Paul Dukas - l'œuvre complète pour piano

Paul Dukas
Complete Piano Works
Prélude élégiaque sur le nom de Haydn
La plainte, au loin, du Faune... 
Variations, Interlude et Finale sur un thème de Rameau
Sonata in E-flat minor

Jean-François Heisser
piano Steinway

"Diapason d'Or" de Diapason-Harmonie n°349 
"un événement exceptionnel" de Télérama n°2054 


A Sonata, a set of Variations, two occasional pieces (the first in commemoration of the Joseph Haydn Centenary, the second in memory of Claude Debussy) constitute the complete works for piano by Paul Dukas. There is no way of knowing how many preliminary studies were destroyed by this master whose severity towards his own work can be compared in the realm of poetry to that of Stéphane Mallarmé...

In his Tribute to Paul Dukas, published as the lead article in the special May-June1936 issue of La Revue Musicale, Paul Valéry does not mention Mallarmé’s name specifically, but he powerfully evokes it... "I find in him what I have so greatly admired in another : a clean break with all that is facile. This can be seen as a kind of sterility by those unable to understand that a small number of works can represent a huge amount of work. I would like to explain to them that the perfectionist’s discards would make many a less gifted artist famous. Paul Dukas was well aware that even the most felicitous flash of inspiration, no matter how inherently precious it may appear to us to be, must be accepted for its potential; that we must always endow the gifts of fortune with the dignity of intelligent reflection".

Lovers of the facile find the music of Paul Dukas disturbing. In his 1911 work written under the pseudonym Octave Séré and entitled Musiciens français d’aujoud’hui, Jean Poueigh betrays his complete misunderstanding of the Sonata and the Variations, calling them, "forbidding works whose compositional difficulties, when mastered, serve as a kind of still-life, but works that lack the spark that would move us, that would make them truly beautiful, and without which even consummate craftsmanship remains cold and sterile". Jean Poueigh’s opinion is not particularly significant. We might legitimately wonder, however, how an informed critic could have remained silent regarding the popular success accorded Edouard Risler when he premiered the Paul Dukas piano Sonata at the Salle Pleyel, on 10 May 1901. Claude Debussy referred to it in the Revue Blanche (1 June 1901) : "I take great pleasure in informing those unable to hear everything for themselves that the Sonata by Monsieur Paul Dukas I have been talking about recently received an extremely warm welcome from the public".

To say of a work that it cannot move us is the same as accusing its composer of being uncommunicative, of seeing in him no more than determination, intelligence, and skill. But a single glance at the score for the Sonata in E-flat minor is enough to banish this misunderstanding. At the beginning of the first movement, the composer wrote, "Modérément vite - expressif et marqué" and the direction "espressivo" is repeated fourteen times in this first movement. It is just as instructive to consult the manuscripts of Paul Dukas. At Paris’s Salle Drouot auction rooms, on 17 December 1987, the manuscripts of the Variations, Interlude et Finale sur un thème de J-Ph Rameau and La plainte, au loin, du Faune ( the Fawn’s Lament from Afar) were put on sale. The first of these manuscripts, Variation I had initially been marked "Gracieusement", subsequently replaced by the composer with "Tendrement". For La plainte, au loin, du Faune, the manuscripts title is La Flûte, au loin, du Faune (The Fawn’s Flute from Afar). This shows that on a second thought, Paul Dukas decided the definitive title should underscore the expressive aspect of his tribute to Claude Debussy.

Paul Dukas did not consider music the vehicle for unbridled emotion. Georges Favre’s notes on one of his October 1929 lectures to his composition class at the Conservatory contain the following remark by Paul Dukas on Johann Sebastian Bach : "His work appears devoid of sentimentality. He is so far above us that he dominates, and will always dominate, all music. And yet, the real man can be sensed behind the exalted creative imagination, as though looking out from behind the battlements of an unscalable wall". This remark applies just as well to the man who made it. Paul Dukas systematically eliminated "sentimentality" from his work. In his Sonata, he constructed an imposing architecture, that could up to a point be compared to the "unscalable" walls in his remark on Johann Sebastian Bach; but here the man reveals himself (and more) from behind the battlements, especially in the first movement : "Modérément vite - expressif et marqué". There are two interconnected ideas in this movement, the first troubled and insistent, the second more serene. The classic allegro of the dialogue between the two antagonistic themes is replaced by a subtler interplay, in which the music seems to hesitate as to which path it should follow. But no answer is forthcoming, since the coda only add to the mystery...

