Jean Barraqué

Biography

Born: January 17, 1928; Puteaux, France   Died: August 17, 1973; Paris, France  
"All goes, all dies...Every trustee of creation must accept that as he accepts his own death. Even on the technical level his art must evolve towards death; it must be completed within 'incessant incompletion.'" -- Jean Barraque

What raises life to its most living state? For the tragically short-lived French composer Jean Barraque (1928 - 1973), it was not proximity to joy, but to death: to be an artist was to position oneself at the
Read more bluff of non-being. For only in that state -- weathering the blank terror of void, the stink of decay, or the thrill of impending doom -- could Barraque's ideal artist pump adequate blood through the veins, forge nothingness into breathing, beating, sensuous reality, even if that reality soon burned itself up in the living act. But what renders Barraque's words more than existential bitterness is his music: so far from the epithets often hurled at high-serial music ("anemic," "lifeless," mathematical"), Barraque's small but heroic output presents a dynamitic seizure of life, a dangerously animated edifice of musical spirit. Each of his six major works was a new Everest for the composer to climb, Barraque himself responsible for all the massive challenges he faced; in each work through the nearly hour-long Piano Sonata (1952) through the last completed part of the Broch cycle (1966 - 1968), Barraque developed a rigorous, torturous dialectic of control and freedom, always catching itself in transition. And in every work, Barraque adhered to an unblinking vision of heroic creative despair -- birthing the mortal, and speeding it through its incendiary span towards extinction.

Jean Barraque was born on January 17, 1928, in the small French town of Puteaux on the Seine. His family moved to Paris not long after Barraque's birth, but the composer soon grew a much greater attachment to the Breton coast, where his nanny would take him on extended visits to her family. He entered the Notre Dame choir when he was 12, and it was there, listening to Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony in a teacher's study, that Barraque made a pledge to follow music. He continued study at the Lycèe Condorcet from 1943 - 1947, and the following year he enrolled in Olivier Messiaen's famous classes, until 1951. It was under Messiaen that Barraque would begin to conceive and compose his first large works, the Sequence for soprano and ensemble; and it was with these works that Barraque would differentiate himself from two looming peers, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Barraque was far less drawn to defining ideal future systems, and much more to the artwork's ability to testify grandly to the present.

Even as both Sequence (completed in 1955) and the Piano Sonata made such statements in the "grand manner," Barraque's grandest projects lay ahead, grounded upon a single passion with Hermann Broch's novel The Death of Virgil. The novel articulates a profound despair about the state of the West, giving surreal chronicle of Virgil's last 18 hours -- after which the creation of the universe itself is reversed. The novel was strongly recommended to Barraque by friend Michel Foucault, and upon finishing it Barraque pledged to devote his life to giving it musical setting and commentary. Of the five planned vocal works, only three were completed before Barraque's death: Le temps restitué (1956 - 1968), ...au-delà du hasard (1957 - 1959), and Chant après chant (1966). Yet this "gran torso" still shocks on consecutive hearing -- in its Promethean fire, its supernova-like explosiveness, its extraordinary commitment to hopelessness, and especially its pride. Paul Griffiths imagines these works singing directly to Barraque, as if the composer "had made his works to enter into dialogue with himself as creator." Read less

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