Peter Asimov on French pianist—and composer—Yvonne Loriod

Peter Asimov blogs about his research on Yvonne Loriod, French pianist and composer of Grains de cendre (1946), a newly recovered song cycle that receives its premiere in Paris and Cambridge in spring 2023.

Yvonne Loriod (1924–2010) is best remembered as one of post-war France’s most virtuosic pianists, renowned for her prodigious technical abilities and voracious appetite for contemporary music. As early as her teenage years, Loriod committed herself to performing works other pianists shied away from. Championing composers like Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez, and Barraqué – whose esoteric methods posed formidable difficulties for performers and challenged concertgoers’ patience – Loriod earned a reputation as a “musical Inaudi”, a “vestal virgin devoted to difficult works”.1 Above all, Loriod dedicated herself to the music of her then–harmony professor, Olivier Messiaen, who transformed his compositional style in response to her abilities: after meeting her, he wasted no time in composing Visions de l’Amen, for two pianos (1943) and Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, for solo piano (1944). These colossal cycles became the platform on which the pair built an international touring career while Loriod was still in her twenties. As the only pianist Messiaen would trust to perform his Turangalîla-Symphonie (1949) for several years, Loriod began appearing with the world’s leading orchestras and conductors, and at the most important new-music festivals in Europe – collaborations that continued the following decade with Messiaen’s Réveil des oiseaux (1953) and Oiseaux exotiques (1956). Shortly after the protracted illness and death of Messiaen’s first wife, violinist and composer Claire Delbos, Messiaen and Loriod married in 1961, thereby making public what, in Loriod’s words, “the international musical world had already long understood: that these two beings were united by an intense love and the deepest artistic union since Robert and Clara Schumann”.2

Loriod’s pianistic career is well known – even if the full breadth and significance of her contributions to post-war modernism are often overshadowed by her close association with Messiaen. Yet, the deposit of Messiaen and Loriod’s joint archive at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in 2016 has led to revelations about the full nature of Loriod’s musical activities and of her “artistic union” with Messiaen. One of the most intriguing revelations is Loriod’s own compositional output: approximately a dozen works from the 1940s and early ’50s, written while still a student of Darius Milhaud (as well as Messiaen). Loriod spoke little of her compositional efforts during her lifetime; none of her works were ever published, and records suggest that only one was performed in public. Considering the wider context, Loriod stands out as a woman’s voice in a decade that saw sudden retrenchments in opportunities and visibility for women composers compared with the interwar period – a phenomenon meriting further historical research, and which Loriod’s own compositional marginalisation will help to elucidate.

Photo by Roger Pic. Source /
Bibliothèque nationale de France

Even a brief examination of her manuscripts demonstrates Loriod’s unabashed experimentalism and her involvement in the emergent worlds of electronic music and of academic ethnomusicology. Her exploration of sonority, her theatrical imagination, and her pursuit of alterity attest to her commitments to ultramodernist values extending from the interwar years, through the Occupation, to the early days of postwar modernism. In other words, Loriod’s compositional œuvre helps recover a counternarrative of post-war high modernism, one which fleshes out continuities that have been largely masked by the much louder rhetoric of her classmate and friend, Pierre Boulez, who advocated a utopian tabula rasa decisively breaking from pre-war music history. Furthermore, Loriod’s compositions shine unexpected new light on Messiaen’s work. Evidence from Messiaen’s sketches shows that he was intent on borrowing ideas from Loriod’s earliest compositions during the 1940s, while he was composing Vingt regards, and continued to draw upon some of her musical interests in his works throughout the decade, benefitting from her compositional experiments.

Recovering Loriod’s compositions, whether for scholarship or performance, raises difficulties both practical and creative. The complexity of her works – involving densely contrapuntal instrumental lines operating on different timescales, highly involved piano preparations, or imaginative staging instructions – requires thoughtful planning, creative imagination, and no doubt, compromises. The experimentation that comes with such challenges is daunting but also exhilarating for those hoping to revive her music in concert. Less glamorous, perhaps, but no less important, are the legal hurdles. For example, although Loriod joined the SACEM (Société des artistes, compositeurs, et éditeurs de musique), the professional association that ensures copyright protection for its members, in 1946, she did not lodge the majority of her works with the society – an essential administrative step if her works are to be performed. While I have developed a close working relationship with the Fondation Olivier Messiaen, the rightsholder of Loriod’s works, they ultimately are the only ones with the authority to take this step posthumously. Their decision to grant permissions, as heirs to Loriod’s legacy, is subject to different concerns than my considerations as a historian and researcher. The tensions between creative and scholarly objectives and practical and administrative responsibilities have impressed upon me the importance for good scholarship of building relationships, trust, and understanding with many different stakeholders.