The second movement, in the key of A-flat major (Calme, un peu lent, très soutenu), opens with a tranquil theme, followed by another, more lyrical, one. In the words of Maurice Emmanuel, the Sonata in E-flat minor "moves freely within a single framework. Exposition, development, repeat exposition with two themes, in three pieces out of four, unfold their phrases" (2). The only movement which does not follow this pattern is the third (Vivement, avec légèreté). It begins and ends like a Toccata. Marked, "Plus lent - mysterieusement", a Fugue stands as its center. The sinuous, tormented, almost disturbing quality of its theme contrasts sharply with the open flights of the Toccata. The coda is brief and somewhat enigmatic. Claude Debussy found the third movement particularly striking. We might compare this movement to the Suite for Piano and the dates when each was composed : May 1901 saw the premiere of the Paul Dukas Sonata completed the year before, and January 1902 that of Claude Debussy’s Suite for Piano. It would be an exaggeration to use the word "influence", but "encounter" is conceivable.

Claude Debussy’s commentary on the Paul Dukas Sonata is one of the finest in music criticism : "Monsieur Paul Dukas knows what music is made of : it is not just brilliant sound designed to beguile the ear until it can stand no more... For him it is an endless treasure trove of possible forms and souvenirs with which he can cut his ideas to the measure of his imagination. He can hold his emotion in check and shelter it from superfluous declamation; he therefore never stoops to the kind of embroidery that so often spoils the basically beautiful. If we look closely at the third part of this Sonata, we will discover under its picturesque surface a force guiding the rhythmic movement, mute and unwavering as a steel gear. The same force guides the last piece, in which the emotion is expressed with consummate art in a way which might almost be called "constructive," insofar as it evokes the kind of beauty comparable to the perfect lines of a mighty architecture, lines that melt and blend with the colours of air and open sky, harmonizing with them completely and forever" (La Revue Blanche, 15 April 1901).

Lastly, the fourth movement opens with a vast recitativo reminiscent of César Franck and Beethoven. Paul Dukas never denied his roots, but as we have seen, he was a man of his time belonging to no ephemeral movement either neo-romantic or neo-classic, but remaining simply an authentic human being, the man Yvonne Lefèbure described in these terms : "A teacher who possessed balance, fairness, harmony in a word. People compared him to Goethe, and not without reason. A personality whose every act joined the individual to the universal, and always with the profound truth of inner feelings which, although veiled by modesty and discretion, lost none of their intensity".

On 23 March 1903 at the Société Nationale, it was again Edouard Risler who premiered Variations, Interlude et Finale sur un thème de J-Ph Rameau. The theme - as with Diabelli's theme for Beethoven's Thirty-three Variations, Opus 120 - is transparently simple, a sixteen-measure Minuet from the Second Book of Harpsichord Pieces (1724) nicknamed the "Thief" because one finger of the left hand "steals" separate notes from between the chords played by the right. And it is precisely this "insignificant flexibility" that enables the composer of the Variations to construct, from material that is basically neutral, a work that is completely his.

As Georges Favre has observed, all of the Variations are based "on a fragment of Rameau's theme - as a seedling, or a cell - that has been reworked to a lesser or greater degree..." (1). There are eleven Variations : I. Tendrement - II. Assez vif, très rythmé - III. Sans hâte, délicatement - IV. Un peu animé, avec légèreté - V. Lent - VI. Modéré - VII. Assez vif - VIII. Très modéré - IX.- Animé - X. Sans lenteur, bien marqué - XI. Sombre, assez lent. The eleventh Variation, in D minor, leads to the Interlude. "Conceived improvisationally", remarks Georges Favre, "the Interlude appears hesitating and uncertain before finally moving in a precise, definitive direction" (1). A final modulation leads us back to the key of D major and the glowing Finale (Variation XII) takes flight, modérément animé at first, then plus animé et pressant par degrés. In this absolute masterpiece, where craft vies with imagination, a progressive expressiveness is an essential component.

The Prélude élégiaque was composed in May 1909 at the request of the Revue S.l.M., which had also commissioned works by Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Vincent d'lndy, Reynaldo Hahn, and Charles-Marie Widor. The theme is based on the letters of Haydn's name, in the following order : H (B), A, D, Y (D), N (G). The Prélude élégiaque, "lent et recueilli", is a relatively brief piece, in a much simpler style than the Sonata and the Variations. But it would be unfair to see it as merely a clever exercise; it is filled with the unique musical sensibility of Paul Dukas, as noble and restrained as always.

