Jean Perrin (1920-1989)

Jean Perrin first saw the light of day in Lausanne on the shores of Lake Geneva on 17 September 1920. Born into an old family from Vaud, his father Marius was trained as a historian: he dedicated the heart of his life to teaching. His mother Julia, born Rathgeb, from Zurich, was the first to seat him at a piano. From the age of five she would take him to concerts, letting him become acquainted with artists such as Walter Gieseking, Alfred Cortot, Clara Haskil or Arturo Toscanini at a very early age. At the age of eight he was entrusted to the hands of Marie-Lise Moser, with whom he studied until he entered the conservatory. There he entered the class of Geneviève André-Court, a demanding and cultivated woman who concocted audacious programmes for him, often too difficult… for his own good! He earned a teaching diploma in 1940 while still studying for a degree at the university (which he received in 1944). He was then assigned to one of the most eminent teachers of the time, Charles Lassueur, a student of Isidor Philipp in Paris: but it is not certain if Lassueur’s obsession with finger mechanics suited the young artist at all… Perrin then pursued the opportunity to study with Johnny Aubert in Geneva, a professor at the conservatory famous for his interpretations of Schumann and Liszt: but things did not work out here either; Aubert was not able to find the repertoire that would allow his student to blossom.


It was necessary to wait until the last years of the war to finally discover artistic horizons that would match his profound thirst for beauty. One of these “revelations” appeared in the form of Franz Josef Hirt. An heir of Clara Schumann (through his mother), as well as of Hans Huber, Egon Petri (Ferruccio Busoni’s student and assistant) and Alfred Cortot through studies, Hirt represented a synthesis of these different influences and provided Perrin with exactly the nourishment that he needed. He transmitted his knowledge to him at the Berne Conservatory from 1943 to 1945. This period of maturation in German-speaking Switzerland was marked by the tutelary presence of another master: Edwin Fischer. A student of Martin Krause (a disciple of Franz Liszt and thus also an heir of Carly Czerny), the pianist from Berlin settled in Hertenstein (on the shores of Lake Lucerne) and was one of the first to be interested in the historically informed performance of Baroque music. He entered into contact with him when he came to Lausanne, but it was above all in his famous courses in Lucerne that he gathered the best from his art. The years 1947 to 1948 marked a new world of discoveries with a number of trips to Paris. Perrin let his first compositions be subjected to the rigorous esthetic system of Darius Milhaud: an approach to music that couldn’t have been more diverse than his, which until that moment had been very dependent on the analytic approach of Alexandre Denéréaz, his teacher at the Lausanne Conservatory and an heir to the great Wagnerian tradition. This “shock” treatment was doubled by another very important encounter: with Nadia Boulanger, which also promoted his natural attraction to Stravinsky’s music. Although his interest began to gradually shift in the direction of the “heart” of music – composition – while in the French capitol, Jean Perrin did not neglect his piano studies: he took courses with Yves Nat, a disciple of Louis Diémer, from whom he profited with regard to finger technique and an Apollonian vision of the Romantics, Beethoven and Schumann above all.


Perrin became more confident. The medal that he won at the Geneva International Competition in 1943 demonstrated that he was one of the leading artists of the new generation. He realized however that he would never have a career as a great virtuoso: other means of transmitting music – his music – were calling. As soon as he finished his studies he began teaching, at first as an assistant to his former teacher Geneviève André-Court at the Lausanne Conservatory, then as an instructor, and then as of 1951 as professor for piano, a position that he held until his retirement in 1985. In addition to this he was entrusted with the advanced class at the Sion Conservatory, of which he had been a founding member since 1949. He also began writing music criticism for the daily press very early, thanks to the literary talents that he evidently inherited from his ancestors. During the 1940’s he was called by Aloÿs Fornerod to write for the Tribune de Lausanne, before spinning off to the Gazette de Lausanne where he joined his friend, composer Jean Balissat. From 1962 to 1985 he also assumed responsibility for the programmes for the concerts of the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra.


