Interview with Corentin Boissier: Romanticism, Modernism, Composition

2021-09-18 • 11 min read

"Scuola perfetta per imparare a disegnare", engraving by Luca Ciamberlano or maybe Francesco Brizio after Agostino Carracci, 1599–1629.

Background #

Corentin Boissier is, in the words of musicologist and critic Walter Simmons, “one of the most remarkable composers to appear on the new-music scene in the 21st century”.[1] He has completed or revised some 30 pieces in the last decade, all in neo-Romantic style. A recording of two Piano Concertos and a Piano Sonata of his, performed by pianist Valentina Seferinova and the Ukrainian Festival Orchestra under the direction of John McLaughlin Williams, was recently released by Toccata Classics. He was kind enough to answer some of my questions; these answers are reproduced in full below.

Romanticism #

ERICH: You consider yourself to be a “neo-Romantic” composer. What does that mean?

CORENTIN: For me, composing Romantic music is a state of mind. On the one hand, it is forging links with the great tradition; on the other hand, it is forging links with the future, since I’m deeply convinced that we are going to need more and more music that makes us want to experience feelings and bliss.

ERICH: What is it that you love about Romantic music?

CORENTIN: Romantic music, in the broad sense of this term, is the culmination of centuries of evolution and thousands of masterworks that sought to convey the maximum amount of emotion to the listener in the clearest and most expressive language possible. I deeply believe in the humanistic nature of art and especially classical music. Beethoven said that music must go from the heart of the composer to the heart of the listener. Until the first half of the 20th century, this motto was understood and shared by everyone. But from the 1950s onwards, our Occidental societies have turned away from this philosophy.

ERICH: You have collected and shared a list of 76 of your favourite Romantic and post-Romantic composers.

CORENTIN: I’ve had the chance to be trained by my father who is a seasoned music lover. Musical pleasure was always the basis of my formation. When I was very young, I listened to a great number of composers and I learned to familiarise myself with their styles. I have always had an insatiable curiosity about classical music and I think I can say that all styles have brought me something. At 18 I established this “Gallery of My 76 Favorite Composers” as a tribute to all these composers who had brought me so much emotion. Since many of them are little-known, I wanted to show them to those who did not have the same opportunity as I did and who do not know where to go to discover new music that they will like.

ERICH: Have any of them had a particular influence on you?

CORENTIN: I do not think so. Of course I have more affinity with certain composers. But I think I can truthfully say that none of them exercised any particular influence over me. Actually I’m attached to every composer in the same way as Gulliver was attached to Lilliput with hundreds of links, but none of them really strong …

Modernism #

ERICH: I think it’s tempting to look at Western art music as this progression towards increasing chromaticism and dissonance and bigger, looser forms, where Romanticism and especially late-Romantic music was a final intensification and the Second Viennese School the logical endpoint. Do you think atonality was inevitable? Could Western art music have taken an alternative path?

CORENTIN: Always wanting to experiment further, to move forward, is part of human nature. The use of new chords and more and more complex rhythms in order to express as closely as possible the spirit of the new times has led to the dissolution of tonality. As long as it remained natural, this evolution produced masterworks in which tradition and novelty coexist in infinitely variable percentages. The dosage was sometimes explosive, sometimes tousling, but often successful.

Today, I’m more convinced than ever that there is no natural border between styles. The schools may be opposed but not the styles, which should complement each other. But in the 1960s, suddenly it was all about serialism and electro-acoustic music; there was the quasi-institutional obligation to wipe out the past, and the subsidies only went to what has been called “contemporary music” (the word “contemporary” being abusively linked to a style instead of just meaning “of our time”). Without this political, ideological, and basically non-artistic doctrine, there would have been a natural complementarity between tradition and innovation, in music as in all other arts.

ERICH: You have said, in an interview[2] with pianist Anna Sutyagina: “[P]oetry and spirituality gradually disappeared from our society, and classical music is moving in the same wrong direction. [… F]or more than sixty years, tonal composition has not been taught in the major music schools […] Only experimental and electroacoustic composition is taught. This kind of composition is not intended to attract a large audience[.]” I suppose I should out myself as a sometime enjoyer of experimental music, though mainly of the underground variety, but I don’t understand its hegemony in academia. Why has it remained so dominant for so long there while also being so unpopular with the general public?

CORENTIN: This “hegemony” of which you speak, it is the globalist policy – of which there is much talk today – which imposed these doctrines with great reinforcements of credits and subsidies. It was going against the tastes and needs of the general public and music lovers, but that was precisely the goal. Numerous academic works and documentaries show how, just after World War II, the CIA, in particular, manoeuvred in Europe to impose atonalism and experimental research.[3] Art, when it is sincere, is never authoritarian; and it’s never political either. When it becomes so, it is because it has ceased to be Art and obeys State propaganda. If contemporary art has muzzled what I call humanist art, it is because behind this domination there was, and there is still, a political will that people are just beginning to realise.

