INVESTIGATION – The Great War Museum at Meaux (France) has devoted an extensive new exhibition to musicians in the period 1914-1918. One hundred years after the outbreak of World War I, little-known musical stories are coming to light, and shoring up History with a capital H.
“My violin saved my life.” Lucien Durosoir was 35 when he was called to war in 1914. Very few people remember this great virtuoso today, with his thin moustache and broad forehead. It’s not surprising: upon his return from the war, the traumatised Lucien Durosoir isolated himself in a little village in the Landes region, Bélus, and allowed himself to be forgotten… or almost.
As the centenary year of the Great War begins, many things remain to be discovered about this foundation event of the 20th century. Violist Karine Lethiec did not wait for the commemorations to grow interested in the role played by music in this worldwide conflict. As artistic director of a chamber music ensemble, l’ensemble Calliopée, she specialises in this era and has built programmes in partnership with Meaux’s Great War Museum. “History has an impact on creators,” the musician explains, “and the reverse is true as well. Maurice Ravel wrote Le Tombeau de Couperin in memory of his friends, particularly Joseph de Marliave, Marguerite Long’s husband. “In despair at her inability to discover the fate of her husband, who was reported missing, the young Marguerite Long stopped playing the piano. If Ravel hadn’t asked her to premiere the new work, would she have become the great concert artist she was, and the co-founder, with Jacques Thibault, of the international competition that bares their names?”
Ravel was distressed at his inability to join the front. His diminutive height and slight weight stopped him from becoming a pilot. He badgered his friend Paul Painlevé, Minister of War. “As the result of his insistence, he was hired as a military truck driver in 1916 and sent to Verdun,” Karine Lethiec narrates. “Patriotism was natural at the time, and very much a part of one’s education.” Claude Debussy was too ill to take up arms, but, shattered by the war, he embarked on a wave of musical patriotism that went hand in hand with his rejection of German music. He signed his letters “Debussy, French Musician”, and his Sonata for violin and piano was premiered in 1917 at a benefit concert for “blind soldiers returning to their homes”.
At the front, Lucien Durosoir Lucien Durosoir found a ramshackle violin and played during the requiem masses for those killed on the fields of glory. A musically-inclined officer spotted him and asked him to create a group with a newly-conscripted soldier: composer and conductor André Caplet, a laureate of the prestigious Prix de Rome. 24-year old cellist Maurice Maréchal joined them. He owned an odd instrument: “le poilu” [a slang term for French soldiers in the war, equivalent to the British “Tommy”], a cello made from munition cases by two woodworker soldiers. Both woodworkers died in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
Filled out by the arrival of other soldiers, the group was not invisible for long… General Mangin, charmed, ordered concerts to be organised by soldiers, both officers and not, in hospitals or at the front, in the barracks of the Théâtre des Armées in the rear, in requisitioned municipal halls, and even in Noyon Cathedral. The “General’s Musicians” earned the right to rehearse. Lucien Durosoir escaped the catastrophe of the Chemin des Dames defeat. “We’re not in the habit of thinking of war in terms of musical practices. Though we know about military music, we find it hard to imagine that there could be, so close to the front, places and moments to practice music, or even to give real concerts,” writes musicologist Georgie Durosoir, Lucien Durosoir’s daughter-in-law.
Following the Ensemble Calliopée, other groups have plunged into this little-known repertoire. The Trio Hobkoen, the Diotima Quartet,, and, more recently, pianist Célimène Daudet and violinist Amanda Favier. The two musicians rummaged through the scores that Private Durosoir had sent to him at the front. “Dans la malle du poilu” (In the soldier’s trunk) became a recording where contemporaries (Fauré, Lili Boulanger, Caplet and Durosoir) cross paths with the German music that, in an irony of war, Durosoir adored.
In 1925, Caplet died at the age of 47, a victim of the war’s poisonous gases. Profoundly affected by what he saw and lived through between 1914 and 1918, Lucien Durosoir sold his violin and bought a retreat in the Landes. Up to his death in 1955, he composed some 55 pieces. “His style partakes of no school,” analyses pianist Célimène Daudet. “Expelled from the Conservatoire in Paris for insolence, Lucien Durosoir had no compositional mentor. He composed far away from the Parisian musical world, and refused to let his works be played.”He put his trust instead in Time, and, in the silence of the Landes, wrote: “We can do little in the face of the great upheavals of History. We can only remember, remember just a little. And pass on to others the invisible thread of memory.”
The exhibit “My Violin Saved My Life”, the fate of the musicians in the Great War, until 31 December 2015 at the Musée de la Grande-Guerre in Meaux.
“Dans la malle du poilu” Célimène Daudet (piano) and Amanda Favier (violin). Label Arion. €22 “Jouvence”». by Lucien Durosoir, performed by Ensemble Callipoée. €11 (Alpha)
Article first published in Sud Ouest, Sunday 6 January 2014. Translated by J. A. Macfarlane