Elsa Barraine: Symphony no. 2

performed by the Orchestre National de la RTF under Jean Martinon, or below by somebody under Manuel Rosenthal

The music of Elsa Barraine wins over its listeners by a contrapuntal independence of line, virtuosity, and expressive intensity through motivic and rhythmic drive.

James Briscoe

(cover image by Alistair MacRobert)

Elsa Jacqueline Barraine was born on February 13, 1910 in Paris. Her father was principal cellist of the Orchestre de l’Opera. She began studying piano at a young age, and eventually began attending the Paris Conservatoire, where she studied with Paul Dukas. She later became good friends with Olivier Messiaen, who we’ll be seeing shortly.

She won 1st place in harmony at the conservatoire in 1925 at the age of only 15, and if that weren’t enough, later did so for both fugue and accompaniment at 17. She was awarded the coveted Prix de Rome in 1929 for a cantata, making her at the time only the fourth woman ever to receive the award in its history.

For four years, beginning in 1936, she worked at the French National Radio as pianist, sound recordist and “head of singing,” then later as sound mixer. From 1944 to 1947 she was the recording director of record label Le Chant du Monde, and began teaching at the Paris Conservatoire in 1953, which she did for nearly 20 years.

Her second symphony dates from 1938. It is in three movements, as below, with a playing time of a little under 20 minutes:

  1. Lento- Allegro vivace
  2. Marche funebre
  3. Finale: Allegretto

After a very brief lento introduction, the allegro enters. The lento is barely even a complete thought before the unabashedly neoclassical nature of the allegro vivace appears. It may seem meandering, even circus-like, at times, but there’s an underlying sense, in the recording I have, of at least a little sarcasm, like a bit of veiled menace we might hear from Shostakovich.

The first movement, at more than nine minutes (in Martinon’s recording), makes up for more than half of the work’s playing time, and that truncated lento thought seems, satisfyingly, to appear in the development, or at least be referred to. There’s a sense that the first movement is over, but there’s this whole epilogue, it seems, that feels like more than a coda, far too long a ‘tail’ for a movement of this size, where it feels like we’re finally getting to the ‘destination’ of what this lively movement is about.

The central funeral march is the shortest of the three movements, and I’m not sure I’d ever listen to it and think ‘march’, but it certainly is somber. I almost can’t even say ‘mournful’ because that would imply a kind of sorrow a la Barber’s adagio, which this certainly doesn’t have. It’s harder, more guarded.

The finale begins much more like what you’d expect a neoclassical work to sound like, lighter and more playful than the first movement, but with spurts of bombast and echoes of the main theme of the first movement. The structure seems much more transparent here, with delineated transitions between themes, and clear references to the material from the first movement to tie everything together.

The spirit of this work doesn’t suit a larger form. This work wouldn’t be able to support its own weight were it 30+ minutes or something. I’m not saying it’s dainty. While the finale has some sweetly soft passages, it (and the work as a whole) contains some moments of real, lean power.

Something that really makes a work like this for me is the texture of the orchestration: a smaller orchestra, transparency, the more compact sound, and so I wish the sound quality of this recording (or the only other one I think that exists) were better. It’s old and a bit tinny. The final gestures of the finale give us some punch, and it comes through, but I’d love to hear this in a modern recording, with the full palette of sounds and texture. Maybe soon.

It’s a charming work that carries with it some emotional weight and plenty of talent, and is a piece that I might indeed find myself coming back to semi-regularly (if only we had a better quality recording… C’est la vie).

Our big, busy week of posts is almost finished, but we have a revisit tomorrow before we get to our final week of French music, so please stay tuned and thank you very much for reading.

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