French-American conductor David Grandis talks about discovering the music of French composer Max d’Ollone and championing his repertoire in the concert hall.

Regular readers of the Florent Schmitt Website + Blog know that occasionally we “relax the routine” a bit and delve into the artistry of other composers — particularly ones who lived and worked in the same time period as Schmitt.  (See, for example, these articles about Stravinsky, Ravel and Zandonai.)

Max d'Ollone French composer

A photo of French composer Max d’Ollone, taken about the time he won the Prix de Rome first prize for composition in 1897.

Another such person is Max d’Ollone, a French composer who was nearly an exact contemporary of Florent Schmitt. Schmitt lived from 1870 to 1958, whereas d’Ollone was born in 1875 and died in 1959, one year after Schmitt.

Not surprisingly, the two composers were well-acquainted as fellow students at the Paris Conservatoire — d’Ollone having entered the school at a younger age than Schmitt.  Both were students in Jules Massenet‘s composition class, but whereas Schmitt would soon shift to Gabriel Fauré’s class, d’Ollone remained one of Massenet’s prized pupils for several years.

Indeed, it was Massenet who encouraged the young Max d’Ollone to compete in the Prix de Rome competition.  He would do so three times, finally being awarded the first prize for composition in 1897 for his cantata Frédégonde. At only 25 years old, d’Ollone was one of the youngest recipients of the Prix de Rome award.

Interestingly, Schmitt and d’Ollone were rivals for the prize twice — not only in 1897 but also in the prior year when both composers competed for the prize with the cantata Mélusine.

Even though Schmitt was d’Ollone’s elder by five years, in this, his first attempt at the prize, it’s quite clear that Schmitt’s compositional “chops” weren’t nearly as polished as his younger colleague’s.  Even so, the newspaper Le Gaulois noted that although it was “incoherent, inexperienced and clumsy,” Schmitt’s score was also “very interesting, displaying true musicianship.”

The article concluded that Schmitt’s score was “very modern, very earnest, and composed spontaneously, rather than being put together to please the members of the Institut” (who were the judges of the competition).

Villa Medici, Rome

Villa Medici, Rome

Florent Schmitt would compete for the Prix de Rome a total of five times, finally winning the first prize in 1900. For this reason, Schmitt and d’Ollone’s time in Rome did not overlap.  (Among the benefits of winning the competition was a residency of 24 months at the Villa Medici along with a handsome monetary stipend, enabling the prizewinners to devote their entire energies to creative endeavors.)

Following their Prix de Rome experiences, the trajectory of Schmitt and d’Ollone’s musical development diverged somewhat. Whereas Schmitt was adventurous in the kind of music he created, d’Ollone stayed more true to the compositional style of the nineteenth century — and always keeping an emphasis on lyricism.  Following in the footsteps of his teacher Massenet, the younger composer created nearly a dozen operas, whereas Schmitt would write nary a single one during his seven decades-long career.

One similarity we see with both artists, however, was the relative neglect that befell their music following their deaths. For Florent Schmitt, a renaissance that began about 25 years ago has continued to gather momentum in recent times, whereas Max d’Ollone has not been so fortunate.

Today there are only a few commercial recordings that feature the music of d’Ollone.  One of them, however, is particularly significant.  It is a handsome, limited edition 150-page hardbound book housing two CDs containing newly made recordings of d’Ollone’s three Prix de Rome cantatas along with several unpublished orchestral and choral compositions.

Published in 2012 by Palazzetto Bru Zane as Volume 4 in its critically acclaimed Collection Prix de Rome series, this painstakingly researched, beautifully produced volume had a print run of just 3,000 copies — each one individually numbered.  (My own copy is ink-stamped 1,868.)

Max d'Ollone Collection Prix de Rome PBZ

One of the most interesting and worthy recording initiatives of the past decade, the Palezzetto Bru Zane’s Collection Prix de Rome has focused on a number of French composers from the late nineteenth century. In addition to Max d’Ollone, other volumes in the collection include Gustave Charpentier, Claude Debussy, Paul Dukas, Charles Gounod and Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns.

In addition to this very special volume, a CD containing several published d’Ollone scores of orchestral and concertante works with the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lawrence Foster was released a decade earlier on the Claves label, which is how the Franco-American conductor David Grandis became acquainted with Max d’Ollone and his creative output.

David Grandis orchestra conductor

David Grandis

A native of France, Maestro Grandis has made his musical career in the United States. At present, he is director of orchestras and professor of conducting at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.  He is also the artistic director and chief conductor of the Virginia Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble that is based in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.

