Caplet: Les Prières

Program Note

André Caplet was born in Le Havre, the youngest of seven children. He earned top marks at the Paris Conservatory and took the Prix de Rome in 1901 (in spite of Maurice Ravel’s entry) for the cantata Myrrha. After his Villa Medici residence, Caplet returned to Paris and immersed himself in the vibrant scene. He quickly became embroiled in the intellectual controversy surrounding Claude Debussy’s watershed opera Pélléas et Mélisande, flying a refined Debussyste flag in his own composition, and began a close friendship with the older composer. Caplet aided Debussy in his ill health to correct proofs, orchestrate works including Children’s Corner Suite and Pagodes, and conduct many of his performances. These engagements garnered him significant acclaim as a conductor and, to Debussy’s delight, an appointment to the direction of French repertoire at the Boston Opera Company in 1910. Caplet maintained that position until he was drafted into duty at the end of 1914, assigned to the extremely active trenches of Verdun. He was eventually promoted to the rank of sergeant, but not before he was wounded during a heavy bombardment in May of 1915. He was released from duty in 1919 and married Marie-Elise Perruchon, a general’s daughter who took a keen interest in his music, in the same year. At the age of 46, Caplet caught a cold which quickly developed into a fatal case of pleurisy; his lungs, damaged from gassings in the war, could not recover from the virus. Marie-Elise herself directed many concerts of his music after his death.

Over the course of his life, Caplet published a modest catalog of orchestral works, chamber music, and choral music (including Le Miroir de Jesus (1923), a major work in free counterpoint), but the main focus of his output was a collection of many mélodies for voice and piano. Hector Berlioz was the first French composer to assign the genre of mélodie to his own songs in the mid-19th century, such as the cycle Les nuits d’été (1841), and Fauré, Massenet, and Gounod also wrote in the style. The mélodie developed further with the advent of French Impressionism, seeing dozens of contributions by Caplet’s contemporaries, including Debussy and Ravel.

Les Prières is a cycle of wartime mélodies, comprised of three settings of sacred texts. Caplet set the Lord’s Prayer and the Ave Maria in 1914, in the shadow of the geopolitical tension which would lead to the July Crisis and to Caplet’s conscription. The third movement on the Apostle’s Creed was composed literally in the trenches of war in 1917 while the composer defended his country as a liaison agent, evading death by day and, according to a letter written by Debussy, dragging around a dismantled piano in order to write at night. At the premiere of the piece at a small church in Picardy later that year, in the words of an onlooking critic:

"The blasting of the enemy had damaged the windows. The birds had made their nests in the eaves of the choir. They sang happily; meanwhile the tender chant, 'Je vous salue, Marie,' arose. Not far away, from the direction of Saint-Quentin, heavy artillery produced the bass. Caplet was visibly moved."

—Josh Davidoff