Since he was a very young boy, Jean Perrin was always clutching a pencil and manuscript paper in the “refuge” of his room. He was instinctively called to composition, but it took time and the support of faithful friends for him to allow his works to be heard by others. The first composition to leave his notebooks was an oratorio for tenor, bass, men’s chorus and orchestra entitled Les Perses [The Persians] after a French translation of the book with the same title by Aeschylus. Completed in 1943, it was first performed within the intimate framework of the Guilde de Livre’s salons in Lausanne in the form of a “mock-up” for voice and piano. Then silence for almost a decade. Perrin continued to compose, but he did not seem to be in a hurry to be heard by the public. Finally, in 1952 at the insistence of his colleague Prof. Denise Bidal, he presented a composition at the Lausanne Conservatory – his Serenade, Op. 3, which he had composed a year earlier. Captivated by his music, the pianist Bidal did not stop there: in 1954 she invited Perrin to participate in the “L’Atelier” concert series that she had founded; he performed his Sonata for Horn, Op. 9, together with Robert Faller. It was greeted by the first large-scale articles by music critics, such as Henri Jaton’s article for the Feuille d'Avis de Lausanne in which he emphasized a number of traits that would become characteristic of Perrin’s music, such as the tendency to treat the piano like an orchestra and the desire (verging on obstinacy) to avoid “trodden” paths at all costs. The next stage that followed: the first concert dedicated solely to his music at the conservatory on 25 February 1955. Three sonatas were on the programme: in addition to the horn sonata, Perrin presented his violin sonata (opus 8) and the sonata for piano solo (opus 10), a work that earned him compliments and valuable advice from the part of Alfred Cortot and that he reworked in depth on the initiative of pianist Jean-François Antonioli. The machine had been set in motion.


Although chamber music seemed the better channel for his wild, instinctual style, Jean Perrin was aware that he still had a great deal to learn about the orchestra. With admirable humility he decided, almost 35 years old, to return to school together with his friend Jean Balissat. The latter, who would never cease to accompany and encourage him on his “way of the cross” as a composer, had a great deal to do with this decision. Their professor at the Geneva Conservatory, André-François Marescotti, was one of the leading personalities in Geneva’s musical life. He was a student of Roger Ducasse (Fauré’s favorite student) in Paris, a champion of dodecaphony and above all an orchestration specialist, an art from which the one and the other would profit. The first realm of experimentation for Jean Perrin came in the Concerto grosso for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 6. It well demonstrates how he had benefited from his newly acquired knowledge of the essential workings of the orchestra. The first version (opus 6a) was completed in 1952 and then revised three years later on recommendation from Marescotti, who made its first performance possible. An encounter with Victor Desarzens, the founder of the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, marked the point of departure for a very fruitful collaboration that would last more than 20 years and would culminate in 1971 with the De Profundis, Op. 26, composed in memory of his mother.


Although he composed instinctually, Jean Perrin also nourished himself with encounters and friendships with other artists. The majority of works composed at the beginning of the 1950’s can be linked with someone specific. Among the most significant: cellist Guy Fallot, who made an impassioned recording of the Sonata, Op. 11, for Philips; conductor Jean-Marie Auberson, who performed the Mouvements symphonique, Op. 13, with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande; the brass quartet from the Zurich Tonhalle, whom he met in 1962 while recording the Concerto grosso under the direction of Charles Dutoit and who was at the origin of the Quartet for 2 Trumpets and 2 Trombones, Op. 21a (the first work Perrin published); cellist Marçal Cervera, who accompanied him throughout the birth of the Concerto for Cello, Op. 27; saxophonist Iwan Roth, whose virtuosic playing inspired the Duo concertant, Op. 31 and the Saxophone Quartet, Op. 40; pianist Brigitte Meyer, his young colleague at the Lausanne Conservatory for whom he tailored the Concerto for Piano, Op. 41; pianist Jean-François Antonioli, for whom he wrote the Six Preludes, Op. 45, as a thanks for having (among other things) contributed to his rediscovery at the beginning of the 1980’s; or the Sine Nomine Quartet, who inspired him with their playing and then performed his String Quartet, Op. 53, the day after his death in 1989.