True to his national and cultural heritage, Maestro Grandis has an abiding love for French classical music, including introducing less familiar composers and their compositions to concert-goers. One special passion is for the music of Max d’Ollone.  In addition to programming his works, Grandis has written about the composer and his artistry.

Among the fruits of Maestro Grandis’ labors are two upcoming concerts that will feature the music of d’Ollone. One is a chamber music concert where the composer’s 1921 Piano Trio in A Minor and his 1949 Piano Quartet in E Minor will be performed at the College of William and Mary on April 26, 2020.  The pianist Patrice d’Ollone, the composer’s grandson (and a composer in his own right), will be featured in this concert, along with the Ambrosia Quartet, a Tidewater-based ensemble whose members are musicians in the Virginia Symphony Orchestra.

William and Mary Symphony Orchestra

The William and Mary Symphony Orchestra

The following month, Maestro Grandis will present a concert of d’Ollone’s orchestral music with the William and Mary Symphony Orchestra in Richmond, Virginia (May 2, 2020). Patrice d’Ollone will participate in this concert as well, performing his grandfather’s Fantaisie for Piano & Orchestra along with one of his own concertante works.

Recognizing how unique and significant these upcoming concerts are — certainly in North America but internationally as well — I contacted David Grandis to ask him about his keen interest in this lesser-known French composer, as well as his efforts to introduce Max d’Ollone’s works to a new generation of music-lovers. Highlights of our very interesting discussion are presented below.

PLN: When did you first learn about the composer Max d’Ollone and his music?

DFG: I learned of Max d’Ollone while writing my thesis about French lyrical diction and discovered a few of his operas through the French national broadcasting archives (INA). He composed eleven operas in all [Le Passant (1889), Jean (1904), Le Retour (1911), L’Étrangère (1911), Les Amants de Rimini (1915), Les Uns et les autres (1922), L’Arlequin (1924), Olympe de Clèves (1929), Georges Dandin (1930), La Samaritaine (1937), and Sous le saule (1950)]. But there are recordings of just two of them available in the INA archives — Le Retour and La Samaritaine.

PLN: Which pieces by d’Ollone did you encounter first?  What special appeal did they have for you?

DFG: I looked into his symphonic production and could find only one recording of his music available — a disk on the Claves label with his Fantaisie for piano, Le Ménétrier for violin and orchestra, and his beautiful Lamento which I immediately fell in love with.  

I later discovered Les Villes maudites through the Palazzetto Bru Zane recording and found it equally fascinating.

PLN: How would you characterize the musical style of Max d’Ollone?  In what ways does it sound similar to the music of other French composers of the period … and in what ways is it different?

DFG: D’Ollone’s music shows an elegant Ravelian orchestration, delicate Fauréan harmonies, and sweeping melodic gestures typical of Massenet, his teacher.  

Jules Massenet Villa Medici 1865

A photograph of Jules Massenet (1842-1912), taken in his living quarters at the Villa Medici in 1865. Some 32 years later Massenet’s prize pupil, Max d’Ollone, would follow in his teacher’s footsteps by winning the Prix de Rome first prize for composition.

It isn’t particularly innovative music.  D’Ollone was rooted in a firm devotion to melody, and consequently his criticisms of atonality were quite harsh. He was not interested in creating a new language — or in stretching tonality like Charles Koechlin, Florent Schmitt or Albert Roussel were doing. His main concern was the beauty of the line.  

I’d say that he’s a lyrical composer in all his creations; he produced many art songs which are gaining more recognition in France these days as a successor of Fauré and Duparc.  

Gabriel Faure, French Composer

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)

And when I listen to his Piano Quartet in E Minor from 1949, I feel this is something Fauré could have composed had he lived longer into the 20th century. It seems to be an extension of Fauré’s ideals — perhaps more than Fauré’s students.

With Fauré being assiduously non-intrusive in his teaching style and respecting the personality of his students, it’s no surprise that Schmitt, Koechlin and Ladmirault all evolved in very different directions. But d’Ollone, who never studied with him, seems to me closer to what an evolution of Fauré’s style might well have been.

PLN: Max d’Ollone and Florent Schmitt are almost exact contemporaries.  How well did the two know one another?  In what ways did they interact — during the time of their studies, and also later on during the period of their most significant creative activity? 

DFG: They knew each other very well: they both competed for the Prix de Rome in 1896, and Max d’Ollone won second place, whereas Florent Schmitt did not receive any prize that year (he won the first prize five years later in 1900). Schmitt congratulated d’Ollone in a letter, writing, “With a slight tinge of selfishness, I am enchanted that you will remain my fellow student for a bit longer.” 

