Rediscovering Roger Désormière

Alan Sanders pens a portrait of Roger Désormière, one of France’s great hopes, whose career was cut short following a car crash in March 1953 which left him paralysed.

During the period of fifteen or so years after the end of World War II an unusually high number of front-rank musical performers met their deaths at an early age – the conductors Ataúlfo Argenta and Guido Cantelli; the pianists Dinu Lipatti, Noël Mewton-Wood and William Kapell; the violinists Ginette Neveu and Ossy Renardy, and the horn player Dennis Brain. To their number must be added another conductor, Roger Désormière, whose active musical life ended at the age of 53 on 7 March 1952, when he suffered a stroke whilst driving a car in Rome. Crucially he was left without the power of speech: the only word he could utter was ‘non’. He lived for another eleven years, shutting himself away from the world, frustrated and distressed that he could not communicate adequately. It was an abrupt and sad end to a career that had been in full blossom. It might in fact have been overwork that contributed to Désormière’s predicament, since for years he had kept up a relentlessly busy schedule.

Conducting had not been Désormière’s original destiny. At the Paris Conservatoire he studied composition with Vincent d’Indy, and the flute with the renowned Philippe Gaubert, and it was as a flautist that he commenced his professional career. Though he received encouragement from his seniors and Erik Satie in particular, it could well have been his teacher’s example that influenced Désormière’s change of career, for after having been a leading flautist from an early age, Gaubert started conducting in his mid-twenties and soon secured a post at the Paris Opéra, becoming chief conductor of the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in 1929.

An important breakthrough for Désormière came when he was engaged to conduct the prestigious Soirées de Paris season in Paris in 1924, when he directed the first performances of Satie’s Mercure, Milhaud’s Salade and his own arrangement of Johann Strauss’s music, Le beau Danube. In that same year, as Chief Conductor in Paris of the Swedish Ballet, he conducted the premiere of Satie’s Relâche, a production that attracted great publicity. Not surprisingly he now came to the attention of the great ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev, who engaged him for tours of Europe with his famous Ballets Russes. He conducted productions of works by, among others, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Poulenc, Auric and Sauguet. He built professional and personal relationships with all these composers, who admired his skilful and faithful interpretations of their works: in Parisian artistic circles he became known affectionately as ‘Déso’.

The death of Diaghilev in 1929 was a setback, but Désormière had now become a conductor of international repute, and he worked in several European centres, though his first loyalty continued to be towards his beloved Paris. Parallel to his activities as a champion of contemporary music he had developed an interest in early music, particularly that of French origin, and he directed performances at the Concerts Pleyel, which had been founded by the conductor Désiré-Emile Inghelbrecht to perform music from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. In 1930 he became artistic director of the Societé de Musique d’Autrefois, whose repertoire ranged from the thirteenth century to the eighteenth. His studies at the Conservatoire with d’Indy were also now put to use for the purpose of writing several film scores. Then in 1936 he was contracted to conduct at the Paris Opéra-Comique.

His commercial recording activity was extensive, but he was never attached to any one label or company. Before the war his interest in reviving old music was reflected in recordings for the philanthropist Louise Hanson-Dyer’s Oiseau-Lyre label, of works by such composers as Rameau (he made orchestral suites from the opera Le Paladins), Campra and other French composers of that era. And a 1938 Chant du Monde recording of Milhaud’s Suite provençale with the uncredited Orchestra National was an early example of how he championed the music of composer friends on record. When France became occupied by the Nazis in 1940 Désormìere stayed in Paris and remained very active, supporting the daringly provocative Front National des Musiciens and championing the music of his homeland while largely eschewing German works. His left-wing political sympathies had of course to be suppressed for the time being. He continued to work at the Opéra-Comique, while at the Paris Opéra he specialised in conducting contemporary ballet scores. Many regard his premiere 1941 recording of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande with Jacques Jansen as Pelléas and Irène Joachim as Mélisande not only as his greatest achievement on record, but still the finest performance of that opera on disc. For L’Association Française d’Action Artistique he made 1943 recordings of Messaien’s Les offrandes oubliées and works by his close friend Henri Sauguet and by Henri Barraud.

