Updated: Apr 29, 2021
Rediscovering an award-winning French composer and why he has been forgotten
How did you discover Robert Dussaut?
Iñaki Encina Oyón: When I was twenty years old, I moved to Toulouse to pursue my studies as an accompanist and I joined the “classe de perfectionnement” of Thérèse Dussaut. The first time I heard about Robert Dussaut was when I read my teacher’s impressive biography that mentioned she was the daughter of a winner of the Grand Prix de Rome. However, busy with student life, I had no contact with his music during the three years I stayed in Toulouse. It was only after moving to Paris when I re-established contact with Thérèse Dussaut that she offered me a CD with works of her father, including the 1st string symphony recorded in 1967 by the ORTF and the prelude to Altanima, his last opera. I was instantly struck by the depth and beauty of his music.
Then, only four years ago, on one of my visits to my dear teacher, I found her apartment drowned in piles of scores. She told me she was trying to get all her parents’ music edited (her mother, Hélène Covatti, was a composer too) and handed me some copies of the pieces that were ready. Upon my question as to whether there was any vocal music, she handed me a box with the French Mélodies that she had not yet started to check. I immediately fell in love with them and started digging deeper. Since then we have discovered some more songs, and I managed to take a look at his operas, other symphonies and the cantata that won the first Grand Prix de Rome, Les amants de Vérone.
What was his musical environment?
IEO: Robert Dussaut (1896–1969) lived during the most challenging period of the 20th century, a time which, musically speaking and from today’s perspective, seems extremely exciting; while Romanticism was slowly disappearing and giving way to atonal music, jazz was being heard and the impressionists Debussy and Ravel were working in Paris.
Dussaut entered the Conservatoire Superieur de Paris in 1920, when Gabriel Fauré was still director of the prestigious school. He studied composition with Vincent d’Indy, Charles-Marie Widor and Henri Busser. We have concert programmes were his music was premiered alongside works by Ravel and others, and the programmes mention that the composers attended the concerts. His daughter also has numerous scores by composers of the time with handwritten dedications (à mon cher ami, avec admiration, etc.) to Robert Dussaut. There is no doubt that Robert met all these people and the influence on his music is palpable.
We also know that Robert Dussaut played the violin in the orchestra of the opera, thus his love and knowledge of the voice. I must point out that the music we recorded – his complete songs for voice and piano – was written between 1916 and 1928. So we are talking about the first works of a 20-year-old composer, before he even entered the conservatory. And most of them were composed during his years as a student or the three years he spent in Italy after winning the famous Prix de Rome in 1924. His language is still very harmonic, we can talk about impressionistic or post-romantic music. But Robert Dussaut took a wider interest in music and also came to be one of the first acoustician musicians of his time, developing a keen interest for new theories about resultant sounds. He published several articles and wrote essays like “La conquête harmonique". This resulted in a clearly evident and audible evolution and aesthetic change in his later music.
And why was he forgotten?
IEO: Robert Dussaut certainly enjoyed recognition at his time. The proof is not only in the numerous awards his music received but also in several commissions like his large-scale opera Altanima. The fact that he is virtually unknown today might be due to several factors, including WWII which put a damper on cultural activities, and after which Europe woke up to completely different musical currents. But I think there is yet another reason: Dussaut was promised a composition class at the Conservatoire de Paris upon his return from Rome. But since there was no position available at the time, he accepted the solfège class for the meantime. I believe this might have harmed his reputation and, unfortunately, the composition class never came to pass. Meanwhile, his interest in music theory grew, he even started writing theatre plays and the librettos for his own operas! He probably also had a reserved and introvert personality and therefore never cared much about his music being published.
Is there more music by him?
IEO: Yes! I’m working right now on an edition of his piano quintet. There are also several pieces for violin and piano, a string quartet that later became his first symphony, a second symphony, plus other orchestral works. And of course his operas: La Fontaine de Pristina, which he composed while he was in Rome, and Altanima, premiered in Bordeaux in 1969.
Iñaki Encina Oyón recorded the complete songs by Dussaut and his wife Hélène Covatti together with soprano Adriana González.