For his part, d’Ollone lauded Schmitt’s effort to respect the classicists and offered to play his Piano Quintet. I don’t know how long their relationship lasted, but I’d guess that their paths crossed often in the ensuing decades, with both of them Parisian-based and living until the late 1950s.

PLN: It seems that d’Ollone and Schmitt shared a similar fate following their deaths in that their music disappeared rather rapidly from the concert hall.  This was not the case with Debussy and Ravel, of course, but also with Dukas, Roussel, Honegger and others whose music survived them.  To what do you attribute this relative neglect?

DFG: Undoubtedly, it’s French people’s lack of interest in their own musical culture. It’s true that it was particularly difficult to exist as a composer next to such giants as Debussy and Ravel, but indeed, there were many exceptional composers in that period who deserve better recognition.  

Prix Heugel Jury 1927

A 1927 gathering of esteemed French composers (members of the Prix Heugel jury).

I find it pretty fascinating how Germany and Austria are different in that they have produced many geniuses but very few “little masters” (and I am reluctant to use these terms as they might sound condescending), but let us say “masters who are not necessarily on the same level of importance in the history of music as the milestone geniuses.” Zemlinsky, Schreker, Wolf, and maybe Franz Schmidt are rare examples.  

I cannot believe composers like Draeseke, Reinecke, Goldmark, Raff or Goetz can stand the comparison to Schmitt, Roussel, Koechlin, Dukas, Ropartz, Magnard and Cras in France, to name just some. And yet those composers are performed in Germany. In France, even Chausson and Lalo are not performed nearly as much as they should (and please, let’s program something else other than Chausson’s Poème or Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole!). 

However, salvation often comes from abroad; Sir Colin Davis was the first conductor to record Berlioz’s complete works. English audiences have been always appreciative of French music, and I feel it is the same in the United States. I never have any trouble programming unusual French pieces, and they often receive an enthusiastic response from the audience.  

It is necessary to encourage American conductors to go down this path and explore more within this wonderful repertoire!

PLN: Thankfully, in the past two decades Florent Schmitt’s music has been having a renaissance.  What have been the major milestones so far in efforts to reintroduce the compositions of Max d’Ollone to music-lovers?

Max d'Ollone Foster Claves

The Claves release of orchestral and concertante works by Max d’Ollone, with Lawrence Foster conducting the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra (2003).

DFG: Apart from the Claves disk and the excellent set from Palazzetto Bru Zane, it’s been next to nothing, I’m afraid. I haven’t noticed an opera by d’Ollone being programmed anywhere in France for several decades.

His symphonic music should have little trouble being incorporated in season programming and yet, nothing either. But the same can be said for many other French composers. When was the last time we heard Gabriel Dupont’s Chant de la destinée — or without going into a completely forgotten composer, Franck’s Le Chasseur maudit?  

There has been this persistent belief that programing should include mainly blockbuster pieces (Dvorak’s New World, Beethoven’s Fifth, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and so forth) along with generous lashings of Mahler and Shostakovich, in order to attract audiences. This strategy has mostly failed.  

Audiences might not even be familiar with some of the blockbuster works anymore in some cases, or be more inquisitive and desiring to discover new pieces. Now, unfortunately, programming is taking many ancillary parameters into consideration which can be more political than artistic — and this will be its next pitfall.

PLN: How about your personal efforts?  When did the d’Ollone mission begin for you, and what was the catalyst?

DFG: The mission for me started when I got in touch with Max d’Ollone’s grandson Patrice and discovered pieces that had never been performed in France since their creation, never been recorded, and certainly never performed in the U.S.

There is nothing sadder than worthwhile music material slowly crumbling on a shelf.

PLN: Can you tell us as bit about the Palazzetto Bru Zane project to record d’Ollone’s Prix de Rome cantatas and other unpublished music scores?  How did this project come about, and who were the prime movers behind it? 

Alexandre Dratwicki musicologist PBZ

Alexandre Dratwicki

DFG: This is an interesting story,  Alexandre Dratwicki, musicologist and artistic director of the PBZ,  initially contacted Patrice d’Ollone to gather some information regarding the French composer Henri Rabaud who had been a close friend of Max d’Ollone, but the conversation soon veered towards his grandfather’s manuscripts which Patrice hoped to have recorded, and also the fascinating correspondence d’Ollone had had with Massenet.  

Collection Prix de Rome PBZ

Several other volumes in the Collection Prix de Rome produced by Palazzetto Bru Zane.

Dratwicki’s efforts at PBZ were centered on the Prix de Rome creations of various composers like Henri Rabaud — but Rabaud turned out to be a bit less interesting than initially anticipated since he was awarded the Prix de Rome first prize at his very first attempt in 1894. On the other hand, d’Ollone competed for it three years in a row (1895, 1896, 1897), so there was significantly more Prix de Rome material to cover in his case.