However, a more important piece is La plainte, au loin, du Faune, composed by Paul Dukas in 1920 for the Revue Musicale, which was publishing a commemorative "Tombeau" for Claude Debussy with contributions by - in addition to Dukas - Albert Roussel, Francesco Malipiero, Eugène Goossens, Béla Bartók, Florent Schmitt, Igor Strawinsky, Maurice Ravel, Manuel de Falla, and Erik Satie. De Falla's Homenaja for guitar, Strawinsky's Symphonies for Wind Instruments, Ravel's Duo for Violin and Cello, and Roussel's L'Acceuil des Muses are among these composers' major works. The same is true for La plainte, au loin, du Faune. "The measured style of Paul Dukas is combined with the sensualism of Claude Debussy in a fraternal embrace" (2). Maurice Emmanuel's description of the link binding the composer of Pelléas et Mélisande to that of Ariane et Barbe-Bleue says it all. If "the theme of the Prelude contains harmonies its composer did not invent, but which nevertheless serve it perfectly" (2), this is because Paul Dukas, so close to his friend and yet different from him, was bound to bring to the "Tombeau" for Debussy - as Ravel and Strawinsky also did in their own way - an offering of his innermost self.

Text after Jean Roy original

(1) Georges Favre : Paul Dukas (La Colombe, 1948).
(2) Maurice Emmanuel : La musique de piano de Paul Dukas (La Revue Musicale, May-June 1936).

Jean-François Heisser


Jean-François Heisser is one of the most versatile French performers of his generation. To the major composer of the classical and romantic repertory, he has added a considerable number of 20th century names, both already accepted or still contentious. Among them : De Falla, Albeniz, Granados, Fauré (the chamber music), d’Indy (the sonata), Dukas (the complete piano works), Reger, Bartók, Schönberg, Strawinsky; and major solo or concert works by the significant composers of the second half of the 20th century such as Boulez, Ligeti, Stockhausen, Berio, Zimmerman, Crumb, Messian; plus works by French composers who are personal favorites of his, such as André Boucourechliev, Gérard Masson and Gilbert Amy.

Jean-François Heisser was born in 1950 and studied at the French National Conservatory of Music under (among others) Vlado Perlemuter, Jean-François Heisser left the Conservatory with six First Prizes : piano, chamber music, composition... In 1984 he returned there to teach. He has been a regular guest artist at numerous music festivals worldwide. In France (Aix-en-Provence, La Roque d’Anthéron, Lille), in Switzerland (Montreux-Vevey), in Spain, Sweden, Germany and South America.

He has played with the Moscow Philharmonic, the Bucarest Philharmonic, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, the Radio Orchestras of RAI-Turin, Sofia and Helsinki, the Orchestre de Paris, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Mai Florentin Orchestra under the batons of Zubin Mehta, Dimitri Kitaïenko, Emmanuel Krivine, David Shallon, Marek Janowski, Antonio Ros-Marba, Myung-Whun-Chung, Leif Sergerstam, Michael Tilson-Thomas etc. Jean-François Heisser has been active in the field of chamber music, playing with Sandor Vegh, Rita Streich, Augustin Dumay, Gérard Poulet, Pierre Amoyal, Misha Maisky, Georges Pludermacher, Régis Pasqier, Elizabeth Balmas, Roland Pidoux, Gérard Caussé, Michel Portal, Dimitri Sitkovetski and more.

Steinway Concert Grand



Prélude élégiaque (1909)
sur le thème proposé : H A D Y N

La plainte, au loin, du Faune... (1920)
pièce écrite pour le "Tombeau de Claude Debussy"

Variations, Interlude et Finale (1902)
sur un thème de Jean-Philippe Rameau
Menuet, Variations

Sonate en mi bémol mineur (1899-1900)
à Monsieur Camille Saint-Saëns
Modérément vite
Calme - un peu lent - très soutenu
Vivement, avec légèreté
Très lent - librement - animé


"Diapason d'Orde Diapason-Harmonie n°349 :

