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Pierre de Bréville
A student and admirer of César Franck, modest and selfless, Pierre de Bréville hated “the spirit of intrigue and noisy publicity, leaving him without the place in our musical life which his artistic value would have merited” (Marcel Labey). His works, of a very personal stamp, reveal great sensitivity, elegance and craft. A victim of the success of his first songs, which were nearly all “little masterpieces of expressive truth, delicacy and emotion,” leaving him classified too quickly as a “charming salon composer”, Pierre de Bréville is actually responsible for an abundant and varied oeuvre, including orchestral works, piano pieces, chamber music, accompanied and unaccompanied choral works, music for the theater and sacred compositions.
Born on February 21, 1861 in Bar-le-Duc (Meuse), at the home of his maternal grandparents, Pierre Eugène Onfroy de Bréville belongs to an ancient family from Gavray (Manche) whose descendants settled in Nantes, then in Beauvais. His father, Georges, a magistrate and counsel at the Paris Court of Appeal, and his mother, née Robertine de Val d’Eprémesnil, sent him to law school with a view toward a diplomatic career, although his tastes drew him to music. It was thus that, parallel to his studies, he entered the Conservatoire, where he notably studied harmony under Théodore Dubois and soon abandoned the idea of entering the diplomatic service. He began instead to perform as an organist, styling himself “organist in Paris” in 1883 and 1884, a period during which he received several prizes from the “Société internationale des organistes et maîtres de chapelle” (jury members: Dubois, Franck, Gigout, Guilmant, Lefèvre-Niedermeyer, Loret, Steenmann) for several sacred works, among them an Ave Verum (solo with organ accompaniment) which outdid Boëllmann for a first prize. His first songs also date from this period (Extase, Epitaphe). In 1886, he vied unsuccessfully for the Prix de Rome, and two years later, with his friend the light tenor Maurice Bagès de Trigny, he traveled to the Bayreuth Festival. There, he met Vincent d’Indy, who would present him to César Franck and his students Bordes, Chausson and Duparc, who would all become friends. Bréville himself became a student of the good “père Franck” in the two years leading up to his death (1890), then going on to study with d’Indy. A few years later, at the time of the creation of the Schola Cantorum, d’Indy would call upon him to lead the counterpoint class (1898 to 1902).
At the close of the century, Pierre de Bréville was already an active member of the Société Nationale de Musique, whose president he would soon become (succeeding d’Indy). During the Great War, he taught chamber music at the Paris Conservatory. Up to that point he had not been attracted by that musical genre, having produced principally songs, works for orchestra (La Nuit de décembre, Stamboul, Sans pardon), for piano, for organ, as well as the lyric tale Eros vainqueur, the lyric scene La Tête de Kenvarc’h, the opera La Princesse Maleine, and music for the theater (Le Pays des fées, Les Sept Princesses). But suddenly, in 1915, under the sway of patriotic emotion and after the death of a friend in an airplane accident, he wrote his first Sonata for violin and piano (1918, Rouart-Lerolle), dedicated to the memory of a cherished being. This Sonata was a revelation: “energetic and warlike, tender and pathetic, it is the expression of a poignant sadness, tempered by the serenity of a devout soul.” Pierre de Bréville went on to compose other chamber works of great value in the same vein. Among this production, let us cite four other Sonatas for violin and piano (1927 Rouart and Lerolle; 1942, unpublished; 1943, unpublished; 1947, unpublished), a Sonata for viola and piano (1949, Eschig), a Sonatina for oboe (or flute or violin) and piano (1925, Rouart and Lerolle), Concert à Trois for piano trio (1945, unpublished) and a Suite for instrumental quintet and saxophone quartet, as well as the five works for cello and piano: Sonata (1930, Rouart and Lerolle), Fantaisie appassionata (1934, Senart), Poème dramatique (1924, Rouart and Lerolle, Pièce (transcribed by Théodore Doney for oboe, flute or violin 1923, Leduc) and Prière, d’après le Cantique de Molière (1924, Salabert).
This “distinguished spirit who revels in nuances, in delicate colorations” (Jules Combarieu), de Bréville died suddenly on September 23, 1949, after being incapacitated for 18 months by a fall. Independently of his activities as a composer, he was a music critic at the Mercure de France, at the Revue Blanche, at the Revue Internationale de Musique and at the Courrier Musical, and served for many years on the prize jury at the Conservatoire, all while helping to administer the Schola Cantorum and then the Ecole César Franck. He completed the orchestration of the four-act lyric drama Ghisèle of Franck along with other students of that master; and produced such prose works as the Histoire du théâtre lyrique en France, a series of memoirs of Franck under the title Les Fioretti du Père Franck in the Mercure de France (Sept. 1935–Jan. 1938) and a work On French popular songs (Schola Cantorum edition, 1901).
Denis Havard de la Montagne
Translation Haden McKay