I had never heard of Lucien Durosoir, until I chanced upon the CD of his three string quartets on the label Alpha, part of the offers of an eBay seller from whom I buy a lot, and often blindly, taking advantage of bargain prices. In fact, based on the label, Alpha, I thought he was some obscure French composer from the 17th or 18th Century.
Wide off the mark. Born in 1878, Durosoir is of the generation of Ravel (1875), but he outlived Ravel by almost twenty years (1955 vs 1937). He was also born the same year as André Caplet and they were close friends (they spent the war in the trenches together, certainly an experience that seals longlasting friendships, if you are lucky enough to survive), but he outlived Caplet by 30 ears. According to the liner notes, Durosoir was first a renowned concert violinist, having received the tuition of no less than Joseph Joachim, he gave the French premiere of Brahms’ Concerto, and toured a lot in Germany. He had studied composition and counterpoint with Charles Tournemire and Eugène Cools, and had always harbored the desire to compose, but it is only when he came back from the war (having, in the trenches, received additional tuition from Caplet), in 1918, already aged 43, that he was seized with the urge to compose. The bulk of his compositional output dates from the brief period of peace between the two wars. But Durosoir seems to have spent his post-war and compositional years in complete seclusion, and his works weren’t even published, which goes far to explain his total obscurity. Caplet, the erstwhile assistant of Debussy and an established composer in those years (and a great and sadly neglected one in his own right), expressed his deep admiration for Durosoir’s first quartet and promised to champion it – but then, Caplet died in 1925, and that must have annihilated Durosoir’s small network of supporters.
“La valeur n’attend point le nombre des années”, one’s worth isn’t a matter of age, the French also like to say, after Corneille’s famous El Cid (I’ve also seen it translated, much more elegantly, in “Valour’s no need of years“). But, as Woody Allen in Annie Hall explaining to Diane Keaton that he was such a great lover because he practised a lot on his own, a master may reveal himself in his full mastery, after years of silent and invisible inner growth. There is a phrase written by Durosoir in a letter from September 1916, still during the war, when he was contemplating his move to composition (not quoted in the liner notes, but from an online website devoted to the composer, see below): “I will start composing to become familiar with freer forms, and I will give, I am sure, ripe fruits”.
To the hilt. The three string quartets are absolutely magnificent works, marked by a combination of intense, harrowing lyricism, and intricate contrapuntal writing. Other string quartets came, if fleetingly, to mind listening to Durosoir’s, those of Ravel (but, while nowhere avant-garde of his time, Durosoir’s language is more advanced, and his form freer, than Ravel’s), Schmitt (for the freedom of form), and possibly others that I couldn’t quite pinpoint without going extensively through my music library (other French contemporaries like Vierne, Pierné or Roussel? Those of Villa Lobos, Malipierio?). The Third Quartet is the more advanced, while retaining Durosoir’s typical lyricism it also has a vehement jaggedness which taks it closer indeed to the avant-garde of the day, and it evoked Janacek and Britten. Not to say that Durosoir’s quartets are derivative or epigonic. They are entirely personal and can and should be enjoyed without any references. Incidentally, “Georgie Durosoir” signs the liner notes of the Alpha CD – presumably Lucien’s daughter.
The label Alpha deserves lauds for championing the much-deserved rediscovery of Durosoir since the mid-2000s. They’ve published three other CDs of his chamber music:
Alpha 105 Musique pour violon et piano by Geneviève Laurenceau & Lorène de Ratuld (2005-2006), barcode 3760014191053 (I’ve just ordered that one).
Alpha 164 “Jouvence” (Fantaisie for violin ad octet, Caprice for cello and harp, Berceuse/Lullaby for flute andpiano, Incantation boudhique for english horn and piano, Vitrail for viola and piano, Au Vent des Landes for flute and piano, Piano Quintet) by Karine Lethiec and Ensemble Calliopée (2009-2010), barcode 3760014191640
Alpha 175 Le Balcon – Poème symphonique pour Basse solo, Cordes vocales et Cordes instrumentales (symphonic poem for solo Bass, vocal chords and instrumental strings), Sonnet à un enfant for soprano and piano, Idylle for wind quartet, Trilogie for cello and piano, Piano Trio, Berceuse/Lullaby for cello and piano by Sequenza 9-3, Quatuor Diotima, Trio Hoboken, Quintette Aquilon, Jeff Cohen, Kareen Durand (2004, 2010, 2011), barcode 3760014191756
There’s a great Durosoir website, apparently maintained by his heirs (but it seems that it hasn’t been updated since 2016). It is very complete and has, among many other things, an extensive bio with many photos, a discography, a catalog of works with first pages of the scores, and an online shop where the scores can be purchased, either physically or as downloads.