Premiering Grains de cendre

This spring will bring about the premiere of Yvonne Loriod’s song cycle, Grains de cendre, composed in the summer of 1946. As far as I am currently aware, this represents the first public performance of any of Loriod’s compositions since 1945. The cycle, lasting approximately 22 minutes, comprises eight short songs scored for soprano, piano, and flute or ondes Martenot, with words written by Loriod herself, although she describes them as “inspired by Arabic poetry”. The song’s protagonist is a lovesick young girl who expresses herself in surrealist whimsy and delirious wordplay. The music presents vivid contrasts: dissonant passages of breathless intensity and angular vocal writing oscillate with plaintive expressions of desire over sugary harmonies. The opportunity to use the optional ondes Martenot – the early electronic instrument from the Art Déco era on which Yvonne’s sister, Jeanne Loriod, would stake her own career in new music – was too tempting to resist, and the work will be a welcome addition to the instrument’s rarefied concert repertoire.

For several reasons, this work presented itself as the right candidate with which to begin this recuperation of Loriod’s compositional legacy: in addition to being one of the works Loriod definitively submitted to the SACEM, its modest scale, in contrast to the far greater instrumental (read: financial) requirements of many of her works, makes it possible to put together in a relatively short timescale. But beyond the all-important practical considerations, the work contains highly suggestive links, both musical and lyrical, to Harawi, the song cycle completed by Messiaen the previous year – a web of allusions that enriches our understanding of both works individually, and of the creative relationship between the respective composers.

The premiere of Grains de cendre will be the centrepiece of two concerts taking place in Paris and Cambridge, on 30 March 2023 and 1 April 2023 respectively. The first event, taking place at the Paris Conservatoire – the institution where Messiaen and Loriod were both trained and spent most of their professional careers – is part of a study day dedicated to Loriod’s life and legacy, featuring discussions with Loriod’s former pupils and research presentations by scholars and some current Conservatoire students who have been working in Loriod’s archive. The second concert brings the work to the University of Cambridge’s annual public Festival, the Cambridge Festival, where I will give a pre-concert talk with my colleague from the Conservatoire, Christopher Brent Murray. The premiere performances of Grains de cendre fall to a trio of talented Conservatoire students (Margaux Poguet, voice; Robin Le Bervet, piano; Kevin Plante, ondes Martenot) and are made possible thanks to the careful music engraving of another Conservatoire student, Cécile Mons, who is assisting me in the preparation of a critical edition. In a spirit of international and interinstitutional collaboration, an accomplished duo from the University of Cambridge (Hannah Dienes-Williams, soprano, and Greg May, piano) will join both concerts to perform Messiaen’s Harawi, thereby completing the programme and highlighting the intertextual relationships between Loriod’s and Messiaen’s compositions. It is our hope that these events will stimulate interest in a larger-scale reflection upon Loriod’s work – as pianist, composer, and pedagogue – to take place in 2024, the centenary of her birth.

An extended study of Loriod’s early compositions, including Grains de cendre and its relationship with Harawi, will be published in my chapter titled, ‘Yvonne Loriod, ultramodernist: preliminary glimpses of a compositional legacy’, forthcoming this spring in Women Composers in New Perspectives, 1800-1950: Genres, contexts and repertoire, edited by Mariateresa Storino and Susan Wollenberg (Turnout: Brepols, 2023).

1 Hélène Tuzet, review of Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine in France [London] (1 March 1946) [“vestale consacrée aux œuvres difficiles”] ; Nadia Tagrine, review of Turangalîla-Symphonie in Combat (29 July 1950), p. 2 [“Inaudi de la musique”].

2 RES VMB-122 (1), p. 150. “le monde musical international avait déjà compris depuis longtemps que ces deux êtres étaient réunis par un même et intense amour et une union artistique qui n’avait pas été si profonde depuis Robert et Clara Schumann!”

Photo Credit for featured image: Grains de cendre, by Yvonne Loriod, manuscript score, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département de la musique RES VMA MS-2150. Used with kind permission from the Fondation Olivier Messiaen

Peter Asimov is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in Music at the University of Cambridge and Lumley Research Fellow at Magdalene College. He is also chercheur associé at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. He has published articles in 19th-Century Music and Musique–Images–Instruments, and shared research on 19th– and 20th-century French music widely across Europe and the United States. Peter is also an accomplished pianist.


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