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Gabriel Pierne and the March of the Little Lead Soldiers

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Henri Constant Gabriel Pierné (August 16, 1863–July 17, 1937) was a French composer, conductor, arranger, and organist who was born at Metz on August 16, 1863. Both of his parents were active musicians. His father was a singer, his mother a pianist, and they gave him his first music lessons. His family moved to Paris to escape the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Displaying great musical promise as a child, he studied at the Paris Conservatoire from 1871 to 1882, gaining first prizes for solfège (1874), piano (1879), counterpoint and fugue (1881), and organ (1882). He won the French Prix de Rome in 1882, with his cantata Edith. His teachers included Albert Lavignac, Émile Durand for harmony, Antoine François Marmontel for piano, César Franck for the organ) and Jules Massenet (for composition). Following his required three years in Rome, Pierné returned to Paris where he taught in his parents’ music school. In 1890 he married one of his piano pupils.

Pierne succeeded César Franck as organist at Saint Clotilde Basilica in Paris from 1890 to 1898, a distinct honour for a young man of 27. He himself was succeeded by another distinguished Franck pupil, Charles Tournemire. Abandoning his career as an organist, he began concentrating on composition and conducting. His opera La Fille de Tabarin was first performed at the Opéra-Comique, Paris, in 1901. In 1903 made his debut as assistant conductor of the Concerts Colonne, of which series he served as principal conductor, replacing Édouard Colonne at his death, from 1910 to 1933, devoting a great deal of rehearsal time to the preparation of new works. His most notable early performance was the world premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird, at the Ballets Russes, Paris, on June 25, 1910. He remained in the post until 1933, when Paul Paray took over his duties. In addition to his activities on the podium, he was a member of the directing committee of studies at the Paris Conservatoire, and composed for the Ballet Russes with three successful ballets produced between 1923 and 1934.

Pierné’s conducting work required him to spend the whole of the musical season in Paris as he was responsible for a minimum of forty-eight different orchestral programs each year. During the summer, when he was not conducting, he composed at his country house in Ploujean in Brittany. He wrote several operas and choral and symphonic pieces, as well as a good deal of chamber music. His most famous composition is probably the oratorio La Croisade des Enfants. Also notable are such shorter works as his March of the Little Lead Soldiers, which once enjoyed substantial popularity (not only in France) as an encore; the comparably popular Marche des petits Faunes is from his ballet Cydalise et le Chèvre-pied. His chamber work, Introduction et variations sur une ronde populaire, for saxophone quartet is a standard in saxophone quartet repertoire. His discovery and promotion of the work of Ernest Fanelli in 1912 led to a controversy over the origins of impressionist music.

Pierne became a member of the Academie des Beaux Arts in 1925. He made a few electrical recordings for Odeon Records, from 1928 to 1934, conducting the L’Orchestre Colonne, including a 1929 performance of his Ramuntcho and a 1931 performance of excerpts from his ballet Cydalise et le Chevre-pied. He was made a Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur in 1935. A keen supporter of the idea of ars gallica, Pierné used his position at the head of the Colonne Orchestra to give the first performances of works by many of the leading French composers of the day, including Debussy (Ibéria, Images, Jeux, Chansons de Bilitis, Khamma); Ravel (Une Barque sur l’océan, Tzigane, and the first suite from Daphnis et Chloé—a year before the first performance of the complete ballet); and Roussel (Pour une fête de printemps). He died in Ploujean, Finistère, on July 17, 1937. His tomb at Père Lachaise Cemetery has a headstone designed by sculptor Henri Bouchard. The Square Gabriel Pierné in Paris is named for him.

Pierné, has been called the most complete French musician of the late Romantic/early 20th century era His output as a composer, while by no means as vast as some of his Parisian colleagues, includes entries in most of the standard genres, including eight operas, oratorios, instrumental pieces, orchestral music, and songs. He wrote in all the principal genres except the symphony, and assimilated many of the major musical influences of his time, including those of Massenet, Franck, Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Ravel, and Debussy. Pierné successfully integrated these different musical styles into his own works, which makes them attractively eclectic. His operettas have sensuous charm and his large-scale works, such as the oratorio L’an mil and the opera Vendée, showcase a solid grasp of musical architecture, but the smaller chamber works, such as sonatas for both violin and cello, the Introduction et variations sur une ronde populaire for saxophone quartet, and a String Quintet, among other pieces, are more indicative of his exceptional facility.

The following work by Gabriel Pierne is contained in my collection:

March of the Little Lead Soldiers.

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

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