Henri Sauguet

Henri Sauguet (1901-1989) was one of the most important composers, writers, and thinkers on French art and music in the latter half of the 20th century. He contributed notable works in all musical genres, particularly ballet and opera. He was the most important heir of the compositional style of Erik Satie, which was characterized by clarity and simplicity.

Henri Sauguet was born in Bordeaux, France, on May 18, 1901. As a young child Sauguet studied piano and was attracted to the music of Bizet, Schumann, and Debussy. He received organ lessons from Paul Combes, and after a brief appointment as an organist at a local church he studied composition under J. P. Vaubourgoin and Joseph Canteloube. He soon became interested in the music of Igor Stravinsky and Erik Satie.

After reading Jean Cocteau's Le Coq et l'arlequin, the most important work of this literary Dadaist, Sauguet organized the Bordeaux counterpart to the Parisian "Les Six." "Les Trois" consisted of Sauguet, the composer J. M. Lizotte, and the poet Louis Emié. Sauguet actively corresponded with Darius Milhaud, who encouraged his compositional endeavors. In 1923 he produced his first collection, Trois Françaises for piano, which reflected the influence of Satie with its spontaneity, simple lines, and tender emotions.

Later that year Sauguet relocated to Paris, where he became involved with the "École d'Arcueil," a collaborative group whose members included Cliquet-Pleyel, Maxime (Don Clement) Jacob, and Desormie‧re. The group, named in honor of Satie's place of birth, gave their inaugural concert at the Sorbonne with the assistance of both Satie and Cocteau. As a result of this successful presentation, Sauguet received his first major commission for stage. When Le Plumet du colonel was presented on a double bill with Stravinsky's L'Histoire du soldat at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Stravinsky congratulated the young Sauguet: "22 years old; that's good… . Don't search for yourself. You've already found yourself … but work hard, and seriously."

Sauguet excelled as a writer for the stage. His second commission, Les Roses (1924), was technically cohesive and critically successful. La Chatte (1927), danced by Balanchine, was a major success for Sergei Diaghilev and considerably furthered Sauguet's reputation as a composer. It was followed by David, written and danced by Ida Rubinstein, and La Nuit (1930), presented in London, based on a scenario by Kochno, with choreography by Lifar and scenery by Bérard. These led to the culmination of his stage work, Les Fourains (1945), first performed by Petit's company. Based on the story of a melancholy yet hopeful troop of traveling players, the work captured the playful manner of Chabrier.

Sauguet also wrote notable operatic works. After Le Plumet du colonel, Sauguet produced La Contrebasse in 1930, an opera buffa by Troyat, after a story by Chekhov. It was successfully revived in 1981. His La Chartreuse de Parme (1927-1936) remains his best work in this genre. While it has been described as a somewhat "featureless" work, it was directly emotional, containing the simple, flowing, melodic lines which perfectly embody the French sentiment of that period. La Chartreuse de Parme, revised for the Winter Olympic Games in Grenoble, France, in 1968, was well received.

Sauguet's chamber and orchestral works tended to be programmatic. The first of his four symphonies, Expiatoire (1945), was a heartfelt lament for the victims of World War II; Concert des mondes souterrains (1961-1963) suggested the dripping water and strange lights of an underground grotto; Melodie concertante (1964), written for the famous cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, tried to recapture the vision of a young female cellist whose expressive interpretation of Debussy's music touched the composer in his youth; and Suite Royale, written and performed by Sylvia Marlowe in 1962, was reminiscent of the harpsichord suites of the 18th century and recalls the brief and tragic life of Marie Antoinette. The themes were tender and moving.

Satie was an important link in the genesis of the modern French symphony. Except for the two symphonies by Dom Clement Jacob (Maxime Jacob's name after he received religious orders), Sauguet's four works were the only embodiment of Satie's style in this genre.

Sauguet's career was marked by individuality. A neoromantic, he continued to write emotional music of unusual expressivity throughout his career. Sauguet avoided complicated and cluttered structures, preferring clarity and simplicity to create mood. According to the composer, art was saying something in everyday words that no one had ever said before.

Sauguet continued as a strong voice in the arts until his death in 1989.


Further Reading on Henri Sauguet

Sauguet remained active as a composer, writer, and thinker of French art and music as an octogenarian. A member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts beginning in 1975, Sauguet contributed articles to the Courrier de Musique France (no. 38, 1972) and Revue de Musicologie (nos. 316-317, 1978). Two biographies were available, one by M. Schneider (Paris, 1959) and one by F. Y. Bril (Paris, 1967). Information on the composer may also be obtained from Henri Sauguet: A Bio-Bibliography (Bio-Bibliographies in Music, No 39) by David L. Austin (1991).