PLN: What special challenges, if any, were there in preparing the scores for the PBZ recording?

DFG: Actually, D’Ollone’s manuscripts are very easy to read.  I cannot imagine that it was difficult for Symétrie to publish Les Villes maudites, for example, but I have heard it was a challenge for conductor Hervé Niquet to put the piece together with the orchestra in a relatively few rehearsals, pressed by the recording deadline.  

I’m currently working on Les Funérailles du poète (inspired by Victor Hugo’s funeral which Max d’Ollone attended in 1885 when he was ten years old) as well as Le Temple abandonné in preparation for our 2020 concerts.  I would say that similar to his Lamento, d’Ollone’s music is generally not too challenging for musicians to play, and nearly any orchestra could put it together in a limited number of rehearsals. Les Villes maudites is more difficult — but without approaching the level of difficulty of Koechlin or Schmitt’s works.

Max d'Ollone Prix de Rome cantatas PBZ Niquet

Prix de Rome cantatas and more: Palazzetto Bru Zane’s limited edition of Max d’Ollone’s music — Volume 4 in its acclaimed Collection Prix de Rome series.

PLN: The concerts you are organizing this coming April and May in Virginia will feature the music of Max d’Ollone, and several of them will also feature Patrice d’Ollone as pianist.  How did you become acquainted with the younger Mr. d’Ollone and how did the project develop to bring him to the United States to participate in these concerts?

Patrice d'Ollone pianist conductor

Patrice d’Ollone

DFG: I contacted Alexandre Dratwicki from PBZ and he kindly put me in touch with Patrice. I loved his interpretations of his grandfather’s chamber music and offered to do the Fantaisie with him.  

In addition, I wanted to write an article about d’Ollone’s symphonic output for the Conductors’ Guild, and Patrice showed me many pieces which had lain dormant and certainly have never been recorded. Pleased with hearing my performance of the Lamento with the William and Mary Symphony Orchestra that had been presented in 2017, Patrice accepted the invitation to join us for the 2020 concerts.

PLN: In addition to being a pianist, Patrice d’Ollone is also a composer, and you will be featuring several of his pieces in your May concert.  What can you tell us about those pieces?

DFG: While he is mainly a performing artist, Patrice has composed a few things — including soundtracks for documentaries — and I have found the same attachment to lyricism in the melodic line as in his grandfather’s pieces.  

Verdun France 1916

Verdun, France (1916) (Getty Images)

Two excerpts from a soundtrack for a French documentary on the Battle of Verdun plus a little Concertino for Piano & Orchestra sounded so much like Max d’Ollone, Fauré and Massenet, I thought they’d have an obvious place in the orchestral program. Reuniting grandfather and grandson seems profoundly natural!

PLN: Please tell us a bit about your background as a musician and conductor — how your interest developed, where you studied, what brought you to the United States and what your activities have been since arriving here.

DFG: I was born, raised and trained in France. I studied several instruments at the conservatory in my hometown of Nice, starting around the age of five.  

But I didn’t start thinking about pursuing a career in music until my high school graduation. This is when I started studying conducting with Pol Mule and Klaus Weise, who recommended that I continue my studies in this field in the United States. I always had a warm feelings for America, as my grandfather was a general in the French army, starting his career during the Second World War as a young officer with André Malraux, and I was raised with a sense of gratitude toward the Americans.  

David Grandis orchestra conductor

David Grandis conducts the Virginia Chamber Orchestra.

So I gladly went on to do a master’s degree at the University of Illinois with Donald Schleicher, obtained a performance diploma at Peabody in Baltimore with Gustav Meier and a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin with James Smith. In the meantime, I traveled back and forth in France to be assistant conductor at the Lyon National Opera and to guest conduct several French orchestras.  

On the personal front, I met my wife in the United States 18 years ago and decided to stay. My passion for teaching led me to William and Mary where I have been working for six years now, and I continue as chief conductor of the Virginia Chamber Orchestra which is based in the Washington DC area and which I have led since 2010.

PLN: Apart from your activities regarding the Max d’Ollone project, what other special initiatives have you been involved in or are on the horizon for you?

The Voice of France David Grandis

David Grandis’ book about lyrical diction in the French operatic tradition (original English edition, 2013).

DFG: Before the d’Ollone project, I was deeply involved in writing a book in English and translating it into my native French about lyrical diction in the French operatic repertoire. I worked with many famous Francophone singers on this project, trying to document what has been lost and how to recover it. A few of these artists are certainly known to American audiences, having sung many times at the MET — people like Gabriel Bacquier, Michel Sénéchal and José van Dam. 

