Monday, September 6, 2010

Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) Star struck classical composer


This summer I have been away on paternal leave for almost three months. Most of the time was spent in the south of France. Most French cities have a public médiateque, a library not only for books but for movies and records as well. This allows the curious person to get a fuller picture of whatever interest one may have. It's simply brilliant to be able to get several dimensions of a subject going at the same time. I guess some would call it synergy effects. You can for instance read a biography, then complete it with a movie or a soundtrack, take everything with you for further studies at home, all for free.

In my case I wanted to know more about the obscure classical composer Charles Koechlin who lived alongside giants like Claude Debussy (born 1862) and Maurice Ravel (born 1875). Koechlin's teacher was Gabriel Fauré so I wanted to investigate why Koechlin, who had a very big output was so little known. Koechlin wrote in almost any style. Ranging from very strict almost Bach-like counterpoint to outbursts of very spaced-out modernism. One could easily describe him as somewhat of a musical chameleon and as such very hard to put in a certain genre.

Koechlin was no salesman and not very good at promoting himself. He was a respected teacher, wrote several important books on musicology and also the first biography on Gabriel Fauré. Koechlin was a modest man, almost a recluse, who lived uniquely for his music. Some would say he was obsessed with music and tonality. in today's vocabulary, a music nerd. I'm not going to write his biography, it can be found here.

So what has this to do with classic movies and early talkies in particular?

In the early 1930's when Koechlin was in his mid 60's he decided to visit one of the Paris cinemas to see what talking pictures were like. Probably by coincidence he ended up watching a movie featuring the British born German actress Lilian Harvey. He became obsessed with her screen persona. The old man was completely star struck. He went to see her movies over and over again. Almost immediately he started to write music in her honor.

One of the movies Koechlin saw in 1934

The Lilian obsession led to many many nights in different Paris cinemas. While seated in the flickering darkness of the cinema admiring Lilian Harvey, Koechlin found that many of the musical scores were ill fitting. He started to take notes and in some cases even composing music he found better suited for particular scenes. This odd behavior led to several imaginary film scores. He sent several pieces of his music to Lilian Harvey who of course was flattered at first but soon realized the old Frenchman was obsessed with her.

Koechlin was very timid and kept a low profile but when it came to Lilian Harvey nothing could stop him. At one point he even showed up at her summer residence in the south of France with hopes of proposing to her. After a while (and some serious stalking) I guess he soon realized marriage or even an affair with Harvey was out of the question. To my knowledge they never met in person.

However, all the movie going produced some very fine music. In most cases Koechlin's movie related music is a beautiful cross breeding of high and low culture. The finest piece is probably The Seven Stars Symphony which isn't a symphony in classical sense but a collection of tone-poems representing seven movie stars of the day. Douglas Fairbanks, Lilian Harvey, Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, Emil Jannings and Charlie Chaplin.

Plese listen to some excerpts of it:

The Seven Stars Symphony (1933)
3. Greta Garbo



The Seven Stars Symphony (1933)
5. Marlene Dietrich



Koechlin wrote music in homage to other movie stars as well, usually chamber music and often incorporating unusual instruments in classical music like the Saxophone, Celesta or even Ondes Martenot. When Jean Harlow passed away in 1937 he wrote this absolutely beautiful epitaph.

Epitaph For Jean Harlow (1937)



My favorites among Koechlin's music are the Danses Pour Ginger op 163 (1937-39) for two pianos, which in some cases have almost Satie-esque qualities.



At the time movie-stars were often seen as pop-stars with questionable lifestyles by the cultural elite and almost as royalty by us others. To Koechlin the talking pictures and the movie stars served as a main inspiration for over ten years. Did he care he was a well respected composer and teacher in the high brow cultural community of Paris? Was he at any time afraid to fall from grace? Probably not. He just did what he had to do. What do you think?

Thanks to Wellesz for the fine You Tube clips
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