Deodat de Severac (1872-1921)
Cerdana En Languedoc
The French composer Deodat de Severac belonged to a family oflong distinction. He was born in 1872 at St Felix de Caraman en Lauragais, inthe Haute-Garonne, the son of a distinguished Toulouse painter, Gilbert deSeverac, his first piano teacher. His mother was descended from the Aragonfamily of Spain, while his great-grandfather had served as naval minister toLouis XVI, the family boasting a descent that went back to the ninth century.The boy studied at the Dominican College of Sor?¿ze, established in 1854 on thesite of an ancient Benedictine foundation, before embarking on a degree in lawat the university in Toulouse. Before long he was able to move to the ToulouseConservatoire, where he was a student from 1893 to 1896. On the recommendationof Charles Bordes, a former pupil of Cesar Franck, he was accepted by Franck'sleading disciple, Vincent d'Indy, as a pupil at the Schola Cantorum in Paris, achoice of institution that he soon found preferable to the more rigidlyconservative academic discipline of the Paris Conservatoire.
At the Schola Cantorum Deodat de Severac was a compositionpupil of d'Indy and Alberic Magnard, with organ lessons from AlexandreGuilmant, and piano training with Blanche Selva and with Isaac Albeniz, servingas the latter's assistant from 1900. The period brought connections with fellowstudents, including Albert Roussel, and also with leading painters, sculptorsand writers of the time. His compositions were heard in Paris, thanks in goodmeasure to the advocacy of Blanche Selva and Ricardo Vines. He later returnedto southern France, making his home either at St Felix or at Ceret, the latteran artistic centre for painters such as Braque and Picasso in the second decadeof the twentieth century, earning the place the name of the 'Barbizon ofCubism'. It was at Ceret that de Severac died in 1921.
Through his relatively short career de Severac stressed theimportance of local inspiration as a means of preserving a form of music thatwas distinctively French. His songs include settings of texts in Catalan and inProven?ºal, and it was this region, between Marseilles and Barcelona, that drewhis continuing interest and loyalty. His emphasis on the importance ofregionalism, the subject of his Schola Cantorum thesis La centralisation et lespetites chapelles en musique, was in accordance with the prevalent views at theSchola and to some extent with the policies of Action fran?ºaise and CharlesMaurras, a patriotic campaigner for a strong hereditary monarchy that wouldallow significant regional autonomy. De Severac retained his intense localloyalties and interests, but not his sympathy with the Schola. Attitudes ofyounger composers underwent some change, particularly after the scandal at theConservatoire over the denial of the Prix de Rome to Ravel and the subsequentappointment of Gabriel Faure as director, and de Severac had more in commonwith Debussy and Ravel than with the perceived formalism of the Schola. He wasgreatly influenced by Isaac Albeniz, and completed Navarra, which Albeniz hadleft incomplete at his death in 1909, having earlier rejected it from hisIberia suite as descaradamente populachero (impudently vulgar).
De Severac wrote his suite Cerdana, described as FivePicturesque Studies for the Piano, between 1908 and 1911. The district known inFrench as the Cerdagne and in Spanish as Cerdana, straddling the French-Spanishborder in the Pyrenees, was originally the home of the Ceretani, from which itsname is derived. In later history it included three baronies, Ceret,St-Laurent-de-Cerdans and Puigcerd?á. The villages of the upper Cerdagne wereceded to France, together with Roussillon, in 1659, while the ancient capital,Llivia, designated a town and therefore exempted, remained and remains aSpanish enclave, its name derived from the classical Julia Livia. The five piecesof de Severac's suite start with En Tartane, arrival in the Cerdagne in atwo-wheel carriage. It begins in open admiration of the countryside, withmelodic hints of what is to come, as the journey moves rapidly on. The secondpiece Les f?¬tes is described as a reminiscence of Puigcerd?á, proclaimed thecapital of the Cerdana by Alfonso II in 1177 and on the Spanish side of thefrontier which passes through the region. The festival preparations starttentatively, soon leading to livelier music of clear local provenance, withpictorial allusions to the scene of celebration that passes, in a musicallanguage that often suggests that of Debussy, not least in the echo of adistant evening fanfare, as the piece draws to a close. The third of the set,Les menetriers et glaneuses, musicians and gleaners, depicts a pilgrimage toFont-Romeu, now a popular sports and ski resort. The chapel there once held atwelfth-century statue of the Blessed Virgin, while the place itself takes itsname from a spring. The musicians play their guitars and, as always, there ismore than a trace of Albeniz in the piano writing. In Les muletiers devant leChrist de Llivia, the muleteers before the statue of Christ at Llivia, thebells of the ancient fortified church are heard tolling in a vivid depiction ofthe scene, as the worshippers offer their moving prayers and petitions. In Leretour des muletiers the muleteers are heard travelling back over the mountainroads, in music essentially of the region, Catalonia and the Spanish Pyrenees,reflected through the prism of Paris.
The five piano pieces that constitute En Languedoc werewritten in 1903 and 1904. These are less specific in their geographicalreferences, offering more generalised musical illustrations of the region ofFrance known as Languedoc. Vers le mas en f?¬te leads to the farmstead where thefestival of the title is to be held, in often serene pianistic textures thatare very much an extension of the language of Debussy and, to a lesser extent,of Ravel. Sur l'etang, le soir, illustrates the calm scene on the pond in theevening in generally more transparent textures. This is followed by A cheval,dans la prairie, riding in the open country, graphically illustrated in therhythm, suggesting the lively movement of the horse, with an occasional pauseto survey the countryside, before cantering on. Coin de cimeti?¿re, auprintemps, a corner of the cemetery in spring, opens meditatively, moving onfrom serene contemplation in a country churchyard to a climax of romanticfeeling, before subsiding into its opening mood. The set ends with Le jour dela foire, au mas, fair-day at the farmstead. This offers a characteristicdepiction of the country fair, in piano textures from the world of Debussy andRavel, always with the suggestion of local colour drawn from de Severac's ownpart of France, the old province of Languedoc.