L'œuvre complète pour piano de Paul Dukas est, pour la première fois, rassemblée sur un seul disque. François-René Duchâble avait enregistré la Sonate et les deux pièces à la mémoire de Haydn et de Debussy. Yvonne Lefébure avait gravé les Variations et le Prélude élégiaque. Signé de la même interprète, un enregistrement plus ancien, daté de 1970 et puisé dans les archives de l'INA, a été édité en 1987, groupant les Variations, La Plainte, au loin, du faune et le Prélude élégiaque. On pourrait encore citer, pour mémoire, en ce qui concerne les Variations, les versions de Jean Doyen, Annie d'Arco et celle de Klaus Schilde.
La monumentale 
Sonate en mi bémol mineur, moins achevée, moins parfaite en ses proportions que les Variations, Interlude et Finale, n'en est pas moins le sommet de l'œuvre pianistique de Dukas et l'on comprend que Debussy en ait parlé avec ferveur. Là, Dukas s'est livré tout entier, avec sa sensibilité à vif maîtrisée par l'intelligence. L'interprétation de François-René Duchâble nous en laissait deviner la grandeur et les richesses, mais c'est avec Jean-François Heisser que l'on pénètre véritablement au cœur de cette Sonate, et si j'admire chez lui la superbe tenue du premier mouvement, la lumière du troisième et la liberté du dernier, c'est le second (calme - un peu lent - très soutenu) qui, d'une manière plus évidente encore, fait la différence. Le piano y est traité en profondeur. Un toucher ample, sensible, donne un sens à chaque note et la continuité mélodique de ce mouvement est tout à fait remarquable. Sans effusions sentimentales indiscrètes, nous voici conduits, d'une main sûre, à ce que je considère comme le cœur de la Sonate, et qui en est la page la plus secrète.
Dans les 
Variations, Interlude et Finale c'est avec Yvonne Lefébure que Jean-François Heisser se trouve confronté. Mais je dirais volontiers qu'aujourd'hui les deux versions m'apparaissent indispensables parce qu'elles éclairent les Variations de Paul Dukas d'une lumière différente. Yvonne Lefébure pense davantage à Beethoven (elle n'a pas tort) qu'à Rameau. Le coloris et les accents incisifs de Jean-François Heisser sont plus proches de Rameau (comment ne pas lui donner raison?). Mais si le toucher d'Yvonne Lefébure est d'une merveilleuse subtilité, Jean-François Heisser sait aussi faire ressortir la grandeur de l'œuvre. Pour le Prélude élégiaque et La Plainte au loin du faune, je n'hésite pas à donner ma préférence à Jean-François Heisser pour la simple raison qu'il place ces deux œuvres de circonstance sur le même niveau que la Sonate et les Variations. - Jean Roy 
Technique : 8/10. Ambiance de concert, son aéré

"un événement exceptionnelde Télérama n°2054 :

On savait déjà, avec la parution de son flamboyant opéra Ariane et Barbe-Bleue que Paul Dukas n'était pas l'homme du seul Apprenti sorcier et, à la rigueur, des fanfares de La Péri. Aujourd'hui, on enfonce le clou en présentant son œuvre complet pour le piano. C'est la première fois qu'on le fait sur un seul disque, et c'est le choc : combien d'entre nous allaient chercher bien loin des chefs-d'œuvre, alors qu'ils en avaient là, tout près, à portée de main...
On ne remerciera jamais assez Jean-François Heisser et son éditeur pour nous avoir ainsi incités, si j'ose dire, à traverser la rue pour rejoindre ce compositeur qui se morfondait, doutant du bon sens de ses compatriotes. Il est évident que le piano de Dukas n'est pas de ceux qui racolent le client à la recherche de la facilité mesquine, du douillet confort. L' œuvre se dresse, tel un bloc de granit, hautain, et nulle sensiblerie, aucun sentimentalisme mielleux ne dégoulinent le long des flancs du fier monument. Paul Dukas ne s'essaie pas à enjôler, l'auditeur; il le conquiert par la force, par la puissance d'un discours où la robuste architecture ne laisse place à la moindre superficialité.
Qu'on ne s'y méprenne pas : je ne suis pas en train d'esquisser le portrait d'un bougon-bougonnant dont l'austérité lui servirait de talent et qui aurait une pierre à la place du cœur. La pudeur, la discrétion ne sont pas synonymes d'insuffisance, que je sache. Il faut tout simplement nous reporter à l'époque, le début des années 1900, pour mieux comprendre Dukas, son rejet instinctif des confessions ostentatoires, de l'étalage grandiloquent des sentiments. Devant une telle débauche de phrases et de discours sonnant souvent le creux, Dukas s'est muré en lui-même laissant à ses interprètes le soin de soulever le voile pour percer le mystère.
C'est bien ce que fait Heisser qui, des pages les plus brèves jusqu'à la formidable 
Sonate d'une durée de quarante-cinq minutes, ne laisse subsister aucun doute : le lyrisme, la tendresse, la voluptueuse émotion, la passion à vif étaient là, embusqués, prêts à larguer les amarres. Volontiers volontaire et sachant donner de sa personne, Jean-François Heisser découvre à notre intention les caches si bien gardées du château de Barbe-Bleue.
Il met à nu l'imposante charpente, il débroussaille les jardins sauvages : au centre, un homme avec ses doutes et ses désirs; mais un homme DEBOUT. Il fallait un Heisser pour que ce miracle s'accomplisse... L'une des productions les plus louables... - Paul Meunier
Technique : 5T

"Diapason d'Or 1989"
Sélected by "Les Indispensables" du Guide du disque compact Fayard (Edition 1995)
Sélected by Le Monde de la Musique, Hors-série Spécial Piano dans "Le Meilleur du Piano"

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