EXPLORING MUSIC: INDIVIDUAL AND INSPIRED MAGIC/DEODAT DE SEVERAC
The MHS Review 395 Vol. 11 No. 17, 1987
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David M. Greene
Deodat de Severac was born on July 20, 1872, two days after Julius Fucik, the Czech Sousa, and in the same year as Scriabin, Vaughan Williams, Alfven, and several other composers of note. This fact was established over 20 years ago by Dr. Elaine Brody, and probably comes as stunning news to no one but me. In putting together my biographical dictionary of composers, before it became generally known, I set down the previously accepted date of 1873, an error that batteries of proofreaders and editors failed to catch. Culpa mea and eheu!
What? You don't know M. Severac? I hope you will hasten to make up the omission or lacuna or whatever it is. But I must admit that until a decade or so ago he was little more than a name to me. I think that ca. 1940 my friend Bob Birch acquainted me with recordings of a couple of songs as sung by Charles Panzera. However, I knew little else to make me know or care about him, until MHS issued (around 1975) an album of offbeat French piano music (long since out of the catalog), which included four considerable pieces by Severac. It was my function to translate the excellent and extensive program notes by Harry Halbreich.
Translation is an odd process: sometimes it catches you up so deeply in the material that it leaves a permanent impression on the mind. This was a case in point: I wound up with the illusion of having gone through some sort of intimate relationship with the composers and the music under consideration. Since then I've acquired piecemeal and with undiminished delight records of most of the works in this album.
Marie-Joseph Deodat de Severac, the son of a painter of some local fame and the descendent of old Provencal nobility, was born in the foothills of the French Pyrenees. Educated in music by his father, he decided at his maturity to make it his career, and studied at the conservatories of Toulouse and Paris before settling on Vincent d'lndy's Schola Cantorum. He disliked the hothouse atmosphere of the city intensely (though he found there two devoted apostles in the pianists Blanche Selva and Ricardo Vines). In 1907, convinced that music should come from localities whose culture was in the composer's blood, he returned to the south, soon to settle permanently in the Pyrenean village of Ceret, where he married, reared a family, worked the soil, and became a fact of village life.
Severac's output was relatively small: four operas (apparently of no great impact), some incidental music, a few orchestral pieces, a spatter of choral stuff, chamber works, songs, and these piano pieces. Many contemplated compositions never reached paper, others remain as sketches. Some manuscript works have vanished. From 1914 to 1918 he was in military service and wrote little or nothing. Shortly after being mustered out, he developed a terminal illness and died in 1921 at 48.
The piano music is quite individual and, I think, inspired. Halbreich calls it "sundrenched.'' The pianist Alfred Cortot termed Severac a "sonic mistral" --the characteristic cold, dry north wind of Provence. Severac reflects neither the Debussyan blur nor the intellectualism of Indy. If he reminds me of anyone, it is Chabrier, a composer whom he greatly admired. The impact of his piano music is immediate. It often seems disarmingly simple, even naive, but it is usually considerably more profound than that and often quite complex.
Ms. Otwell, who has made a specialty of it, has added to the canon only the tiny Le vent d'antan (The wind from yesteryear), which she discovered, though she is presently editing the sonata that she also turned up. The album omits several titles listed by Grove, but, since they are also omitted from Aldo Ciccolini's "complete" recording and seem not to have appeared ever on separate records, I assume that they are lost.
To me the earliest cycle, La chant de la terre (The song of the earth), seems the least imaginative, relatively speaking; the work of choice, in my opinion, is Cerdana, with its brilliant evocations of Spain. Of the Baigneuses au soleil (Sunbathers), once meant as a part of Cerdana, Severac says that it may legitimately evoke "a sort of pagan vision of beautiful nude bodies, dripping wet in the sea air and bathed in Mediterranean light," but that it was inspired by watching "the awkward gambols of a provincial vacationer in the municipal waters of the port of Banyuls."
Review of DEODAT DE SEVERAC: The Complete Solo Piano Works page 67