Catherine Peake studies a composer to whom all systems were valid

Perhaps not as well-known as some of his contemporaries, Jacques Ibert nonetheless made a name for himself as a composer. Studying at the Paris Conservatoire as well as privately, his fellow students included Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud. Ibert’s studies were interrupted by World War I, but after winning the Prix de Rome in 1919 for his cantata Le Poète et la fée, he continued his studies in Rome. In his early career, Ibert worked as a pianist at silent movie theatres where he improvised music to suit what was happening onscreen, and wrote popular songs and other light works under a pen name. He later composed in a wide range of genres and his biographer Alexandra Laederich wrote that, “His music can be festive and gay… lyrical and inspired, or descriptive and evocative… often tinged with gentle humour… all the elements of his musical language bar that of harmony relate closely to the Classical tradition.” Ibert himself said that “all systems are valid”, and was steadfast in refusing to align himself to a particular musical style. He also often collaborated with other composers, such as in the waltz L’éventail de Jeanne where he was one of ten contributors including Ravel and Poulenc.

Much of Ibert’s work reflected his interest in theatre. He wrote seven operas, his first, Persée et Andromède, while studying in Rome, but his opéra-bouffe of 1927, Angélique, was his most successful, combining as it did humour, style and flair. He also wrote five ballets and over sixty film scores, including for Orson Welles’ film Macbeth and the Circus ballet for Gene Kelly’s Invitation to the Dance. One of his best-known theatrical works was his music for Un chapeau de paille d’Italie, which he later reworked as the orchestral suite Divertissement.

His work was not confined to the theatre though, and it was his early orchestral works La Ballade de la geôle de Reading, inspired by Oscar Wilde’s poem and performed in 1922, and Escales, performed in 1924, that confirmed his musical reputation. Other non-theatrical works include two collections of piano music, Histoires and Les Rencontres, that were commissioned by his publisher, and his Flute Concerto, first performed in 1934.

Ibert continued to compose while working in Paris and Rome where he “threw himself wholeheartedly into his administrative role and proved an excellent ambassador of French culture in Italy.” He also worked as a conductor and music administrator, and in 1937 was the first musician to be appointed director of L’Académie de France à Rome, a post he held until 1960, excluding the years of World War II. His work here included the administration of the Prix de Rome. After the war he became administrator of the Réunion des Théâtres Lyriques Nationaux, which oversaw the Paris Opera  and the Opéra-Comique. Jacques Ibert was elected to the Académie des Beaux Arts of the Institut de France in 1956.

The Life of a Composer,
Saturday 5 February 2022, 8:00pm