Toward the end of his life, in the light of late official (but sincere) recognition, Jean Perrin benefitted from a series of commissions that would increase interest of the principle musical institutions in the region in his music (which had been rather tepid until then): on the occasion of its 450th anniversary the University of Lausanne honored him, for which he composed an Introitus for orchestra (Op. 52); his former employer, the Lausanne Conservatory, turned to him both for its 125th anniversary in 1985 (Secundum Paulum, Op. 51) and for the inauguration of its new building in 1989 (Cantosenhal, Op. 54, first performed with a posthumous title in 1990); the Tibor Varga International Violin Competition in Sion commissioned him to write a concerto in two movements (Op. 49) to serve as a compulsory piece in 1986. One can also mention the music that he wrote for Port-des-Prés, Pierre Smolik’s documentary film dedicated to poet Gustave Roud in 1983; Perrin transformed this music into an orchestral suite entitled L’Adieu au poète, Op. 46b.


Jean Perrin passed away on 24 September 1989, in the same apartment in which he had been born 69 years earlier, leaving a catalogue of some 50 works to be discovered. Jean-François Antonioli noted in the introduction to the first catalogue of Perrin’s compositions (1982) that “among the works that he considered to be the most representative of his art we can mention the Concerto for Cello, Op. 27 (1970), the solo part is completely exempt from superficial effects; the Third Symphony, Op. 24 (1966), a transitional work in which one can perceive his desire to externalize; the Sonata for Piano, Op. 10 (1954/1980), one of the most representative of the older compositions; the Quartet for Piano and Strings, Op. 23 (1965), dense and incongruous; and the Funeral March for Large Orchestra, Op. 38 (1978), suggestive of romantic expressionism.” It merely remains to make his music known… Jean Balissat wrote: “For those who truly want to understand it and perform it, Perrin’s music demands a long period of maturation. This has become particularly difficult to achieve at a time when efficiency rules. If his work truly exists, and this is key, then it represents the possibility for him to continue to live on in us.” This continues to be the principle goal of those who champion Jean Perrin’s music, beginning with the foundation that bears his name and maintained by funds that began to materialize the day after his passing. Let us allow the musician himself to sketch out the contours of his art and his musical influences as he did in his wonderful language in an article that appeared in the magazine Repères in 1981.


“[…] I remained a classicist and above all a romantic at a time when they were few. The past is not an archeological curiosity, it is part of our present: we are enriched and shaped by it, we are nourished by it every day, it is incorporated into us, together with all the present moments that immediately become past moments and are added to the whole. Since childhood I was strongly marked by Hindemith, Bartók and above all Stravinsky. Then by Berg, who corresponded to the expressionistic side of my nature. On the other hand, a Bach Passion or the Well-Tempered Clavichord, a sonata or quartet by Beethoven, a concerto by Mozart, a Lied or a piano piece by Schumann, Schubert or Brahms, a song by Mahler, a late composition by Fauré, they all make up such an important part of my universe that I realize that the notions of space and time do not hold for these works when I play them or listen to them. Perhaps the notion of time changes nature, perspective and understanding. Perhaps this is the reason why I compose: to escape from myself and paradoxically also to return to myself as fully alive as I am able; this is a unique manner of measuring time, time as is carefully suspended between life and death. It is not a matter of escaping time and all things thrilling, joyful or overwhelming; but through these exterior vibrations (vibrations that are sometimes harsh) we are able to sense this mysterious meeting point in each of us that unites complementary (and at times opposing) forces, thus realizing our spiritual experience of life. Whether I’ve frequently written tonal music, occasionally written atonal or polytonal works, or also utilized serial language, these are merely questions of technique. All modes of writing are possible, because unity exists in the transcendence of individual differences. The real question on a moral and on a psychological level still remains for the composer as for each of us: our unique inner reality.”



© Antonin Scherrer, traduction de Mark Manion