Born Henri Pierre Poupard on May 18, 1901, in Bordeaux, France; died on June 21, 1989, in Paris, France. Education: Studed the organ with Paul Combes; studied composition with Joseph Canteloube and Charles Koechlin.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Henri Sauguet never agonized over a perceived need to expand musical language, a concern so typical of twentieth-century composers. While others were developing, or following, the many "isms," gimmicks, fads, and schools of composition, Sauguet simply wrote music. To him, music was not merely a way of life: it was life itself; and, in his mind, the mystery of music could not be codified, analyzed, or forced into a lifeless intellectual frame of reference. Indeed, upon entering the vast, intriguing, variegated world of Sauguet's music, the listener experiences a feeling of joyful anticipation, akin to a traveler's dream of a realm of many wonders. Indeed, working in a plethora of genres, including songs, chamber music, delicate instrumental vignettes, and thought-provoking symphonic compositions, Sauguet offers us a rich, multifaceted, almost kaleidoscopic vision of life, a musical vision which, engaging the full sonic potential of tonal, and harmonic, color and depth, translates the composer passionate experience of life into an accessible, charming, authoritative, and irresistible musical language.

If true music, essentially, is devoid of bombast, declarative fervor, intellectual pretense, and pontificating narration, then Sauguet exemplifies the quintessential musician. Unforunately, because it does not lend itself to intellectual scrutiny and analytical obsessiveness, his music has been criticized as exceedingly spontaneous--to the to point of ignoring the hierarchical universe of musical aesthetics. Thus, for example, in a 1938 article, the eminent French philosopher and music critic Gabriel Marcel upbraided Sauguet and other composers of his generation for yielding to inspiration and diffuse creative impulses, thereby supposedly failing to rise above a certain materiality, which, in the philosopher's opinion, diminishes a work of art. The ever-inquisitive and open-minded Sauguet, who not only wrote for such "lowbrow" media as film, radio, and television, and even experimented with concrete music [a combination of recorded natural sounds, which may be modified or altered] would have probably agreed with Marcel's assessment. Nevertheless the assessment is unfair. True, there is something uncanny about Sauguet's facility and spontaneity, but his astonishing fluency never burdens the listener with banality or superficiality. Critics who believe that great music must transcend its material, physical nature to attain the purity of a spiritual statement are mistaken, for music, as Sauguet's works exemplify best, is spiritual and material at the same time.

When commentators are asked to describe Sauguet's music, they often invoke his verve, charm, energy, lightness of touch, and, above all, his spontaneity. Playful, disarming, and almost scintillating, Sauguet's spontaneity is far from a manifestation of blind, unthinking facility, for his compositions, whether they be brief flashes of inspiration or thought-out and thought-provoking symphonic pieces, reveal the unavoidable impatience of an artist who has too much to say. In essence, Sauguet's music provides glimpses of his immensely rich inner world: a charming miniature may reflect an atmospheric moment, or a fleeting mood; a symphony may reveal a deep contemplative struggle.

Thus, for example, his gentle, delicate, dreamy, diaphanous Six Easy Pieces for flute and guitar beautifully conjure an atmosphere of grace, elegance, bittersweet longing, and repose. An entirely different, but hardly atypical, work is his profoundly contemplative, even metaphysicial, Symphony No. 4, in which Sauguet meditates about old age with a gentle forcefulness, revealing the experience of old age in its tremendous, tragic, overwhelming, and yet profoundly human immenseness, allowing us to feel the mystery of mortality in our bones.

Born Henri Pierre Poupard in 1901 in Bordeaux, the composer studied the piano as a young boy and worked in his teens as an organist and choirmaster. Recognizing composition as his vocation, he went to Montauban, where he started working with Joseph Canteloube in 1919. There, a teacher and kindred soul acquainted the young composer with the works of Darius Milhaud, Erik Satie, and Charles Koechlin. As a result, Poupard started corresponding with Milhaud. Knowing that his businessman father wanted to keep the family name untainted by an "undignified" profession, the composer took his mother's maiden name, presenting himself as Henri Sauguet at his first concert, with two colleagues, in 1920.

Intrigued by the young man's intensity and enthusiasm, Milhaud invited Sauguet to Paris, in 1922. Thanks to his friendship, Sauguet was warmly received by the artistic elite of Paris. He met Jean Cocteau and Max Jacob, writers whose work he admired, and established ties with the composers known as "Les Six." He also welcomed the influence of Erik Satie, the original, highly eccentric composer, who, just like Sauguet, combined an extraordinary sense of humor with a lucid style. Always eager to learn, Sauguet, following Milhaud's advice, studied composition with Charles Koechlin until 1927.

While Sauguet openly declared his debt to older composers, the works that first established him as successful composer in the 1920s, reveal an original, self-assured artist. Interestingly, Sauguet's first success was a comic opera, Le plumet du colonel (The colonel's plume), produced in 1924, in which one hears not only echoes of Satie's austere style but also the influence, frankly acknowledged by Sauguet, of Richard Strauss's opulent orchestrations. By 1927, when his first ballet, La chatte (The cat), a work composed for the Ballets Russes, triumphed in Paris, Sauguet had established himself as a composer for the stage.

In 1936, after a decade of work, Sauguet completed the opera La chartreuse de Parme (The charterhouse of Parma), which was produced in Paris in 1939. Sauguet's most ambitious work, this opera, with its traditional melodiousness, seems almost at odds with his the clarity and concision of his earlier style. Upon scrutiny, however, Sauguet's seemingly traditional works, including the opera La gageure imprélvue (The unexpected challenge), an evocation of rococo charm, do not evince a spirit of sentimental regression but simply reveal a particular aspect of Sauguet's complex genius.

Released from military service after a short period, Sauguet resumed his work, using his influence as an eminent composer to help his Jewish friends. Deeply saddened by the tragic events of World War II, Sauguet turned to themes of sorrow, atonement, and solitude. Exemplifying the composer's deep awareness of human fragility is the ballet Les mirages, a poignant evocation of solitude. In 1945, the year the war ended, Sauguet completed his Symphony No. 1, known as "Expiatoire" (Expiatory), a moving musical tribute to the war's innocent victims. In the following years, Sauguet composed some of his most magnificent music. The death of his mother in 1947, inspired his profoundly spiritual String Quartet No. 2; a year later, he wrote the song cycle Visions infernales, a haunting setting of poems by his friend Max Jacob, who had died in a concentration camp.

It seems absurd to talk of a "late period" in Sauget's career, for his irrepressible creative impulse drove him constantly to ambitious musical projects, including operas and symphonies. Furthermore, he composed with the energy and enthusiasm of a young man starting his musical career. Thus, even in the Symphony No. 4 (1971), a serious meditation on old age, the listener discerns an unmistakably youthful spirit of insatiable curiosity. Sauguet also wrote about music, working as a music critic throughout the 1930s and 1940s. He founded the Union des Compositeurs, also devoting his time to Una Voce, an organization that works to preserve Latin and traditional chant in the Roman Catholic liturgy. Sauguet died in 1989; an autobiography, Musique, ma vie (Music, my life) was published in 1990.

by Zoran Minderovic

Henri Sauguet's Career

Organist and choirmaster; composer; worked as music critic and journalist from 1929 to the late 1940s; served as president of several organizations, including l'Avadémie du disque franç:ais, l'Union des compositeurs, and Una Voce.

Henri Sauguet's Awards

Elected to l'Académie des Beaux Arts, 1976.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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