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Jacques Ibert and “Escales”

Jacques François Antoine Ibert (August 15, 1890–February 5, 1962) was a French composer who was born in Paris on Aug. 15, 1890. His father was a successful businessman and his mother was a talented pianist who had studied with Antoine François Marmontel and encouraged the young Ibert’s musical interests. From the age of four, he began studying music, first learning the violin and then the piano. After leaving school, he earned a living as a private teacher, as an accompanist, and as a cinema pianist. He also started composing songs, sometimes under the pen name William Berty. In 1910 he became a student at the Paris Conservatoire, studying with Emile Pessard (harmony), André Gedalge (counterpoint) and Paul Vidal (composition). Gédalge also gave him private lessons in orchestration. Ibert’s fellow-students at these private classes included Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud. Ibert’s musical studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War I, in which he served as a naval officer. After the war he married Rosette Veber, daughter of the painter Jean Veber.

Resuming his studies, Ibert won the Conservatoire’s top prize, the Prix de Rome for his cantata Le Poète et la fée (“The Poet and the Fairy”) at his first attempt, in 1919. The prize gave him the opportunity to pursue further musical studies in Rome. In the course of these, Ibert composed his first opera, Persée et Andromède (1921), a concise, gently satirical piece, to a libretto by his brother-in-law, the author Michel Veber, writing under the pen name “Nino.” Among Ibert’s early orchestral compositions while in Rome were La Ballade de la geôle de Reading (1920), inspired by Oscar Wilde’s poem, and Escales (Ports of Call, 1922), a ripely romantic work for large orchestra inspired by his experiences of Mediterranean ports while he was serving in the navy. The first of these works was played at the Concerts Colonne in October 1922, conducted by Gabriel Pierné; the second was performed in January 1924 with Paul Paray conducting the Orchestre Lamoureux. The two works made Ibert an early reputation both at home and abroad. His publisher Alphonse Leduc commissioned two collections of piano music from him, Histoires and Les Rencontres, which enhanced his popularity.

In 1927 Ibert’s opéra-bouffe Angélique was produced; it was the most successful of his operas, a musical farce, displaying eclectic style and flair. His first work composed expressly for the ballet was a waltz for L’éventail de Jeanne (1929) to which he was one of ten contributors, others of whom were Ravel and Poulenc. He is probably best remembered for his orchestral works such as Divertissement for small orchestra (1930) fashioned from the composer’s incidental score to Labiche’s The Italian Straw Hat. The Flute Concerto by Ibert, written in 1934, is a useful addition to solo repertoire for an instrument whose possibilities the composer well understood. Among Ibert’s other works, the Concerto da camera (1935) for alto saxophone and 11 instruments stands out as one of a handful of genuine mainstays of the saxophone repertoire. In addition to composing, Ibert was active as a conductor and in musical administration. He was a member of professional committees, and in 1937 he was appointed director of the Académie de France at the Villa Medici in Rome. Ibert, with the enthusiastic support of his wife threw himself wholeheartedly into his administrative role and proved an excellent ambassador of French culture in Italy.” He held the post until the end of 1960, except for an enforced break while France and Italy were at war during World War II.

The war years were difficult for Ibert. In 1940 the Vichy government banned his music and he retreated to Antibes, in the south of France, and later to Switzerland and the Haute-Savoie. In August 1944, he was readmitted to the musical life of the country when General de Gaulle recalled him to Paris. Like a number of his “serious” contemporaries, Ibert also ventured from time to time into film scoring. His most conspicuous efforts in this realm include music for Orson Welles’ 1948 version of Macbeth and the “Circus” sequence from Gene Kelly’s Invitation to the Dance (1952). In 1955 Ibert was appointed administrator of the Réunion des Théâtres Lyriques Nationaux, which ran both the Paris Opera and the Opéra-Comique. After less than a year, his health obliged him to retire. Shortly afterwards he was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Ibert died at Paris on Feb. 5, 1962, aged 71, and is buried at Passy Cemetery in the city’s 16th arrondissement.

As a composer, Ibert did not attach himself to any of the prevalent genres of music of his time, refusing to ally himself to any particular musical fashion or school and maintaining that “all systems are valid.” As a result, many commentators have categorized him as an “eclectic.” His music is admired for its colorful, technically polished, and often witty neoclassical style. Though best remembered for a handful of orchestral bonbons, he was versatile and prolific, writing for almost every genre including seven operas, four ballets, and music for the theatre, cinema and radio in addition to vocal and instrumental works, chamber and piano music, all equally beautifully crafted, with particularly idiomatic handling of wind instruments.

The following works by Jacques Ibert are included in my collection:

Bacchanale, Scherzo for Orchestra (1956).
Divertissement for chamber orchestra (1930; suite from Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie, 1929).
Escales, orchestral suite in three parts (1922).
Ouverture de fete (1940).
Symphonie Marine (1931; from the film S.O.S. Foch).

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources


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