ERICH: I know some great American composers, like Arnold Rosner and Harold Shapero, have spoken of having felt alienated in American music departments, due to the dogmatic serialism there. In your experience, have the conservatoires of Paris been more accepting of 19th-century idioms?

CORENTIN: Absolutely not – quite the contrary! Western Europe, and France in particular, has spearheaded this systematic destruction of all artistic tradition, of any style that could be related to the past. The conservatories have been forced to practice a clean slate policy. This undermining action, well supervised by the institutions and the media, has had the disastrous result that, for several decades, composition – in the original sense of the word – is no longer taught in the conservatories. I did all my musical courses at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique (CNSM) of Paris. I obtained five Prizes … but I was not able to attempt the “Composition” Prize since this Prize is only for composers of so-called “contemporary” music, that is to say “experimental”.

You were quoting the American composers Rosner and Shapero who felt alienated, but many French (and, generally speaking, European) composers suffered much more than feeling alienated. Pierre Boulez stated in 1952 that “any musician who has not experienced – I do not say understood, but, in all exactness, experienced – the necessity of dodecaphonic [12-tone] language is USELESS. For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch.”[4] The man who wrote that had full control over the entire French music scene for several decades. This logically put an end to the careers of the vast majority of composers who did not want to conform to the dodecaphonic style. And even today, at the level of cultural institutions and organisations, nothing has changed. Despite my Masters in Musical Writing and Orchestration, it is very unlikely that I will be able to make a career as a classical composer in France.

Composing Music #

ERICH: Both of your piano concertos in the Toccata Classics release are inspired by film music from the Golden Age of Hollywood. You have also said, in the previously mentioned interview with Anna Sutyagina: “If a classical composer wants to live from his music, yes, he must be far more ‘creative’, which means he must stop writing the music he loves, and he must adapt himself to his time, by being involved in multidisciplinary projects. Is it being more ‘creative’? Personally, I don’t think so.” But was film music not also adapted to the time and the constraints of the profession?

CORENTIN: Indeed, film music has always been able (and required) to adapt to its time. It has always been conceived to be at the service of the film it serves and of the audience for whom it was intended. This is its primary characteristic but, in this, film music does not fundamentally differ from classical music in the broad sense of the term. Bach was at the service of his employers: he wrote for strictly timed religious services and had to satisfy scrupulous parishioners. The more baroque and classical music have integrated into their society, the better they have blossomed. Both classical and film music have always had to be adapted to the constraints of time and society.

ERICH: In your essay “Living Music and the Values of the Past” you write that a young composer should familiarise themself with many styles “in order to arrive at his or her own style”. I always wondered, is a composer’s style entirely downstream from their taste? By that I mean, all these preferences that a composer has – the kinds of harmonies, melodies, rhythms, forms, moods and so on that they prefer over other kinds – is that their style?

CORENTIN: It seems to me that it is essential for an artist to try his or her hand at various styles before forging one with which he or she will make a career. I have doubts about anyone who immediately opts for a specific and exclusive style. Most people want to see it as proof of his or her personality; but one can also see there his or her lack of capacity to renew him- or herself.

In my opinion, everyone does what they can with what they have. Whatever the artist may claim, he or she is obliged to take into account above all his or her abilities. To try out various genres, registers or styles requires a great flexibility of mind that cannot be acquired simply because one has decided to. Likewise, always composing according to the same rules requires a mastery that is not necessarily innate. In the end, it is our inner nature that determines our style or styles. Additionally, it is common that the specificities of a work determine its form, rhythms and moods – except, of course, in the case of an artist who wants at all costs to preserve a predefined style …

ERICH: Many of your compositions, such as the Philip Marlowe concerto which as a whole is in sonata form, and the slow movement of which is a passacaglia, use classical forms. Are the classical forms an inspiration or starting point for you when composing, or are they more like convenient, tried-and-tested tools? Do you begin with a form and then fill it with content, or do you let the content determine its own form?

CORENTIN: Classical (or non-classical) forms are never an inspiration nor a starting point. The melodic/harmonic inspiration is always the basis, the inner essence of my compositions. The forms are simply at the service of the content.

That said, yes, I frequently use classical forms such as the sonata form (which is the most common form in all Occidental classical music), because I’m convinced that an artist can always say new and personal things inside of the frame of an old and impersonal form. When I decide that a movement of a work will be shaped in sonata form, it’s because the musical content invites me to do so; and even then, it’s not a matter of “filling” the form, but a matter of challenging what is expected in this form. It also regularly happens that the musical content ends up forming a structure that can’t be likened to a pre-defined form, such as in the last movement of my Cello Sonata or the first movement of my Piano Trio, to cite only two examples …

ERICH: Could you talk a little about your compositional process? I gather that you compose mainly at the piano. Do you, for example, begin by sketching fragments and motives, and then longer phrases, and then sections?

