De Castillon charts a new course for French music

Natural elegance. © Charles Thibo

A young French aristocrat. A cavalry officer. And a resounding name: Viscount Marie-Alexis de Castillon de Saint-Victor. And above all a man deeply in love with music and fully devoted to the promotion of this wonderful art. Alexis de Castillon, as he is commonly known, was born in 1838. At the age of 11, parallel to his school studies, he started to take piano lessons. He also learned to play the organ in his hometown Chartres. Following a family tradition he continued his studies at the prestigious military academy of Saint-Cyr.

From 1860 on he frequented an artistic circle, the Cercle de l’Union Artistique, in Paris. Being financially independent, he decided to dedicate his life to composing a year later and left the army. He became friends with Camille de Saint-Saëns, and in 1869, he joined César Franck’s students. During the French-Prussian War of 1870/71 he was recalled to the army for military duties but upon his return he helped Saint-Saëns to set up the Société Nationale de Musique, whose secretary he became.

Today’s piece, String Quartet No. 1 in A minor, op. 3, saw the light in 1867. It is written in three movements and strikes me for its natural elegance, its refershing and individual simplicity – something you would not necessarily expect from a young composer, who might either be tempted to copy the style of contemporaries or to emphasize the brilliance that was very much en vogue (Liszt!). Several years ago, looking for a recording of Saint-Saëns’ quartets, I found a recording of de Castillon’s piece by the Quatuor de Chartes and since then I listen to this quartet at regular intervals, each time with considerable pleasure.

Apparently Castillon was ahead of his time. On internet I found this piece of information – unconfirmed, but interesting if true: “No one dared to publish [the quartet] – it was too modern, too difficult to understand – until 1900 when Vincent d’Indy, then one of France’s most famous composers, pressured the French publisher Durand to print.” Which would mean that the piece had not been performed during the days of Castillon. The Polish music researcher Renata Suchowiejko quotes d’Indy who spoke of the “young guard of futurism, namely Saint-Saëns, Castillon, Massenet, Widor, Franck, Bussine, Bizet etc.” A respectable company for the man with the resounding name.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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