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Pierre-Octave Ferroud (1900-1936)

Michel Debost | November 2012

    It was a brutal shock for the French musical milieu when in August 1936 news of Pierre-Octave Ferroud’s accidental death reached Paris. Ferroud had been traveling by car in Hungary on his way to visit Belá Bartók. Apparently, the car crashed in Debrecen, and he was decapitated.
    Francis Poulenc was especially moved by this tragic month of August 1936. The Spanish Civil War was raging, the poet Federico García Lorca was murdered, and there was an unfounded rumor that Manuel de Falla had also been a victim. Poulenc wrote to his Groupe des Six friend Georges Auric, “Ferroud’s death has greatly distressed me – from every point of view. Think of the vacuum of such a body of work once the author has disappeared…. The atrocious decapitation of this musician of such strength struck me with stupor. Thinking of the small weight of our human envelope, spiritual life attracted me anew. Rocamadour (where Poulenc composed the Litanies de la Vierge Noire) brought me back to the faith of my childhood.”
    Ferroud was only 36 years old when he died. He was active as writer and founder of Le Triton (the Tritone – the augmented 4th also called Diabolus in Musica for its dissonance and for this reason emblematic of atonal music). This society, founded in 1932, was run by composers (Poulenc, Bartók, Martinu, Barraud, Prokofiev, Rivier et al.) and presented world premières by Roussel, Honegger, Milhaud, Ibert, Messiæn, Prokofiev, Bartók, Shulhoff and Hindemith.
    Today, Ferroud’s music is being rediscovered. He was already a prolific composer when he died, having had performances of his Symphonie en Fa, which Prokofiev praised, Le Porcher (The Swine Keeper) a ballet, a string quartet, songs, and various chamber and instrumental scores, among them Trois pièces (orientales) pour Flûte seule.
    The Trois pièces pour Flûte seule have a special meaning for me. I discovered them by chance. In the 1940s, few flutists knew about them. In 1961, I chose to program them as part of my recital at the semi-final round of the Geneva Competition. I was told that they contributed to my winning this event, receiving engagements, and a gold Rolex that I still wear. When Walfrid Kujala invited me to perform at the second NFA Convention in Pittsburg in 1974, I programmed them once again. The reception was flattering for these unknown vignettes.
    Like many of his contemporaries, Ferroud was influenced by orientalism and its musical modes. In 1922 he was a student in Lyon when he wrote these pieces which call upon all the flute’s registers, colors and dynamics. The music is in turn languorous, rhythmic, and virtuosic, and has remained a staple in flute repertoire.
    As a professor, I was often disappointed that flutists have little curiosity about the music they practice. I used to ask my students to research the title of their works-in-progress as a clue for interpretation. The second movement of the Trois pièces pour Flûte seule is Jade, the semi-precious stone material of many Chinese artifacts, no problem here. However, the first movement, Bergère Captive, required more information. One of my Oberlin students must have looked it up in a dictionary and came up with “Captive Armchair.” The whole studio and I were amused. I looked it up myself in the Oxford English/French Dictionary, and found, as I thought, that “Bergère” means “Shepherdess,” implying the lament of some Chinese warlord’s forlorn prisoner, but, true enough, a bergère is also a classic shape for a comfortably padded French 18th century chair with arm rests.

    Things get more complicated with the third movement Toan-Yan, subtitled La Fête du Double Cinq (The Celebration of the Double Five). The footnote by the composer reads, “The Double Five is the celebration of the 5th day of the 5th month, dedicated to the commemoration of a hero who threw himself into water instead of undergoing military dishonor. This solemnity is marked with dances in turn mystical and ardent, which symbolize the contrast between peace and war.”
    Another footnote at the bottom of the second page of this movement reads, “This is an authentic Chinese theme played on the large recorder – each Chinese instrument having the monopoly of certain themes, by its shape, its fingerings or its range. It must be chanted with extreme simplicity, and with a very imprecise rhythm.” This piece is made using synthetic scales which are close relatives of the modal system. Ferroud was an admirer of Belá Bartók and may have well been inspired by the use of synthetic scales which Bartok had discovered in his folk song research. The use of modes is a familiar characteristic of music written during the first half of the 20th century. Trois pièces pour Flûte seule is a beautiful glimpse into Ferroud’s creative world.