Francis Poulenc’s Defense of Marcelle Meyer in “Le Figaro”

Le Figaro, April 1945

I am writing in order that I might advocate for Mme Marcelle Meyer, one of the most truly authentic French pianists of our time. Many have taken issue with her of late because of her unfortunate appearance with the Berlin Chamber Orchestra during the Occupation performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major, K. 488 1 Many are even going so far as to argue against her allegiance to French music, against her very “Frenchness”. However, this article will demonstrate that her overall repertoire choice and her actual performance practice are truly authentic to French nationalism.

Meyer was born in Lille, France and began her studies with Marguerite Long at the Paris Conservatoire at the remarkably early age of 14. She then continued on with our mutual teacher Ricardo Viñes and with Alfred Cortot. The result was incredible technique and a variety of tonal colors, and all three influences come out in her playing. I first encountered Meyer during my own studies with Ricardo Viñes. Now, I consider myself quite the capable pianist. Yet after hearing Meyer perform – such incredible virtuosity and musicality! – I am ashamed to say that I let my ego get the better of me, so embarrassed was I of my own playing in comparison, that I arrogantly let her know that I was primarily a composer. 2 This first awkward encounter ended up working out quite serendipitously however, as we soon became close friends.

After becoming acquainted with the rest of Les Six, we took full advantage of her abilities and employed her to premiere many of our works. 3 She often premiered Milhaud, some examples being his Printemps, L’automne and Scaramouche. 4  I also had the honor of premiering my Sonata for Piano Four Hands with her shortly after meeting her in 1918. 5 I, myself was so inspired by her playing that I dedicated my Impromptus from 1922, which she also premiered wonderfully, and my Feuillets d’album from 1933 to her.

Marcelle Meyer soon became the champion pianist of Les Six and I believe this close familiarity with our music shaped her career as a French pianist. Truly, Meyer’s training and associates prove that she has the background of a true French musician, but the purpose of this article is to defend her playing and repertoire choice as authentic to French nationalism. Mme Meyer has performed a wide variety of outside of contemporary French literature, but has very purposefully steered away from 19th century music. 6 Indeed, it would be impossible for Meyer to successfully perform the likes of Beethoven and Schumann in Paris, as they so encapsulate the German aesthetic that we French musicians are looking to separate ourselves from.  Rather, Meyer is an advocate mainly for French and the universal composers, such as Bach and Mozart, composers praised by Debussy as capturing the French aesthetic. 7 Referring back to Meyer’s performance of Mozart, one cannot really fault her as if she were performing Beethoven or Liszt – indeed Mozart captures the French aesthetic in the same manner that I attempt to, by assembling already known compositional elements in a new order. 8  

Just listening to her perform Bach and Mozart’s works, it is difficult to believe that they truly were not French composers. This performance encapsulates many current French techniques that have arisen in reaction to German technique. Her attention to dotted rhythms and rhythmic precision is dissimilar from the mawkish overplaying found in the likes of Liszt. 9 Debussy himself calls for this type of performance in his article to the Le revue musicale, S.I.M, proclaiming, “Let us purify our music! Let us try to relieve its congestion, to find a less cluttered music.” 10 Though Debussy was referring to composition, the same could be said of the actual performance.

Listening to Meyer play, it is obvious that she is seeking to present the music simply as it is, without frivolity and excessively emotive playing. Her presentation of the dance suite is clear and precise, and she allows for the music to speak for itself.

Meyer has an incredible ability to capture the French spirit in her playing – she is precise and clear in her playing, yet calls to mind so many images through her tone production and sound quality. As one critic has said of her, “While listening to Miss Marcelle Meyer playing the piano one is made to think all the time of the play of light on surfaces – many-coloured but mostly bright surfaces.” 11 Though she didn’t herself write music and contribute to our repertoire, truly she is one of the most important contributors to French music of our generation.

-Francis Poulenc

 

1 Charles Timbrell, French Pianism: A Historical Perspective, (Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1999), 97

2  Francis Poulenc, Francis Poulenc: Articles and Interviews, (England: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2014), 97

3 Jonathan Summers, A-Z of Pianists (Naxos Educational, 2007), http://www.naxos.com/person/Marcelle_Meyer/43932.htm

4 Charles Timbrell, ibid., 96

5 Francis Poulenc, ibid., 54

6 Jonathan Summers, ibid.

7 Claude Debussy, Three Articles for Music Journals in Morgan, Source Readings in Music History, volume 7, The Twentieth Century, ed. Oliver Strunk (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998), 164-165.

8 Francis Poulenc, Présence, Vol. 1, Issue 1, October 1935,

9 David Korevaar, Perspectives on the Performance of French Piano Music, (Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2014), 79

10 Claude Debussy, ibid, 163.

11 Jonathan Summers, ibid.