Jaques Ibert and the consequences
by Anja Weinberger
Jaques Ibert, although he created so many beautiful things, is one of the great unknowns in the history of music. What a pity!
“Ibert’s work, which is so multifaceted and must be counted among the most important, albeit inconsequential, representatives of the interwar period, combines some of the best French virtues: occasional flashes of discreet humor, a sense of form in small-format piano and chamber music, and a sense of balanced proportion in expansive symphonic movements.” So much for the musicologist Jens Rosteck, a specialist in recent French music – and literary history.
And further: “Already in the 1920s, Ibert had predominantly stayed away from the national avant-garde and distinguished himself with neo-impressionist orchestral works and cantatas; and although characteristics such as eclecticism, heterogeneity, neo-classicism were in vogue at the time, he … never counted among the iconoclasts of the années folles … . The pictorially picturesque … composition titles suggest, moreover, that he was as good as uninterested in anarchistic, quasi-dadaistic pronouncements and the partial dissolution of contexts of meaning.”
This could mean the following: Jaques Ibert, who lived and composed in this vibrant time of upheaval and new beginnings, didn’t have enough rough edges to poke at. Perhaps he was a “bore” or an “eternally-strict”?
Or: Jaques Ibert, the son of a good family, who made a second career, and successively held several high-ranking state offices in the cultural field, could not put enough energy and time into music to participate in this search for New Music. Possibly he preferred the security of state office and was accordingly a “comfortable” or even “conservative”?
These lines of thought are thus haunting the world of musicians and music listeners, supported, of course, by the fact that little is known of Jaques Ibert and little is known about him. A classic vicious circle.
Here is another new suggestion of mine: Jaques Ibert, the convinced advocate of a diatonic music, had hardly any interest in the limelight. He saw himself as a composer in the classical-humanist context of the 19th century. He also wanted music to be understood as entertainment, not just as an intellectual pursuit. On the one hand, he tried to follow Offenbach and Chabrier, and on the other hand, he convinced with rhythmic-coloristic balance, with esprit and elegance.
In addition, he contributed little to the piano solo literature, a genre that is by its nature particularly widespread and can then also quickly help to achieve a certain degree of fame.
Here again Jens Rosteck:” With the exception of the large-scale sacred oratorio and the symphony in the sense of absolute music, Ibert made important contributions to almost every genre. However, his interest in the piano song and solo piano works died out relatively early, shifting toward chamber music, solo concerto, radio and film music, and choréodrame. Ibert’s clear, long-standing concern with large-scale, historical frescoes (e.g., Golgotha, 1935) and challenging, humanistic issues (Ballade de la geôle de Reading  or the profound String Quartet [1937-1942], steeped in the shocks of war) by no means prevented him from an extensive preoccupation with ironic, burlesque subjects (e.g., Angélique, 1926). He possessed a keen sense of audience appeal, a feel for contemporary currents … and purposefully employed a melody-driven, virtuoso-brilliant idiom in a series of divertimento-like creations, which occasionally earned him the reproach of a hedonism that, while eminently masterful, was also superficial.”
Maybe we’ll just gather some information.
Jaques Ibert was born in Paris in 1890. He received instrumental lessons at the age of four. In his family circle he met Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec and other artists. His parents wanted him to train as a merchant, but he did so only half-heartedly. Finally, he entered the Conservatoire de Paris and was immediately accepted into courses for particularly gifted students. There he met Milhaud and Honegger, with whom he would work and remain friends throughout his life.
The 1st World War then abruptly put the brakes on any artistic activity.
After the end of the war, he won the Prix de Rome at the first attempt and immediately moved into the Villa Medici with his wife, the sculptor Rosette Veber. From here he expanded his horizons considerably by traveling extensively to Sicily, Spain and even Tunisia. Unlike most of his Prix de Rome colleagues, he used the required compulsory pieces to compose some of his most popular works.
