A Comet on the Sky of French Music

Red glow. © Charles Thibo

If you are old enough, you may remember Laurel and Hardy, two slapstick comedians from the 1920s, whose short movies I saw in the 1970s on TV, all black and white, no spoken words, occasionally subtitled – just as funny and just as sad as Charlie Chaplin. I loved Laurel and Hardy when I was a child, and when I recently listened to the opening bars of Alexis de Castillon’s Piano Trio No. 1 in B flat major (Op. 4) I had to think of the piano music that accompanied the short movies. It made me feel nostalgic for the simplicity of the jokes, the straightforwardness of the arrangement and the unobtrusive piano music that conferred a sense of tragedy, of comedy or simply heightened the tension.

De Castillon then, the French cavalry officer from the second half of the 19th century turned composer, guided by Camille de Saint-Saëns and César Franck. He wrote this interesting trio around 1865, it was published a year later. The premiere took place in 1893 at the Société Nationale de Musique in Paris, founded by Saint-Saëns and himself. The composer dedicated the piece to the Viscountess de Truchi.

The trio is written in four movements, the first and the last one being of equal length. The opening bars are a quasi piano recital with occasional outcries of the violin. An interesting idea, certainly avant-garde as it follows no traditional model. But de Castillon was certainly a somewhat excentric man indulging in such deviations from the norm. A nobleman whose origin would have guaranteed an excellent career in the French military decides that his love for music primes everything else and starts taking lessons. A sympathetic man! If all officers would turn to music, there would be none left to direct any war. The road to eternal peace would be open!

De Castillon was a comet in the sky of French music, coming from deep space, passing by, glowing, amazing everyone and gone. His most productive phase started around 1871, when he had returned from the French-Prussian War. He wrote solo pieces for piano, several works for chamber music, a symphony, an overture. He destroyed most of what he had written before. The war having taken its toll on de Castillon’s already fragile health, he died on March 5, 1873.

Alexis de Castillon’s Pano Trio No. 1 has been recorded by the Trio Nuori.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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4 thoughts on “A Comet on the Sky of French Music”

  1. Danke vielmals – ich habe so gelacht über Laurel & Hardy! Anders als Katia habe ich die zwei schon als Kind gemocht und staune jetzt darüber, wie sehr sie mich immer noch zum Schmunzeln bringen. Und auch das Trio von Castillo ist wunderbar – eine echte Entdeckung!

    Summary: I love both – the short film and the music. Thank you very much!

  2. Interesting and informativer, as ever.
    I hated both Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy when I was a child. I was too angry and frustrated and how, in my five or six-year-old mind, the characters were so “stupid” as to get caught up in their situations.
    As an adult, of course, although I still don’t like them, I am able to appreciate their skill – especially Chaplin’s.

    1. You hated Chaplin and the duo? Oh dear! I had a Super-8 projector as a child and organized home movie sessions to the great annoyance of my family who all had to show up. We would watch Popeye cartoons and those hilarious black and white movies! 😅

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