“Révolution aux chœurs”: works of Gossec, Duvernoy, Gebauer, Catel, Jadin, Méhul. Orchestre d’harmonie de la ville du Havre, Choeurs de l’Armée Rouge, Choeurs de l’Opéra de Paris, Philippe Langlet. Adda 590018 (1991?)

“Révolution aux chœurs”: works of Gossec, Duvernoy, Gebauer, Catel, Jadin, Méhul. Orchestre d’harmonie de la ville du Havre, Choeurs de l’Armée Rouge, Choeurs de l’Opéra de Paris, Philippe Langlet. Adda 590018 (1991?), barcode 3355385900184







Recorded 2 July 1989, Salle Cassin, Le Havre

The revolution betrayed by the Red Army and Paris Opera choruses
Originally posted on Amazon.com 26 April 2014

Revolutions and ideological concerns rarely produce good music – or maybe it is just because it is badly played. This Adda CD bears no copyright year, the recording must have been made on the occasion of the concert mentioned in the liner notes on July 2, 1989, and the CD was reviewed in the French Diapason issue of May 1991, which points to a belated release by Adda. It uses the combined forces of the Paris Opera and the Red Army Choruses (and remember, the latter were still Soviet back then – the former probably still are today), and the Wind Band of the City of Le Havre. It offers a selection of military marches, overtures and symphonies for Wind Band and of revolutionary hymns – three by Gossec, “Chant du 14 Juillet”, composed for the first anniversary of Bastille Day, “Peuple, Eveille-toi !” (People, Awake!) written for the translation of the remains of Voltaire to the Pantheon Church on 11 July 1791, and what is announced as his orchestration of the Marseillaise, and Méhul’s “Chant du depart”, composed in July 1794 for the celebration of the decisive victory of the Republican army at the battle of Fleurus. With only four numbers for chorus, the disc’s title, “Revolution in the Choir”, is something of a misnomer. The minimal liner notes just give short biographical info on the Le Havre band and two choruses, but say absolutely nothing of the works, and don’t even give the first names of the composers, just initials. But after all we are not dealing with W.A. Mozart or L.v. Beethoven. How many music lovers will know off-the-cuff that C.S. Catel is Charles-Simon, F.J. Gossec François-Joseph, E.N. Méhul Etienne-Nicolas, L.E. Jadin Louis-Etienne (not to be confused with his brother Hyacinthe), and add the even more obscure Michel-Joseph Gebauer and Frédéric Duvernoy?

Likewise, the credits show that all these pieces are played in modern orchestrations, but nothing is said of their nature. Most are credited to Désiré Dondeyne, the longtime conductor of the Wind Band of the Paris Police. Sometimes he is credited as arranger, sometimes as orchestrator, and sometimes even both (Gossec’s “Chant du 14 juillet”), and in the case of the “Pas de Manoeuvre” (Marching Drill) of Duvernoy and Gebauer and the Military March and Symphony of Catel tracks 2-4 and 6, he appears both as arranger and under the cryptic designation of “reconstitution”, but we are not told what exactly was reconstituted. Two of the arrangements, of Louis Jadin’s Symphony (track 5) and Gossec’s Symphony (track 10), are by a J. Molenaar. And in the case of Chant du Départ and Marseillaise, conductor Philippe Langlet added his own layer of cream by further adapting Dondeyne’s arrangements for Mixed and Men’s Chorus.

No information being given about them, I wondered where these symphonies and overtures came from, and what those modern orchestrations were about. Had they set for wind band works originally written for full symphony orchestra? Did the overtures come from operas, and in which case, which ones? Likewise, I wondered about Gossec’s Marseillaise. Gossec is often referred to for his orchestration of Rouget de Lisle’s song, the most famous one before Berlioz’. But I wondered why the Adda CD played Dondeyne’s orchestration of Gossec’s orchestration of Rouget’s song, and not Gossec’s. It is also the case with another CD with a very similar program, Erato’s “Les Grands Hymnes Revolutionnaires”, the compilation of 19 revolutionary hymns and military marches with the Wind Band of the Paris Police (Orchestre d’Harmonie des Gardiens de la Paix de Paris) under Claude Pichaureau, published in 1990, which shares the four choral pieces that are on Adda, as well as the two Pas de Manoeuvre of Duvernoy and Gebauer. But, researching on that, I had been puzzled not to find any trace of a publication, recent or not, of Gossec’s original score. So what exactly was Dondeyne’s orchestration in relation to Gossec’s original?

These might seem to be very petty details, and they are if you just want to hear the music for what it offers, without any concern about sources and authenticity. But sometimes you start pulling on a minuscule thread of wool that’s sticking out and sweater shirt and pants start unraveling in your hands.

