When the world wasn't ready for a woman composer
Updated: Apr 29, 2021
Pianist Iñaki Encina Oyón about why Greek-born French composer Hélène Covatti deserves more attention
Who was Hélène Covatti?
Hélène Covatti was born in Greece (1910) and moved to Paris when she was 15 years old to pursue her musical studies in the Conservatoire Superieur de Paris, with teachers such as Noël Gallon or Jean Roger-Ducasse. Her mother was a talented painter and the whole family settled in Paris, where she married composer Robert Dussaut, and gave birth to Thérèse Dussaut, who was to be one of the great pianists of her generation. Her violin sonata was acclaimed and got the compliments of composers such Honegger. But at the start of WWII she abandoned composition. She was appointed teacher in the Conservatoire Superieur and guided many young students, like Iannis Xenakis, architect at the time, that she oriented towards the class of Olivier Messiaen.
Unfortunately Hélène Covatti was born at a time when the world was not yet ready to give a woman composer all the attention she deserved. Her music is of rare beauty and gives evidence of a composer of phenomenal potential.
How do her songs differ from those of her husband?
Robert Dussaut wrote exquisite and gorgeous music, but he was very academic when it came to the form, certainly heir of a big musical tradition. The music of Hélène Covatti is much more free, spontaneous and unusual, and often shows the influence of her native Greece. She certainly didn’t have the weight of a Prix de Rome on her shoulders! It is also remarkable that for her songs she either wrote the lyrics herself or set to music poems by women. I think she must have been a strong woman, certainly one with a feminist vision.
How did you work with Adriana González on the interpretation of her music?
Adriana has certainly one of the most beautiful voices I have ever heard, and her technical and expressive possibilities seem endless. So it was a great pleasure to work with her on this project. But I also knew she could tackle the wide vocal range that the melodies of Covatti demand. And I think Adriana particularly enjoyed delivering these texts written by women. Often, male composers chose male poets, and even if they write for a soprano voice the texts are the thoughts or feelings of a man. So here everything felt very natural.
Then of course there was the responsibility of delivering a world premiere on record. Starting from scratch, learning music one has never heard before, without having any references to fall back on, no interpretations to relate to, but also an amazing freedom. Along with this recording of Mélodies by Robert Dussaut and Hélène Covatti there will be also an edition of them coming to light. Artchipel is releasing the scores of all the songs we recorded. So hopefully our recording will serve as reference for other singers to perform this music.
Adriana has recently won the prestigious Operalia competition, each new role she sings is met with great acclaim and we can certainly feel quite some expectation for her solo album debut. This disc was actually recorded before her shoot to international attention and our goal was but to serve the music and bring to life two marvellous unknown composers. I’m aware that is a rather unusual CD debut for an Operalia winner – one would expect an album with mainstream repertoire or a recital programme of opera arias that suit her best. But we are both very curious and open artists and feel extremely lucky that we found in Audax Records an incredibly exciting partner for our project. The conditions for the recording were perfect and the CD became a luxurious object that we are quite proud of. We already have a few other programmes in mind that we would like to share with the audience – again with unknown or forgotten composers. So watch this space!
Iñaki Encina Oyón recorded the complete songs by Covatti and her husband Robert Dussaut together with soprano Adriana González.