BIOGRAPHY

(b Rosnay, Marne, 24 Aug 1837; d Paris, 11 June 1924). French composer, organist and teacher. He was born into a modest, non-musical family in a village near Reims. His father was a basket maker, his grandfather a primary school teacher. When he made rapid progress in his piano studies with Louis Fanart, choirmaster of Reims Cathedral, the mayor of Rosnay, the Vicomte Eugène de Breuil, introduced him to professors at the Paris Conservatoire and provided lodging when he was accepted there in 1854. Studying the piano with Marmontel, the organ with Benoist, harmony with Bazin, and fugue and counterpoint with Ambroise Thomas, Dubois earned a series of prizes in harmony (1856), fugue (1857) and the organ (1859) before winning the Prix de Rome in composition in 1861. At the Villa Medici in Rome he became enamoured of Palestrina’s music and began friendships with his future colleagues, Paladilhe, Guiraud, Bourgault-Ducoudray and Massenet. While at the Conservatoire, he played the organ at St Louis-des-Invalides from 1855, and after 1858 at Ste Clotilde (under César Franck); he was choirmaster there from 1863 to 1869 and at the Société des Concerts in the early 1870s. He then moved to the Madeleine, and replaced Saint-Saëns as organist in 1877. He also taught at the Conservatoire, starting with harmony (1871–91), then composition (1891–6), then serving as inspector of musical education (1884–96) and finally as director of the Conservatoire (1896–1905). Believing that students should have a solid understanding of theory before studying modern masters, he published a number of theoretical treatises. Praised for their clarity and precision and translated into other languages, some are still used today. His other writings include Notice sur Charles Gounod (Paris, 1894) and ‘L’enseignement musical’ (EMDC, II/vi, 1931, pp.3437–71).

Musically, Dubois is perhaps best known for his religious works, some of which have remained in the repertory of French churches for decades. The oratorio Les sept paroles du Christ (1867), for example, was performed by the Société des Concerts twice in 1872 and continued to be used at Good Friday concerts until well into the 20th century. Ernest Reyer, who attended its première at Ste Clotilde, said the score was ‘as important as a comic opera, its style resembling 16th-century Italian music given new life with modern harmonies and varied rhythms’. Le paradis perdu won the City of Paris Prize and was performed twice at the Concerts Colonne in 1878. The intervallic writing and phrasing in his sacred works make it easy music to sing, while the skilful use of vocal groups produces a grand effect. Despite the banality of certain repetitions in its Gloria, the Messe brève in E for three voices was reputedly sung ‘almost everywhere’, while the Messe solennelle de Saint-Rémi and the Messe de la Délivrance (which cites Parsifal in its Sanctus) were enjoyed for their dramatic, grandiose effects. Throughout his life, Dubois also wrote secular works for chorus, especially for unaccompanied male chorus. Except for a patriotic sonnet, France (1916), his choral scenes are generally on themes of nature.

Although Dubois’ dramatic works are less well known today, many were published by the prestigious house of Heugel. For the most part, they present simple, idealistic love stories in rustic, picturesque settings, perhaps reflecting Dubois’ own background (many were written in Rosnay, where he returned to compose each summer). Despite their banal subjects, two modest one-act comic operas, La Guzla de l’émir (1873) and Le pain bis (1879), were praised for ‘having all that it takes to succeed’. The première of his three-act ballet, La farandole, commissioned by the Opéra in 1882 and set in Provence, was reputedly the first occasion during which electricity was used extensively at the Opéra. Here and in his two subsequent operas, Aben-Hamet (1884) and the popular Xavière (composed between 1886 and 1894), light, graceful melodies and poetic fantasy abound, in marked contrast with the austerity of his sacred music. In one section of Xavière the priest recounts the legend of St Francis and the birds; in another, Dubois incorporates indigenous French folksongs provided by Vincent d’Indy. While using short, periodic, melodic structures inspired by Gounod, these works also make reference to Wagner, whose music Dubois had heard in Bayreuth. The third act of Aben-Hamet incorporates melodic and harmonic aspects of the Tristan Prelude, while Xavière employs leitmotifs and continuous dialogue with symphonic accompaniment. The grand opéra Circé (1896) never reached the stage, although it reflected the national obsession with exotic enchantresses who use their beauty to liberate their countries from oppressive invaders.

Dubois’ interest in instrumental music grew after he helped to found the Société Nationale in 1871. The overture Frithiof, first performed by the Société Nationale in 1880, entered the repertory of all the principal French orchestras of the time. His oeuvre includes more than 200 chamber works of uneven quality, as well as several sets of songs and piano pieces.

Dubois was a man of discipline and integrity, well liked by his peers. His music was admired for its French character and solid construction, elegance and charm, and purity of style and sentiment. Although he resisted becoming too much involved in the most important musical debates of the time, the clarity and idealism of his music were enough to win him the seat vacated by Gounod in 1894 at the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

 

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