This title is not a prelude to an Agatha Christie novel; it in fact sums up the strange and touching life of a composer who lived between 1848, a year of revolutions, and 1933, the year in which Adolf Hitler came to power.
Yet only seventeen melodies and two short symphonic works: Lénore and Aux étoiles remain from this very long life. Though scarce in quantity, great is the quality of these pieces. L'invitation au voyage, La Chanson triste, Phidylé or La vie antérieure are gems of French music, comparable, according to certain critics to the most beautiful of Schubert's Lieder.
Eugène Marie Henri Fouques Duparc came from a very noble family indeed: his ancestors were of chivalrous stock, which meant the whole family had been noble, as far back as could be traced. His father, Louis-Charles, had studied at Polytechnique and was the general director of the Western railway. His mother, Frédérique Amélie de Gaité, came from a noble Lorraine family; she had written four religious books for children.
Duparc studied at the Vaugirard College which was directed by a jesuit, Father Olivaint. He was studious, gifted for languages, maybe somewhat crushed by a severe education. When still a pupil he composed six Rêveries for the piano.
His youth was marked by the austere, jansenist attitude adopted by the Restauration aristocracy; indeed, the latter was expiating the dissolute life of its 18th century ancestors who had been condemned by the Revolution. His father «the best of men but completely blind to music» (letter to Jean Cras) made him enter the Law Faculty. At the same time he studied music with César Franck who considered him «the most gifted of his pupils». Shortly afterwards he fell in love with a young Scottish lady, Ellie Mac Saviney. On this occasion «the best of men» was rather difficult to handle and forced the lovers to delay their union for a probationary period of three years. At that time Duparc started composing melodies. One of them, Soupir, made his mother understand how much he loved Ellie, and she «pleaded his cause» with his father. What a strange combination of puritanical jansenism and romanticism !
In 1870, a fit of agoraphobia prevented him from going to the Place de la Concorde (could it be a memory of the Revolution ?) He failed his low degree and joined the 18th batallion of mobile guards during the war. During this period he wrote l'Invitation au Voyage, La Fuite, La Vague et la Cloche.
In 1871 he married his beloved Ellie, devoted his life to music and founded the Société Nationale de Musique with Alexis de Castillon and a few friends; the aim of this Society was to defend the interests of French contemporary music. In 1885 he started composing an opera called Roussalka, inspired by one of Pouchkine's short stories. At the same time he was elected mayor of Marnes-la-Coquette. A few months later he resigned from his post and gave up music. Bouts of melancholy and mysticism seized him alternately. He burnt many of his works, among which Roussalka which, it seems, was far advanced. As he later explained to Jean Cras : « After having lived in a wonderful dream for 25 years, the mere idea of representation had become - I repeat - hateful to me.
The other motive of this destruction which I do not regret is the complete moral change that God performed on me 20 years ago and which, in a single instant abolished all my past life. From then on there being no relation between Roussalka and my new life, it had no more reason to exist ». (19th of January 1922).
His melancholy state of mind drove him to the Pyré- nées, then to Vevey in Switzerland, where Ernest Ansermet had a beneficial influence on him by making him work. He made him orchestrate his nocturne Aux Etoiles, several melodies and a Danse lente, fragment of Roussalka. On the 17th of October Ansermet helped Duparc acheive success in Monteux. With what mystical and amorous tensions was the composer struggling when he composed music for a poem entitled Testament :
All my vigor has run dry
From the bright noons of your beauty,
And as the wilted leaf Nothing in me remains living
But before, that they may be carried to you
On the blackened wing of remorse,
I shall write on a dead leaf
The tortures of my lifeless heart ! (1)
This mystic wrote only one religious work, but his songs about love used the words of the most sensitive and profane poets.