Pierre Kunc at 150: Rediscovering a prize-winning composer

December 3, 2015

The year 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Pierre Kunc (1865–1941), possibly one of the most award-winning organist/composers in France’s musical history. Yet, despite his regional renown, as evidenced by numerous performances and prizes, his fame remained mostly local and limited to his lifetime. It seems unusual that any composer would enjoy such success and eventually be consigned to obscurity. The principal reason for his lack of lasting fame may be the lack of published music, as the bulk of Kunc’s output never appeared in print. Few of his awards offered the opportunity for publication; instead, they featured performances. The published materials in the Bibliothèque Nationale (BN) include several piano pieces, most of his organ works, numerous motets and Mass settings for voices, two transcriptions for organ, and his only two chamber works, the Sonate and Rapsodie, both for viola and piano. 

Not one of Kunc’s dozen or more orchestral works appears to have been published, nor are there any orchestral manuscripts listed in the BN catalogue. Certain works, such as Au pied des monts de Gavranie, suffered the typical fate of a new composition: they received their premieres and were almost instantly forgotten. But others, such as Été pastoral, enjoyed multiple performances throughout Kunc’s lifetime.1 It seems likely that several works survived the ravages of World War I in France, as several pieces were performed both prior to and following 1914, but one has to question whether or not these were manuscripts or published scores, and if they still exist. It would be a great boost to scholars to have access to these scores in order to more fully analyze the music and Kunc’s contribution to the field.2

Born in Toulouse, Kunc began his musical training at home with his father, Aloys Martin, who was maître de chapelle at the cathedral in Toulouse, and with his mother, Henriette Marie née Dargein, who had studied piano with Louise Farrenc and organ with César Franck at the Paris Conservatoire. Pierre’s education continued at a Jesuit school in Toulouse, and later he pursued further study at the Paris Conservatoire, where he had organ lessons with Eugène Gigout, a lifelong admirer of Franck, and composition study with Ernest Guiraud, a winner of the Prix de Rome as well as a founding member of the Société Nationale de Musique. While in Paris, Kunc frequented concerts of the Schola Cantorum and developed relationships with some of Paris’s greatest musicians, many of whom were devotees of Franck, whose music clearly illustrates the influence of the Germanic school of Liszt and Wagner. This sphere of influence, coupled with Kunc’s devout Catholicism, may have influenced his style. 

 Little is known about Kunc’s personal life. He married twice, both times to singers. His first wife, Jane Gillet, was a former student of Kunc’s who performed with some of Paris’s finest musicians. She premiered several melodies of Guy Ropartz for the Société Nationale and performed a wide array of repertoire, including songs by her husband and brother-in-law, Aymé. Jane died from pleurisy in 1912. Three years later, at the age of fifty, Kunc married Elisabeth Tournier. That marriage lasted over twenty years before Elisabeth passed away from an illness she developed in 1931, which took her life some four years later. Neither marriage produced any children. According to his nephew, it was at this time that Kunc devoted himself to writing mostly sacred music.3 Perhaps this second devastating personal loss gave Kunc a reason to renew his interest in sacred music, turning to the familiar during a low emotional period.4

A very early review (1890) praises Kunc as a composer with a bright future, and notes that Kunc’s compositional ability might make him a future candidate for the Prix de Rome.5 Many of Kunc’s earliest musical compositions received reviews citing his stylistic kinship with Wagner. In his review of Kunc’s Prelude d’Helene, critic André Gresse claimed that Kunc was a disciple of Wagner, calling the orchestral work with voices that of a “real talent (réel talent).”6 This attachment to Wagnerian style remained part of Kunc’s musical vocabulary throughout his career, resulting in conflicting comments from reviewers.7 The extreme differences among them reflect the two prevailing schools of thought in Paris during this time. Some preferred the more Germanic style of symphonic music while others hoped that young composers would help give France a new voice, one that avoided Germanic styles and references.8 A review of the premiere of Kunc’s Été pastoral provides an example of the negative opinion, asserting that Kunc might best be a composer of “charming ballets and excellent pantomimes” rather than of serious music.9 Another reviewer, upon hearing this same performance, wrote that it was regrettable that a new work had so little to offer with regard to originality.10 In contrast to those comments, several reviewers praised this same work for its clarity, color, and great candor, as well as claiming that Kunc possessed rare qualities “not smothered in tricks.”11 In an era where experimentation, creativity, and imagination were sought in new music, Kunc’s music may have seemed old-fashioned or outdated, so even the positive reviews were often lukewarm, such as this one from a concert of the Société nationale in 1906, assessing his vocal settings of some poetry by Camille Mauclair, pseudonym of Séverin Faust:

I am beginning to think that it (modern music) is a dirty trick, because the simple melody by Monsieur Pierre Kunc, titled “Complainte,” has given me great pleasure.  This musician appears to me to have chosen a poem quite suitable for music . . . I was less fond of the second piece, “Undergrowth,” but it does not lack originality.12 

However, in the same concert, Kunc’s performance of his Suite: Grand prière [sic] symphonique for organ was well received, though one reviewer did find the title questionable, as the work did not provide a prayer-like atmosphere.13

Kunc wrote in nearly every genre, composing works for voice, choir, organ, piano, chamber ensembles, and orchestra. It would seem he never stopped composing, producing a substantial body of work, much of which remains unknown, unheard, and unpublished. Throughout his career, Kunc continued to develop and hone his craft, and he enjoyed notable success. In 1900, he won a prize in a competition sponsored by the Société des Compositeurs for his Symphonie-Fantaisie, which he had completed in 1898. Pianist Georges de Lausnay performed the premiere with the orchestra of the Concerts Victor Charpentier.14 This work enjoyed many performances during Kunc’s lifetime, most often with de Lausnay as the pianist.

Four years later, Kunc survived the three competitive rounds of judging in the Concours de la Ville de Paris with his three-act tragedie lyrique, Canta.15 The work ultimately received a rather mixed review, one that referred to its energy as “snort[ing] with persistence,” and as being full of “clashing measures that sometimes compensate for emotion.”16 It should be noted that Kunc ultimately lost that competition to such notables as Charles Tournemire and Gabriel Pierné. In 1913, Kunc’s Symphony Pyrénéenne captured the Prix Antonin Marmontel from La Société des Compositeurs.17 Portions of this work received several performances over the next two decades, but it seems its first complete performance took place in Toulouse under the direction of Pierre’s brother Aymé in 1923, nearly a decade after its completion.18 Despite the ongoing war, or perhaps in honor of France’s accomplishments, Kunc’s Overture héroïque et triomphale premiered in Paris to favorable reviews at the Salle Gaveau in 1916, right in the middle of the global conflict.19

As late as 1929, Kunc, at sixty-four years old, was still entering his works in competitions and winning prizes, including the Prix Chartier given by the Académie des beaux-arts for a piece of chamber music.20 (The award announcement does not give the title of the work; it may have been the Rapsodie pour alto et piano.) Two years later, Kunc was awarded the Prix Trémont (for a second time) by the Académie des beaux-arts. (The first time he won this prize was in 1909, when he shared it with César-Abel Estyle.21) Finally, in 1940, the year before he died, he received the Prix Jacques Durand from the Académie des beaux-arts for his Rapsodie for viola and piano.

Kunc’s music received frequent performances at the concerts of the Société nationale, an organization devoted to performing chamber and vocal works of young and upcoming French composers; many of these works received critical praise.22 Despite these positive reviews, many of his pieces languished in his library for years, while other pieces enjoyed numerous hearings. For instance, his Prélude to Les Cosaques, a play by Leo Tolstoy, was not performed until fifteen years after it had been completed.23 By contrast, his piano piece, Rigaudon, which he subsequently arranged for piano and orchestra, received countless performances during his lifetime, and may have been among his best-known compositions. However, despite his local fame, numerous recognitions, and frequent performances, a great deal of Kunc’s output remains unpublished.24

Kunc’s limited renown may be due to having come from a musical family, where his father Aloys and younger brother Aymé were extremely well known, so possibly greater things may have been expected. A review of the Quinze motets (1856) by Pierre’s father begins with this glowing statement: “If Monsieur Kunc was not an excellent musician full of verve and originality, we would tell him: ‘You deserve these words of praise, it is charming, gracious, and sometimes even brilliant.’” 25

Aymé won second prize, along with Maurice Ravel, in the prestigious Prix de Rome competition of 1902, at the tender age of twenty-five. This honor catapulted him to great fame and well-deserved respect.

Although Pierre was a fine composer and musician, he suffered from being frequently confused with his brother. Two examples may provide a clearer picture of this awkward situation. A review in Le Ménestrel mentioned the pleasure of hearing the second movement of Pierre’s Symphonie Pyrénéenne, which was followed by a work of “his glorious brother, Aymé.”26 (Another critic went so far as to claim that Pierre had been taught his craft by Aymé, who was twelve years Pierre’s junior!) One such confusion with his brother arose in 1922, during a search for a new director of the Conservatory of Nantes. Among the listing of possible candidates was Pierre, winner of the Prix de Rome, though this was likely a reference to Aymé, then serving as director of the Toulouse Conservatory.27 Regardless of Pierre’s noteworthy abilities as a composer, he and his music remained in the shadow of his father and younger brother. In spite of these regrettable circumstances, Aymé appears to have been a strong supporter of his elder brother, conducting his music, including the aforementioned first complete performance of the Symphonie Pyrénéenne at concerts in Toulouse and Nancy.

 

Works for piano and organ

Since Kunc spent the bulk of his professional life as a teacher of piano and organ at the Ecole Sainte-Geneviève in Paris, it comes as no surprise that he composed a fair amount of music for both instruments.28 His piano music was performed by many of the greatest interpreters of the era, including Alfred Cortot, Edouard Risler, and Blanche Selva. Kunc’s organ works (twelve in all) also remain little known, despite their accumulated accolades. Although Kunc won several premières prix for his organ compositions, not one of these compositions appears in the current concert repertoire. (Music of the other prize winners, Henri Mulet and Joseph Jongen, still appear in the concert repertory.) With his Libera Me: Pièce funèbre and Communion, Kunc took first place in the 1911 competition sponsored by the Procure générale de musique religieuse. Libera Me: Pièce funèbre was dedicated to the memory of his father; it uses techniques found in the music of the era, including thematic combinations, a technique often associated with Franck and Vierne. The order in which the thematic material appears creates the sense of a tone poem or musical drama depicting the human experience at the end of life (death, regrets in life, the fear of judgment, and the promise of redemption), as noted in the publication’s preface. The use of Gregorian chant themes pays homage to Kunc’s father, who was founder and editor of Musica Sacra, a periodical devoted to the Catholic Church and its music. 

In 1921, Kunc commenced work on his only organ symphony. Completed in 1923, the Symphonie en Ré mineur was entered into yet another competition sponsored by the Procure générale de la musique religieuse, and, again, Kunc garnered the premier prix. The work was published by the Procure générale the following year, and received its premiere at the Salle Gaveau in Paris in March 1924, admirably performed by Georges Jacob, to whom the work is dedicated. (Jacob performed many of Kunc’s organ pieces.) The work enjoyed several more performances over the next few years, all given by Jacob. The last documented performance of the Symphonie en Ré mineur took place in 1927, at a concert sponsored by the Union des Maîtres de Chapelles, once again by Jacob. 

Reviews of this symphonie were extremely favorable. Georges Renard penned an extensive article, which analyzed the piece in great detail.29 Ultimately, it may have been this essay that aided in the disappearance of the work from the standard organ repertoire of the day, as Renard praised the work for its “Widorian concept of the orchestral symphony adapted to the organ.”30 By 1924, the symphonies of Widor, which were the first of their kind, had been surpassed by the brilliant work of his pupil, friend, and former assistant, Louis Vierne, organist of Notre-Dame, who, by 1924, had published four of his six organ symphonies. It may be that the reviewer sought to place the work within the ever-growing genre of the organ symphony, but the suite-like structure initially used by Widor was, by this time, outmoded. However, the Kunc work, while containing traditional elements, certainly contains newer ones as well, such as cyclic thematic material, chromatic tonal language, and tightly controlled tonal relationships between the movements of the symphony. 

One unique quality of the Symphonie en Ré mineur is the structure of its opening movement. Usually Vierne and Widor, the principal organ symphonists of their day, relied heavily on sonata-allegro form or some version of a binary form, but Kunc introduces four themes in the work’s first movement, Fantaisie. Throughout the movement, these themes intermingle and receive diverse treatments, including rhythmic augmentation and varied harmonization; they undergo fugal treatment and imitation as well as modal changes. According to Renard, there are many unexpected events, including the return of the final statement of the first theme in the original minor key despite its having been heard in the parallel major mode for some time. 

The only other organ work that received significant mention during Kunc’s career is the Grande pièce symphonique, which he dedicated to his teacher Eugène Gigout. The work seems to have been part of a larger suite for organ, but this scherzo is the only movement extant. The piece appeared in 1901 as part of the series L’Orgue moderne, arguably the premier publication of new organ music by young French composers in the early part of the twentieth century. The work was played by both Alexandre Guilmant and Georges Jacob.31 Kunc also seems to have been taken with the music of his contemporaries such as Léon Roques and Camille Saint-Saëns, as he arranged several works of these men for smaller forces, including the Adagio from the so-called “Organ” symphony by Saint-Saëns, which Kunc set for violin, violoncello, harp, and organ.32

Among the works for organ, some deserve special mention. The Grande pièce symphonique assumes the same name as the Franck work that is often credited as the composition that initiated the French symphonic organ school, but bears little resemblance to the earlier work. The Kunc work is in three large sections that together loosely resemble sonata form. The aggressive A theme is rhythmic and chromatic (Example 1). In contrast, the B section features sustained harmonies and limited chromaticism that abruptly becomes a fugato, whose subject uses the opening A material and then alternates with the B theme. A brief development section follows, which leads to a return of the A and B material, the A material in the tonic F# minor and the B material in the parallel major with just a few hints of the A theme
(Example 2).

Another noteworthy piece is the brief Adagietto in E Major from 1902, also found in L’Orgue moderne. This lyrical work utilizes some of the characteristic tone colors of the French symphonic organ, including the Cor de nuit and the Trompette harmonique. The closing section uses some rich and vivid harmonies, as seen in Example 3.

 

Choral works

Following the short-lived success of his Symphonie pour orgue, Kunc appears to have shifted his focus to chamber and choral music, though he did not cease writing works for large ensembles and even reworking music from earlier successes. (He extracted the Deux Danses hindoues from his Canta originally completed in 1900; this excerpt received glowing praise at its premiere some thirty years later.33) During this period, Kunc composed two Masses for choir and organ (dedicated to St. Bernadette and to des Saintes Reliques—“holy relics”), as well as the aforementioned Rapsodie for viola and piano or orchestra (published posthumously). For several years, he served as maître de chapelle at St. Sulpice in Paris, where Charles-Marie Widor was still serving as organiste titulaire. Happily for Kunc, he was able to perform choral works that his father had written, as well as some of his own sacred music, while fulfilling his duties. His choral music seems to have enjoyed some local success throughout several regions of France, as many newspapers mention his works in their listings of music performed at religious services. Early works in the choral genre include the Hodie Christus natus est and Regina coeli from 1901. Several years later he composed settings of O Salutaris, Tantum Ergo, O Sacrum Convivium, Cantique de Communion, and Tota pulchra es (1910). Kunc dedicated these works to various maîtres de chapelle in Toulouse (his birthplace) and Paris (his adopted home). Kunc appears to have been well respected as a choral conductor, as a review of some sacred music quotes Kunc and comments that he is a connoisseur and an excellent musician.34