I’ll refer the reader interested in those matters to my review – rather, a lengthy essay on the sources of the Marseillaise and other revolutionary songs – of the Erato CD. But to make this long story short(er), it turns out that what Dondeyne did was simply to orchestrate a piano reduction of Gossec’s score, made by an archivist of the Paris Conservatoire, Constant Pierre, at the end of the 19th Century. This admirable man spent years locating all the original sources of all the revolutionary hymns and band music played at the official ceremonies in the 1790 decade, researching in the various libraries of France, even pushing his investigations to the British Library and Royal Library in Berlin. Most of this sheet music remained in the form of scores for voice only or voice and keyboard, some of them as instrumental parts, a few in the composer’s original autograph or manuscript scores. Pierre published the scores in 1899, but, for reasons of practicality, with piano reductions of the orchestral or band accompaniment (when scores or parts existed). In a complementary volume published in 1904 he listed all the locations of the original material.

So Dondeyne could have gone to Bibliothèque nationale or the Library of the Conservatoire to consult the original sources (in which case his “orchestration” would have been limited to rescoring for modern tuba the instrument then known as the “serpent”, whose role was to double and reinforce the bassoons and that was replaced by the Ophicléide in the 1820s – this will ring a bell with fans of Berlioz played on period instruments – before the invention of the tuba in the mid-1830s). But evidently, he didn’t, and this is clearly shown by his orchestration of precisely The Marseillaise.

When Rouget de Lisle wrote his song, then known as the “War Song for the Army of the Rhine”, in April 1792, its success was so blazing that within a few weeks it shot to Marseilles, and from there to Paris, now called indifferently the Song, Air, Hymn or March of the Marseillais, and where everybody sung it and wanted to hear it. As was the custom back then, Gossec turned it, with a few other revolutionary songs, into a lyric scene called first “Hymne à la liberté” then “Offrande à la liberté”, and first played at the Paris Opera on 2 October 1792. THAT is Gossec’s original orchestration, and it is NOT for wind band but for symphony orchestra.

A year later, for the Celebration of the first anniversary of the King’s emprisonment on 10 August 1793 (they sure did have a sense of the occasion in those days), Gossec wrote a second orchestration of Rouget’s song, now for wind band and for outdoor performance. Curiously, it was set to other words than Rouget’s original stanzas, written for the occasion by a “citizen Varon” whose first name seems to have been lost by History [Addendum from 2017: thanks to an article by Gossec specialist Charles Rolle, I now know that he was Casimir Varon]. That orchestration (with Rouget’s original words) became the official version of the song (made to the national anthem of France in 1795), the one that was played at the official ceremonies, and would be as “authentic” as the first one, even with the stanzas of Rouget reattributed to it.

Then, in 1798, another Gossec version was printed under the title “Hymne à la liberté”, an arrangement for wind band of the 1792 operatic version, limited to three out of Rouget’s six stanzas. The original parts, apparently once in the possession of Constant Pierre, are now kept at the Music and Theatre Library of Sweden. But Constant Pierre having published a piano reduction, that apparently is what Dondeyne re-orchestrated, using an instrumentation way more lavish and abundant than Gossec’s.

Most readers will probably have little interest for these arcane matters of “authenticity”, and will only want to know if the compositions, whatever the authenticity of their orchestration, and Langlet’s interpretations of them, are enjoyable. Not always.

The worst is Méhul’s “Chant du départ”. Whatever Dondeyne’s orchestration, Langlet’s arrangement of it gives a badly corrupt and distorted idea of the original work and the composer’s intent. Chant du départ was an important revolutionary hymn, as successful if not more than Rouget’s Marseillaise, and it almost made it as France’s national anthem. The original hymn has 7 stanzas all followed by the refrain sung by chorus, but the interesting point is that each stanza and ensuing chorus is ascribed to a specific and different character: “a representative of the people” and chorus of warriors, a mother and chorus of mothers, two elderly men and chorus, a child and chorus, a wife-chorus, maiden, and three warriors followed by general chorus. So, evidently, Méhul intended each stanza and refrain to be sung by different soloists and sections of the chorus, including children.

But Langlet doesn’t do that. The song duly starts with the tenor, Leonid Pchenitchni, but, presumably because he needed to employ his two choirs, Russian and French, Langlet attributes the solo lines before the refrain to the Russians, and the refrain to mixed chorus (but the women are so overpowered by the men that they are hardly audible anyway). Then he has the verse of the mother sung not by a female solo but by full woman’s chorus, the last line before refrain again by the Russians and again the refrain by mixed chorus. Then, instead of seguing directly into the next stanza, he repeats the long orchestral intro, and tenor Pchenitchni sings again a last verse, but in truth I can’t say which one, because he’s singing it… in Russian! I guess you can call it a hymn to people’s fraternity, but what a hopeless jumble. If you want even an approximation of Méhul’s original conception for Chant du départ, Pichaureau is better but still unsatisfactory, as he cuts three of the stanzas and divides the rest between only male and female soloist, the latter suitably matronly for the wive but much too much for the child. It is Michel Plasson, despite using a modern orchestration for full romantic symphony orchestra, who gives you a much more faithful idea on “Révolution Francaise”, EMI CDC 7 49470 2 (1988).

