PhD), he founded the Institute of Musicology at the Universite de Paris. In 1962 he took over the helm of the Schola Cantorum, founded by Vincent d'Indy and others in 1894 to foster the traditionalist teachings of Cesar Franck - indeed, Chailley was to have little truck with the serialism that became fashionable after the Second World War.

In 1969, in the reforms which followed the student protests the previous year, he became the founder and first director of the Department of Music and Musicology at the Sorbonne (Paris IV, as it was known), retiring in 1979 to pick up his composing pen again. Under his leadership the Sorbonne department became the largest in France, in the number of teachers and students.

Chailley's teaching was accompanied by enthusiastic activity as a writer, both of technical, analytical papers and of books and articles for a wider musical public, on, for example, Bach, Bartk, Debussy, Haydn, Mozart, Rameau, Schubert, Schumann and Wagner. He married his medieval interests with his analytical ability to put analysis itself under scrutiny in his influential Traite historique d'analyse musicale (1951), which is full of novel theoretical insights. Indeed, it was his ability to see music across the ages, as an art in evolution, that marked his most original contributions to scholarship, in such works as Formation et transformations du langage musical and Elements de philologie musicale, where he attempted to establish how the language of music had evolved.

The same inclusiveness marked his controversial "theorie de la resonance", which holds that the historical acceptance of intervals as consonant followed the order of the harmonics: octave, fifth, major third, and so on. His Imbroglio des modes (1960) again married historical perspective with analytical perception to examine how the Middle Ages had misunderstood the ancient Greeks' "modes", the forerunners of the major and minor keys which emerged with the end of the Renaissance.

But Chailley's wide sympathies made sure his academic pursuits were not the dusty lucubrations of some dry theorist: it was just as natural for him to write a Petite Histoire de la chanson populaire francaise (1942) as to examine Les Notations musicales nouvelles (1950).

His own music-making helped keep his feet firmly on the ground, too. In 1933 he founded his first choir, the Psallette Notre-Dame, to revive medieval music, and a group called the Theophiliens to restore Graeco- Latin and medieval theatre to performance, and he directed the choral society Alauda from 1946 to 1961. During the occupation he deployed his abilities to a rather different end: having been captured by the Germans on 18 June 1940 and managing to escape the following day, he joined his old teacher Claude Delvincourt in trying to protect Conservatoire students threatened with deportation; and in 1943, at the suggestion of the conductor Roger Desormieres, he joined an underground movement of musiciens resistants.

Jacques Chailley's own music reflects his historical sympathies, in a style that owes something to Durufle, Ravel and Honegger, with a flavouring of Faure and Francaix. His earliest works are informed with elements of Gregorian chant and French folk music, and though his harmonic language grew more complex as he evolved, modality was a fairly constant feature, bringing a timeless quality to many of his scores.

They include two symphonies (1942-47 and 1980), two operas, Pan et la Syrinx (1946) and Thyl de Flandre (1949-54), an antiquarian ballet, La Dame a la licorne ("The Lady with the Unicorn"; 1953), to a scenario by Cocteau, and incidental music to four plays. His Cantique du soleil (1934) was one of the first works to use the ondes martenot, an instrument to which he returned with panache in his Suite sans pretention pour Monsieur de Moliere (1955). Among other chamber-music pieces are a string quartet (1936) and a viola sonata (1939-41), and he greeted the end of the Second World War with a Chant funebre for cello and piano. His religious conviction was given voice in choral works, some of them on a large scale, such as the Missa solemnis (1947), the Messe francaise (1976) and the oratorio Casa Dei (1991).

Little of this generous output has been heard for a while now. But it does not deserve oblivion. Perhaps Chailley's death will provide the stimulus that brings his music back to life.

Jacques Chailley, musicologist, teacher and composer; born Paris 24 March 1910, married 1938 Helene Pompei (two sons, one daughter); died Montpellier, France 21 January 1999.