CORENTIN: Well, logically there begins to be fragmentary ideas before fully worked-out phrases, that is a matter of fact! I rarely use the piano for composing works that aren’t scored for piano. In fact I don’t need to “listen” to what I compose; like most so-called classical composers, I hear it at the same time as I write it. This allows you to compose even if you are deaf (think of Beethoven), even if you are blind (think of Joaquin Rodrigo, the author of the Concierto de Aranjuez). However, when I’m composing a piano work, or a chamber work with piano, then I use the piano, but mainly for checking pianistic gestures, and not for the harmonies or melodies: if you simply write on paper what you spontaneously play at the piano, then there are great risks that you miss more elaborated harmonies and counterpoints that you would create by really “composing” on the score.

ERICH: Do you work every day at any time and any place, or only on certain days, at certain times and certain places?

CORENTIN: I have neither a special day nor a fixed hour to compose. When I feel like I’m ready, I get to work. I compose at home, on the software Finale. Since I begin to compose a work only when I have a clear idea of what I want to achieve, I write relatively quickly. Then comes the time for proofreading and corrections. Of course it all depends on the composition I’m working on. And naturally, when it comes to commissions, there is also the fact that you have to respect the wills of the commissioner.

ERICH: When you write passages and themes, how do you usually proceed? Do you begin with harmony, or with some motive fragment, or by writing the outer voices? How do you choose which chord comes after the previous one?

CORENTIN: I do trust that melodies, themes, or at least motivic elements, are an essential component of music, without which it can’t be really meaningful. So, it often begins with a melodic basis (I wouldn’t really call it a fragment) that comes together with a harmony. I’m never thinking, “Well, which chord will come after this one?” Otherwise it would prove that the musical idea is really weak if putting the harmony on it is so unnatural, in my view. That said, it frequently happens that I search for different harmonic possibilities for a single motivic element, especially for development sections.

ERICH: Can you say anything about what you are working on right now?

CORENTIN: I have just completed my first symphony. If we take into account the difficulties inherent in the elaboration of a symphony, and the degree of maturity that it presupposes, 26 years is not necessarily the ideal age to compose one, but it is necessary for a serious composer to deal with this large-scale genre sooner or later. This symphony is in three traditional movements – what is personal to me is everything else, and I tried to go deeper into my writing.

ERICH: Are there any plans to record more of your music?

CORENTIN: Yes, there’s a planned second CD that will be devoted to my chamber music: it will include my Sonata for Cello and Piano, my Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano and my Sonata for Flute and Piano. The recordings of these three works have already been made earlier in 2021. In the meantime I have just uploaded on YouTube one of my most recent compositions, entitled La Fontaine aux Naïades (The Fountain of the Naiads), a nocturne and dance for cello and harp. It is a playful work that was written for and recorded by the Duo Pierres Vives during the Chamber Music Festival of La Llagonne (in Pyrénées-Orientales in France). I also recently composed a Sonata for Trumpet and Piano that will be premiered by French trumpeter Lise Bergeon at the CNSM of Paris. My four-movement suite for solo harp, L’Enfance de l’Art, was recently performed and uploaded on YouTube by French-German harpist Claire Augier de Lajallet. And American harpist Gretchen Chell Cover, who lives in Florida, commissioned from me a short piece for guitar and harp that is going to be recorded on CD.

ERICH: Let us go full circle by returning to musical style. Do you think that, today in 2021, the question of modernity in music is outdated?

CORENTIN: Absolutely. In my view, the problem is not to be “modern” or not, but to be, whatever the chosen style, excellent or bad. This is the only question we have to ask ourselves. For the past several decades, the official discourse has been that experimental music is the music of our time. But it all depends on the social context. When experimental music becomes institutional music, writing Romantic music becomes the only possible adventure. Don’t you think that the greatest adventure has always been to go against the tide and fight against all odds?

Footnotes #

  1. This is pulled from the booklet of the Toccata Classics release, which can be found in PDF format here. ↩︎

  2. ibid. ↩︎

  3. Corentin pointed me to two interesting-looking documentaries – Quand la CIA infiltrait la culture (When the CIA Infiltrated Culture) and La face cachée de l’Art américain (The Dark Side of American Art) – discussing this, mainly in the context of pictorial art, but perhaps there’s a similar story to be told about music. ↩︎

  4. Nichols, J. F. J. W. (1997). Composers on Music: Eight Centuries of Writings. UPNE. ↩︎