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Cras, Jean

The rear-admiral Jean Cras, chief of staff of the port of Brest, died on the September 14th, 1932. He disappeared at a young age, after a brilliant but brief military and artistic career. Polyphème, a vocal work, had been performed six years before at the Opéra Comique and had met with the critics' approval. Jean Cras was born in Brest in 1879, son of a doctor and captain in the Navy, and he could only become a sailor, in spite of a youthful passion for music and poetry. This had been revealed to him by a school friend, Alfred Droin, with whom he started writing a lyrical drama in two acts entitled Echo. Cras then went to the Navy School and came out fourth. En 1898 he went on a long trip which led him to Africa, the West Indies and America; during the trip he composed a trio, Voyage symbolique, that evokes his various ports of call, a mass and a few motets. In 1901 he met Henri Duparc who, during three months, gave him lessons daily, teaching him the rules and techniques of composition, giving him the habit of reading the masterpieces of great composers and offering him a pocket version of Beethoven's quartets. 1927, after this training, he composed a Journal de bord. His musical lessons did not prevent him from taking part brilliantly in the 1914 war. Having been in command of a destroyer in the Adriatic he was mentioned in the Ordre de l'Armée; he showed great physical courage by saving his helmsman who had fallen into the sea. As soon as he reached a port of call, specially at Brindisi, the composer forgot the officer and went to work. He managed to finish the orchestration of Polyphème and compose Danze and Paysages for the piano. 1918, in an act of grace and detachment in the midst of bloody times, he produced Ames d'enfants : pièces naïves et mystérieuses for the six hands of his children. The piece was orchestrated later on. Following in the steps of the one who called him «the son of my soul», Duparc, his mentor and spiritual father, he also wrote melodies, chamber music and intimate poems. Although he was fascinated by and attracted to the distant colonies that France was still proud to possess, he did not so much try to produce exotic effects, but rather to bring out his inner state of mind. This lover of the sea and of music died too soon : he should no doubt have had the role of establishing a link between the French music composed before 1914 and that of the 1930's.

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Bibliographie :

Jean Cras, Polymath of Music and Lettres.  Routledge, 2009. 610 p.  2nd edition, Peter Lang, expected 2019.
Regard sur Jean Cras, in Zodiaque, Vol. 123, M. Cras & Dom Angelico Surchamp (St-Léger Vauban, January, 1980)