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Collet, Henri

The name of Henri Collet is well-known to the informed music lover. He was both a much-respected musical reporter and critic (indeed, it was he who first dreamed up the term “Le Groupe des Six” in January 1920), and a musicologist whose numerous publications concerning Spanish music of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the 20th century are still valid today. Both of these activities, however, mask the quintessential Collet, namely Henri Collet the composer.

Although born in Paris in 1885, the young Collet spent his formative years in Bordeaux, where he soon showed early signs of musicianship. It was not long before he developed a passion for both the literature and the music of Spain, and it was therefore only logical that he should complete most of his studies in that country, first with Federico Olmeda, but then above all with Felipe Pedrell. The latter was also behind the newly awakening golden age of Spanish music in the early 20th century, as demonstrated in the work of Albéniz and Granados, Turina, Mompou, Rodrigo and especially Falla, with whom he studied orchestration. Back in France Collet rounded off his musical training with Déodat de Séverac, and finally with Gabriel Fauré.

As a result of his prolonged stay in that country Henri Collet was thoroughly imbued with the spirit of Spain. In the main his music was essentially Castilian, and, while giving the appearance of being popular folk music (on account of its melodies and harmonies), it was in reality erudite, using for instance the cyclic technique so beloved of the Schola Cantorum. Its very tonality was thrown into question by the use of modal scales that Collet had previously learnt from popular Spanish musicians as well as the works of the medieval and renaissance masters.

His output includes piano anthologies of brief but distinctive “mood” pieces (the works of caractère as defined by Couperin); a large and important corpus of chamber music; soaring vocal melodies, distillations of the essence of Castile, mingling charm with nostalgia; a large symphonic work of Andalusian inspiration, and substantial stage works, including operas, comic operas, ballets and zarzuelas.

Although the source of his inspiration was Spanish, Henri Collet was one of those rare composers able to blend such music with a French style of composition, as amply attested by the abundant testimonies of his (all-but) fellow-countrymen. One can only regret that his passion led him, until his death in 1951, to champion the music of Spain, whether early or contemporary, to the exclusion of his own. It is now time to repair this injustice.

Frank Langlois (translated by Mary Criswick)