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More than Messiaen

Reinterpreting 20th-Century French musical traditions for UK audiences.

125 Anniversary concert

Traditionally, the programmes of UK orchestras have focused on a narrow group of 20th-century French composers indicating a line of development from Debussy and Ravel to Messiaen and Boulez.

Dr Caroline Rae from the School of Music has undertaken research on neglected 20th century French composers demonstrating their importance and relevance to the broader French and international mainstream, and casting better-known composers in a new light.

Supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Board and British Academy grants, the research combines archival investigation with personal testimonies from composers and their surviving relatives.

Under the joint auspices of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Cardiff University, this weekend feting Dutilleux constituted an initiation for most of the audience, but it was significant that the clarity and compelling energy of the works won him an eager reception.

The Guardian BBC Discovering Dutilleux Festival, February 2008

Recognising neglected composers

Dismantling the concept of the French tradition as being independent from modernist influences elsewhere, Rae has demonstrated ways in which it has shaped major 20th-century developments.

Rae has demonstrated how the exclusion of Dutilleux, Jolivet and Ohana from Boulez’s Concerts du Domaine Musical (1954-73) and, consequently, from BBC programming during the era of Sir William Glock (1959-73), resulted in their neglect in the UK during that period.

The research places Henri Dutilleux in the broader international mainstream rather than simply pigeonholing him as ‘quintessentially French’. She has shown that his music draws on influences from outside France, connecting in particular to Berg, Bartók and Lutoslawski. 

Rae’s work has reassessed Jolivet, overturning the view of him as a one-time progressive turned traditionalist. She has revealed a continuity of compositional innovation since 1945 and shown that his ideas and techniques influenced Messiaen.

The research also demonstrated Jolivet’s influence on Magic Realism through his connections with the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier. Interviewing Jolivet’s daughter and uncovering new source material (in the composer’s private archives) has revealed some of Jolivet’s previously overlooked interests and activities.

Messiaen and his contemporaries

Understanding of Messiaen’s contribution has been enhanced by Rae’s research on Jolivet and others, countering the perception of him as a wholly independent figure. Rae has shown that Messiaen drew from his contemporaries, his distinctive techniques connecting with broader trends in 20th-century French music.

Expanding repertoires

Drawing on her research, managers of major performing and broadcasting bodies, including the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, BBC Radio 3 and the Philharmonia Orchestra, have established partnerships with Rae to promote an expanded repertoire. 

As a result concert and radio audiences have been introduced to the music of a wider range of 20th-century French composers and, through complementary talks, interviews, programme notes, exhibitions and workshops, come to a better understanding of their stature and significance.

Meet our experts

Dr Caroline Rae

Dr Caroline Rae

Reader, Director of Postgraduate Research

+44 (0)29 2087 4391

This research was made possible through our close partnership with and support from: