My interest in these scarcely known Pièces de Concours was sparked a few years ago, when I inherited a bundle of sheet music and found a list of these works at the Conservatoire de Paris. I was very surprised to see that the first of these pieces had been intended for the first concours, or competitive examination, for the Conservatoire’s first program designed specifically for viola students under the direction of Théophile Laforge back in 1896.
The origin of the pièces de concours
Violin and cello classes at the Paris Conservatoire began as early as 1795; the first double bass class started in 1827. Already in 1848, Hector Berlioz observed in the Revue et Gazette Musical that viola players were third-class violinists and that proper instruction was needed to train players who could meet the demands of contemporary compositions in which the viola, for the first time, was being treated as ranking equally with the other instruments.
It was not until 1877, however, that the very first viola class was taught at the Royal Conservatoire in Brussels under Léon Firket and that the first of the Pièces de Concours, Concertino was composed for these students in 1878. This piece was then prescribed as the first Pièce de Concours in Paris in 1896, upon the inauguration of the Paris conservatoire’s viola program. There had been plans to start teaching viola in Paris as early as 1878 under Joseph Marie Mas, but the decision was postponed until 1894, when the thirty-one year-old Théophile Laforge was asked to start teaching a viola class - against the widely prevailing opinion that viola players used the same technique as violinists. Laforge (1863-1918) trained a new generation of ‘genuine’ viola players that included Maurice Vieux (who later took over his teaching position), Henri Casadesus (who became known for several transcriptions for viola), Louis Bailly and Pierre Monteux (who subsequently became world-famous as a conductor).
As still required at the Conservatoire to this day, each instrumentalist had to include the same prescribed contemporary piece, called the Pièce de Concours, in their performance for the final examination then known as the Concours or Le Prix. This was a piece full of virtuosic technical challenges and lyrical qualities, designed to demonstrate students’ newly acquired skills. From 1896 to 1940, twenty-seven new compositions for viola were commissioned for this purpose (many of them dedicated to Théophile Laforge), with many of the more popular pieces being used again for other Concours in later years. Probably the best-known piece to emerge from this tradition, and now a part of the standard current viola repertoire, is the Concertstück by George Enescu, followed by the Concerto in G major (1899) by Hans Sitt. After the Second World War the number of commissions declined for a period of time. The pieces used for the examinations thereafter featured not only contemporary compositions, but also pieces from the existing standard repertoire (Bach, Schumann, Stamitz, Walton).
In order to help his students meet the demands of these new works, Laforge also attempted to standardise the size of the instrument: 40 centimeters, the size of the model used at the Conservatoire, was considered ideal for mastering the difficulties of substantial position changes without losing quality in the viola tone. The bow was to be slightly shorter, with a more robust stick, a broader ribbon of bow hair and somewhat heavier than that used for the violin.
These differences in the viola bow persist to this day, while the sizes of violas now vary a great deal.
About the compositions
The Pièces de Concours are shorter pieces that vary in length from around 5 minutes to 14 minutes.
The first compositions used as Pièces de Concours were originally not necessarily written for this occasion, but were conceived as pedagogical concertos in three shorter movements or sections with simple harmonic piano accompaniment, written for the emerging violists. These concertinos by Firket (composed in 1878, used in the concours in 1896), Sitt (composed in 1892, used in the concours in 1899) and Arends (composed around 1886, used in the concours in 1898) are the longest of the pièces de concours, and were set for orchestra as well and probably were performed as such.
Many of the following Pièces de Concours were termed Concertstück, after the german word Konzertstück for a concertino: a smaller scale one-movement concerto with freer form, with a similar technical display as in a concertante. As time progressed, the form of the Pièce de Concours started to vary and in later year pieces featured such forms as Fantasie, Chaconne, Caprice, Poème, Appassionato, Théme varié, Ballade, Romance Arioso and Allegro. Taken together, they represent a wonderful variety of lyricism, romantic melodies, with increasingly complex harmonies and piano parts of equal importance to the viola.
Despite this increasing formal variance, all of the Pièces de Concours have one thing in common: they test the technical abilities of the player, almost as if the pieces go through a check list of all possible technical demands to be mastered. Such demands include rapid scale runs all over the whole range of the instrument, chromatic scales, complicated arpeggios and broken chords, scales in sixths, thirds, and octaves, and a variety of complex bow strokes. They even feature such advanced techniques as melodies played in harmonics and the upbow staccato, but they also require a capability for lyric expression, often in a new range of until then never required extremely high positions on the instrument. All of these challenges must be executed in a way that displays an intimate harmonic understanding of the composition, supported by a wide range of choices in sound colors and dynamics.
The Pièces de Concours are indeed a musical and technical workout for viola players!
Thirteen of the recorded eigtheen Pièces de Concours have been reedited by the SCHOTT edition in three volumes entiteled Pièces de Concours ED 22234-22236
Jutta Puchhammer-Sédillot Translation and editing Julia Rushworth and Melissa Claisse.
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