Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Now Hyperion discovers a French Eric Whitacre

Within days of writing my article on the surprise sales of Cloudburst, the CD of Eric Whitacre's choral music, another very interesting new release from Hyperion arrived. It was sent by those eagle-eared folks at leading classical store Prelude Records who think Hyperion may have found a Gallic Eric Whitacre, and having listened to this new CD of Pierre Villette's choral music I believe they may be right. (Photo above shows Pierre Villette flanked by Henri Dutilleux [left] and Witold Lutoslawski [right]).

Pierre Villette is not totally unknown here in the UK. His choral music was championed by Dr Donald Hunt in the 1970s when he was director of Worcester Cathedral Choir, and Villette's Hymne à la vierge, which is probably his best known work, has been performed in the annual Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, Cambridge. Choirs in the US, Japan and Germany are also familiar with Villette's compositions. But strangely he has never been widely performed in his native France, probably because he held regional positions in a country where artistic life is dominated by Paris.

Villette was born into a musical family in 1926. He studied with Marcel Dupré before attending the Paris Conservatoire. Pierre Boulez was a fellow student but their careers followed very different paths. In 1957 Villette was appointed director of the Conservatoire in Besancon (left), the capital of the Franche-Comté region. He was dogged by ill-health and had a lung removed while still in his twenties. His health forced him to move from mountainous Besancon to a warmer climate, and he became director of the Academy at Aix en Provence in 1967. He held this position until he retired in 1987, and he continued to live in Provence until his death in 1998.

Villette's music is a product of a French musical heritage that includes, Fauré and Debussy as well as Poulenc and Messiaen , and of a French cultural legacy that includes Catholicism and the Bendictine Order. Villette was not interested in the avant-garde direction taken by Boulez's circle, instead his music drew on influences as eclectic as Gregorian Chant, medieval music, jazz (he composed an orchestral piece titled Blues) and Stravinsky. His catalogue has eighty-one opus numbers (a full list is available via this link), and he wrote chamber and orchestral music as well as the better known choral works.


Like Eric Whitacre's, Villette's music is fundamentally conservative. It is music of the twentieth century, but whereas Whitacre professes not to be heavily influenced by religion, Villette's choral works are in the sacred tradition. The new Hyperion CD, which is somewhat unadventurously titled Pierre Villette, is a wonderful introduction to his music. It concentrates on the sacred, and includes the beautiful Hymne à la vierge as well as several motets. Parallels with the Whitacre disc abound. As with Cloudburst the director is choral man-of-the-moment Stephen Layton and the recording venue is the Temple Church, London. But the choir is the wonderful Holst Singers (photo above) who, like Polyphony, are Hyperion regulars.

There is some very beautiful music here indeed. My interest in Gregorian chant and early music is no secret, and I confess that the gentle motet Salve Regina moved me in a way that nothing on Cloudburst really did. I don't think there will be too many fans among the Sequenza21 crowd, but this new CD of Pierre Villette's music should appeal to anyone interested in hearing a relatively unknown voice in the mainstream twentieth century choral tradition, and it will certainly appeal to all interested in sacred choral music. It is also a gift to the PBS programmers among my readers. All but three of the tracks are less than five minutes, and there is some fine music here with instant 'listener appeal'. All credit to Hyperion for once again unearthing some really worthwhile twentieth-century music.

Discover for yourself the music of Pierre Villette with these two substantial audio files:
Inviolata [5'15]-
Salutation angélique [2'30]-


* Pierre Villette is released on Hyperion, catalogue number CDA67539
* All CDs featured On An Overgrown Path are available from
Prelude Records .
* This article has been edited by me to form a new Wikipedia entry for Pierre Villette.
* Image credits: Header - Filomusica.com, Besancon - Lyonnaiseries: Holst Singers - Holstsingers.com. Any copyrighted material on these pages is used in "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Let the people sing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Unlike the British BBC, PBS programmers aren't really interested in classical music, but only popular, world music, and jazz. Classical music programming on PBS has been largely gutted over the past decade -- everything from carefully researched early music broadcasts to top-shelf symphonic and operatic broadcasts. Classical music programmers are now a quaint concept on this side of the pond, though one or two may still exist, working on a part-time basis.