Just eight months after the liberation of Paris in August 1944 Désormière gave a talk on the BBC’s Music Magazine radio program, outlining plans for post-war productions in Paris opera houses and theatres. After World War II finally came to an end he continued to support compatriot composers, giving the first French performances of Messaien’s Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine (which he then recorded) and the Turangalîla-Symphonie. He even premiered the young Pierre Boulez’s avant-garde work, Le soleil des eaux. He also sought to revive his international career, and in particular he strengthened his relationship with the BBC, for whom he conducted numerous broadcast concerts on the new Third Programme, directing mostly eighteenth-century French or twentieth-century repertoire. On 18 May 1947, for instance, he directed the Philharmonia Orchestra in a program which included Messaien’s Trois petites liturgies and Sauguet’s La voyant, with his wartime Mélisande Irène Joachim as soloist, and six days later he was heard with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a studio concert that included Dukas’s La péri, excerpts for Chabrier’s opera Gwendoline and what was probably the first UK performance of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements.

On that same visit to London he undertook his only recording assignment for Decca in the UK, when on a single day, 15 May, he conducted a session which comprised Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants and Patrie Overture, Debussy’s Marche écossaise and Chabrier’s Habanera, in Kingsway Hall, with Sidney Beer’s body of freelance players, the National Symphony Orchestra. In charge of the session were the producer Victor Olof, previously a violinist and leader of the Victor Olof Sextet, and the engineer Kenneth Wilkinson. Both men had been working for Decca since the advent of the company’s new ‘full frequency range recording technique’ in 1944 and both would enjoy distinguished careers in the years to come. Olof’s arrival must have been delayed, since the first item, Jeux d’enfants, was produced by a junior colleague, Terence Gibbs, who worked for Decca between 1945 and 1947 and then pursued a career as producer in Canada with the Canadian Broadcasting Company.

The same recording team of Olof and Wilkinson were in charge on 24 and 25 May 1948 in Paris’s Maison de la Mutualité, when Désormière conducted the Paris Conservatoire in a program of arias and songs sung by Janine Micheau. Micheau was then 34 years old and had embarked on a successful international career as both a lyric and a coloratura soprano. She would soon play leading roles in complete Decca recordings of Thomas’s Mignon and Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette – also Massenet’s Manon.

During the transition period between the demise of the 78rpm disc and the establishment of the long-playing record Désormière made an important group of recordings of French music for Supraphon with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Sviatoslav Richter famously described his version of Debussy’s La Mer as the most beautiful recording of anything that had ever been made. His recording of the Franck Symphony by a body named as the Paris Philharmonic Orchestra also rather curiously appeared on the Supraphon label. Noteworthy too were a short series of Russian works recorded for the American Capitol label in Paris; also Hindemith’s Violin Concerto with Henri Merckel, issued by French HMV, and Bartók’s Rhapsody with Andor Foldes as piano soloist, published on the Vox label.

On 21 and 22 February 1950 Désormière returned to the Maison de la Mutualité to record the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra for Decca in music that was very much in his blood as a ballet conductor – the suites from Delibes’s Coppélia and Sylvia and a selection from Chopin’s Les Sylphides. Many judges have regarded the Delibes performances as unsurpassed for their rhythmic sensibilities and for their mastery of style.

Désormière’s final Decca sessions took place in the same venue with the young John Culshaw as producer, between 15 and 20 June 1951. Ippolitov-Ivanov’s descriptive, once quite popular Caucasian Sketches Suite No. 1 is the odd item out in a group of works otherwise composed for the theatre. Of the recording of his Les Biches Poulenc later wrote: ‘No one will ever conduct this work as perfectly as Désormière. His recording captures the whole flavour of Les Biches in all its cynical freshness’.

It seems certain that if his career had not suddenly come to an end Désormière would have achieved much greater international fame and would have made many more important recordings. He was in tune with changing times in that he was a ‘modern’ conductor who sought to present a composer’s vision clearly and directly without the imposition of any spurious personal expression. With that directness also came notable qualities of spontaneity and vitality.

Désormière’s recorded music-making has not dated. It springs to life as vividly now as it did for listeners in his own era.