A la recherche du chant perdu David Grandis

… and the French translation.

I have always had a strong affinity with the French musical aesthetic, intuitively understanding Debussy, Ravel — and most of all Fauré. But it took me a longer time to understand what the French idiom really was and why it was so instinctive in me.  It is not enough to be born in a country; you have to earn its culture, and it takes a lot of time to deeply appreciate it and have a global vision.  

Si Versailles m'etait conte movie poster

A vintage poster for the 1950s-era TV mini-series Si Versailles m’était conté (Royal Affairs in Versailles), featuring the music of Jean Françaix.

This is not a fashionable view in France right now, since some politicians deny the fact that there is a distinct “French” culture. To cite a personal example, last year I decided to perform a short excerpt from a score by Jean Françaix.  It was from the soundtrack to a  TV mini-series from the 1950s called Si Versailles m’était conté — more precisely, the grand finale entitled À toutes les gloires de la France. Apparently, it had never been performed again since Georges Tzipine’s EMI recording in 1958.  

The publisher had lost the full score, and since it would be expensive to redo it, the publisher was hesitant. I thought the only way to force the issue would be to contact Jean Françaix’s son. Deus ex machina, I discovered that a new brother-in-law was actually a cousin of Jacques Françaix and I was able to contact him successfully. The publisher was sufficiently embarrassed, the score was remade from the material, and we performed it. I was glad to contribute to the saving of this music material. 

As I mentioned before, I’ve found American audiences to be quite open to hearing less familiar French repertoire. In the past few years I’ve conducted many French works which are rarely performed — pieces like Rabaud’s La Procéssion nocturne, Schmitt’s Soirs, d’Indy’s Fantasy on French Popular Themes, Caplet’s The Masque of the Red Death, plus Lalo’s Namouna, Le Roi d’Ys Overture and Piano Concerto.

Looking ahead, Chabrier’s Gwendoline Overture is on the horizon and maybe also Caplet’s Le Miroir de Jésus. Cras, Gaubert, Ropartz and Magnard are also possibilities, but their music is not as easy for students. This is one reason why I’ve felt the need to avoid much of Schmitt and Koechlin, but I would really love to conduct scores like La Tragédie de Salomé and Koechlin’s Vers la voûte étoilée. 

Michel Plasson French orchestra conductor

Michel Plasson

Schmitt’s Salome is a particular favorite.  I’ve never conducted the piece in concert, but I covered several rehearsals of Michel Plasson when he performed it with the Toulouse Capitole Orchestra in 2003. It is one of my fondest conducting memories. I had studied the score for two months and knew it by heart — and by that I mean I was actually able to rewrite many passages on blank paper from memory. I devoted eight hours a day on this piece for two solid months. As you can tell, I was very passionate about this work!

PLN: In closing, what are the most important aspects of Max d’Ollone’s artistry that music-lovers of today should recognize about this French composer from 100+ years ago?

DFG: I think one of the most important aspects is what I call “the cult of melody,” inherited from Rameau, Gounod, Bizet, Saint-Saëns, Massenet and Fauré. Some scholars might argue that the pinnacle of French culture was during the reign of Louis XIV, but I disagree.  The period from the Second Empire to the First World War (roughly 1850 to 1920) produced a plethora of geniuses — not only in music but also in the visual arts and in literature.  And this also happens to be the period I personally prefer.  Performing and listening to d’Ollone’s music is one more opportunity to reunite with this era.  

Max d'Ollone French composer

Max d’Ollone (1875-1959)

We are changing, our societies are changing, everything is accelerating, and the place for beauty — and by extension the place for truth, reason and wisdom — is shrinking a little more every day. Words do not mean the same things anymore; they’re mutating — like the word “music” doesn’t really mean what it used to mean. Fewer people seem to understand its link to silence.  

Politics and social neuroses are heavily interfering as well. In light of these trends, performing and listening to good music is in some sense an act of rebellion as much as an act of faith.  

As for myself, I cannot relate to someone who would consider a Bruckner symphony too long, a Prokofiev work too brainy, or a piece by Debussy too meditative. On the contrary, these are different forms of wisdom coming from different cultures built upon centuries of maturation.  They are all pieces in the grand puzzle — and they might help people understand more than they ever sought to know.

____________________

We are indebted to David Grandis for championing the music of Max d’Ollone — one of numerous composers from France’s “Golden Age” whose catalogue of works is in need of resurrection. Music-lovers located near to Richmond and Tidewater Virginia should make every effort to attend the 2020 concerts.  No doubt they will be in for some very fine music-making.

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