Back in Paris, he produced major works such as the buffo opera Le Roi d’Yvetot, the Divertissement for chamber orchestra, and the Don Quixote ballet Le Chevalier errant. Ibert also taught at the École universelle, for which he produced a two-volume treatise on instrumentation and orchestration. His music criticism was widely acclaimed. And newly, the genre of film music was added. In this context, he composed the Chansons de Don Quichotte for Gustav Wilhelm Pabst’s Don Quichotte. This film became a world success, also thanks to the incomparable interpretation of the title role of the Knight of Sorrowful Countenance by Fëdor Ivanovič Šaljapin. Ibert also enthusiastically championed the equally new medium of radio.
Here again Jens Rosteck: “The year of his birth 1890 predestined Ibert for a membership in the Groupe des Six launched by Cocteau, but his long military service as well as the productive stay in Rome at the beginning of his career prevented the obvious interaction with basically kindred colleagues and companions. Symptomatic of this phenomenon of the ‘successful outsider’ is the coincidence of the first public performance of Ibert’s Rome prize cantata Le Poète et la fée – on 16 Jan. 1920 at the Conservatoire – with the publication date of the momentous article in the periodical Comœdia, in which H. Collet proclaimed the birth of the Six. That Ibert participated in almost all later collective works of the Six and related successor groups into the 1940s … did not change anything more about a ‘missed’ historical opportunity.”
Presumably Ibert was quite right to have missed this “once in a lifetime” opportunity, being quite obviously an independent spirit. He himself said about himself “I like to do what the others don’t do”.
His remarkable administrative career began in 1937. Right at the beginning, he was appointed director of the Académie de France, based at the Villa Medici in Rome. For the first time a non-member was appointed, for the first time a composer, and a fairly young one at that. But now the Ibert couple showed what they were made of. Through an enormous travel and event workload with extremely favorable effects on the perception of French art abroad, they quickly convinced all critics.
Soon, however, World War II loomed on the horizon and Ibert’s music was labeled undesirable by the Vichy regime. He lost all offices and went into exile.
After the liberation of France in 1944, Charles de Gaulle personally called him back to Paris. Ibert was then able to crown his administrative endeavors with leading positions at the Paris opera houses and French radio stations.
A large number of works were still to be written in the coming years, and travels as far as America were on the agenda. He worked with Serge Lifar, as well as with Orson Wells and Gene Kelly.
His probably most successful work Angélique saw its 1000th performance in Buenos Aires under his own direction.
On February 5, 1962, Jaques Ibert died as a result of influenza. He was one of the most famous French composers of his time. The discrepancy between his extremely discreet but charismatic personality and his constant presence in French cultural life remains without equal.
For us flutists, Ibert created, among other chamber music, the marvel of the Flute Concerto of 1932/33. The dedicatee Marcel Moyse premiered it under Philippe Gaubert’s conducting in February 1934.
Although Ibert did not count himself among the avant-garde, the work makes unusual demands on soloist and orchestra. There are echoes of Renaissance music as well as jazz. Rhythm and harmony get out of joint, Ibert’s fantasy turns the world upside down. Nevertheless, the whole work is reminiscent of a (“baroque”) suite with allemande – sarabande – gigue.
The 1st movement seems to be a virtuoso dance and resembles a ritornello in form despite all the modern escapades. The beautiful, calm, even soulful 2nd movement lets the flutist explore all the colors of the tonal palette. And the 3rd movement again demands dancing as well as an extremely brilliant technique. Probably for this reason, this movement immediately became a compulsory piece at the annual Concours of the Paris Conservatoire.
A personal note at the end: I particularly like Jaques Ibert’s short Pièce for flute alone. It was written in 1935, still in the wake of Debussy’s Syrinx, so to speak. Here, too, the reference to the bucolic and pastoral is quite clear and the composer plays skillfully with the “typically French” expressivity.
Adorjan, Andras (Hrsg.) u.a.: Lexikon der Flöte, Laaber 2009
Rosteck, Jens, Art. Ibert, Jacques (François Antoine Marie), WERKE in: MGG Online, hrsg. von Laurenz Lütteken, Kassel, Stuttgart, New York 2016ff., zuerst veröffentlicht 2003, online veröffentlicht 2016, https://www.mgg-online.com/mgg/stable/374945