And to that, add the interpretation. That the orchestra and chorus should be so grandiloquent, OK, I can accept it, it is not entirely out-of-sync with the meaning of the words and music. But tenor Pchenitchni! He’s awful. Suitably stentorian and somewhat nasal, and I’m sure his Russian accent is perfect, but his French accent is comical. He should have sung it all in Russian.

The Marseillaise is not much better. Well, at least, we don’t have to suffer Pchenitchni, since Langlet has it all sung by the chorus, which is a permissible option (Gossec’s 1793 version for wind band, to the words of citizen Varon, was scored for three-part men’s chorus, and even the 1792 version left the option of having the solo line sung by unissono chorus), although a much less appealing one than with solo verse and chorus refrain. But Langlet’s version (reduced, as all the 1798 Gossec version and Dondeyne-derived versions that I’ve heard, to three stanzas) wouldn’t have been as offensive had his choral forces not been so bad. The liner notes rhetorically ask “how do you squeeze two hundred and seventy musicians into a rehearsal hall in Le Havre”? Well, not very effectively I am afraid. The choruses are loud, tonally unrefined, poor in ensemble, thick and lacking transparency, making the words often incomprehensible (and the Soviets are given the first stanza of the Marseillaise, and they sing it with Russian accents), and the women sound tremulous and old, the worst of the French choral tradition. Sure, in a revolutionaly and war context, that’s exactly what you expect and want a chorus to be: guts and brawn, not elegance and refinement. But again, as a purely musical experience, this is very unrewarding.

In “Chant du 14 juillet” Langlet and his forces sing only three verses out of the hymn’s six – and thank God, because the 7:44 minutes it takes them, at Langlet’s funeral tempo, are already way too long. In the Marseillaise and Chant du 14 juillet, Pichaureau on Erato is much preferable. Strangely, it is the other way around in “Peuple, éveille-toi”, because there it is Pichaureau who takes it at an impossibly funeral tempo (it isn’t a funeral march, it is a call to revolt!) and Langlet who, despite his choruses’ untidiness, is true to the song’s enthusiastic and martial accents. That said, I defy anybody to understand what they are singing, except for a few words here and there (“liberté!” comes out clearly, so you get the gist of it). No texts are provided.

Ultimately, if the hymns are your main interest, this is not the place where to stop. Pichaureau offers much more and, with the exception of “Peuple…”, much better played. Langlet makes the music sound terribly grandiloquent, more than it needs to be. His program of overtures, marches and symphonies for winds is slightly better, if only because we are now rid of the impossible singers, and also because it offers the opportunity to hear rarely played works from that era. It turns out that all those symphonies and overtures were indeed origially scored for wind band. As the hymns, they were written for the official ceremonies and were published with them in regular collections, documented by Constant Pierre who also provides the scores with piano reductions. What the track listing simply calls Gossec’s “Symphonie” is in fact his “Symphonie militaire”, in three movements. Despite their title, those of Catel and Jadin are no more than Overtures. It’s not great music – the two “Pas de manoeuvre” and the “Military March” are exactly suited to their purpose, music to whip up the troups and get them marching in time – but some of it is fun. In fact, other than the brassy orchestration, some don’t even sound specifically military. Catel’s Symphony and Overture in C are especially felicitous, and wouldn’t be out of place in a Rossini opera. They are all the more valuable as very little of Catel is represented on CD.

That said, Langlet can be taken only as a stopgap. In the Marches, he is acceptable. Duvernoy’s Marching Drill is slightly more lively with Pichaureau than with him but not decisively so, and Gebauer’s is played more playfully by Pichaureau (music for an equestrian parade of prancing horses by the Republican Guard), more militarily by Langlet, and both approaches are legitimate. But that’s the smaller fare. Without any competition it is always harder to judge an interpretation, but I am in no doubt that there is space for far more animation than Langlet brings to Catel’s indication “très animé” at the top of his Sympony, and more vivacity in the “allegro vivace” of the Overture. By the same token, I didn’t need to go the the competing version of Gossec’s Military Symphony by John Wallace on Nimbus NI 5175 (1989), barcodes 083603517526, 0710357517525 (with Berlioz’ Symphonie funèbre et triomphae) to detect that Langlet’s “larghetto” seemed terribly slumbering – surely a “larghetto” at the end of the 18th century shouldn’t be played as a largo – and that he played the finale as a moderato parading march, which doesn’t sound totally absurd but is certainly contradictory with Gossec’s “Allegro” indication. Wallace resoundingly confirmed the impression, and proved how much more lively and exciting Gossec sounds played at the right tempi. I can accept that Langlet’s very solemn tempo in the first movement conforms better to Gossec’s “Allegro maestoso” than Wallace’s vivacious and lightfooted one, but the music sounds so much better with Wallace, and his less brassy, more woodwindy orchestration (not by Dondeyne) is also far more characterful.

So I’ll be keeping this disc in my collection mainly for the Catel Overture and Symphony and the Jadin Symphony. That’s about 18 minutes of music out of the CD’s none-too-generous 58.

Comments are welcome