 

In summary

Finally, Pierre Kunc proved himself to be a most well-rounded musician; not only did he compose and perform music, he wrote critically about it. He served as music critic for two journals, Le Guide musicale and La Nouvelle revue. He wrote at least three lengthy articles on various musical personalities, scores, and performances, including an insightful retrospective on the career of Charles Lamoureux, conductor and organizer of the Concerts-Lamoureux, and an extensive critique of a performance of Humperdinck’s Hansel et Gretel at the Opéra-Comique.35

As a whole, Kunc’s organ repertoire, though small, admirably displays his competency as a serious composer. His entire extant output for his preferred instrument follows, with asterisks indicating the prize-winning works.36

 

Grande pièce symphonique 

* Communion (in A-flat)

* Pièce funèbre

Douze pieces pour orgue ou harmonium sur des noëls français

Adagietto (L’Orgue moderne)

Sortie fuguée (L’Orgue moderne)

Marche religiuese

Entrée solennelle, Fughetta

Offertoire en fa majeur

Offertoire sur deux Noëls en si b majeur

* Symphonie en ré mineur 

Adoremus (et laudate)

Élévation

 

Kunc’s Symphonie en ré mineur is unlike many of its predecessors within the genre in its compactness—it has only three movements whereas a four- or five-movement design had been the standard. This brevity is intensified by Kunc’s use of a singular rhythmic idea, which supplies the momentum in each of the latter two movements. One might find such motoric patterns tiring on the ear, but the use of countermelodies and unusual harmonic progressions keeps the listener’s interest.37

Sadly, much of Kunc’s organ music remains unavailable, though a few pieces appear in online catalogues. Both Kunc’s record of prizes and awards and fresh analyses of this works indicate an output of considerable musical merit, worthy
of rediscovery.

 

Notes

1. Among the orchestral works, one finds the Prélude d’Helene (one tableau appears to be in print in a British Library), Canta, Symphonie fantaisie pour piano et orchestre, Prélude (pour Les Cosaques), Deux Danses hindoues, Symphonie Pyrénéenne, and Été pastoral (premiered in 1905 and performed as late as 1943), to name a few. 

2. According to a personal e-mail correspondence with Francois Pellecer, Kunc’s nephew, whatever scores Pellecer possessed have been given to the Bibliothèque Nationale, though they do not as yet appear in the catalogue. The BN collection has six manuscripts of Kunc, all but one for piano. 

3. Pellecer, Pierre Kunc. 

4. In December 1937, the cathedral of Nantes gave the premiere performance of the Messe de Sainte-Bernadette (L’Ouest-Éclair, December 27, 1937, p. 4). 

5. Revue des Pyrénées et de France méridionale, p. 874 (1890). Kunc was awarded two first prizes from l’Academie de musique in Toulouse; one for an overture for orchestra, and the other for his song, Extase. The judges cited his work as being of a “modern and alluring style” and of “great originality. ”

6. Le Journal (Paris), February 25, 1895, p. 4, in a review of the Concerts d’Harcourt. 

7. A review of Kunc’s Diptych Breton lamented the need for young composers to “compose La Morte de Isolde” over and over again, suggesting that this music has already been written (Revue musicale de Lyon, vol. 7, no. 25, 1910, pp. 750–753). However, another review called the music “very evocative.” It claimed that these “pages of music were not negligible.” (See Le Rappel, March 22, 1910.)

8. A reviewer of a performance of some songs of Kunc lamented that “Kunc’s sin” was a vain attempt to develop the work in a pseudo-Wagnerian vain. (See Le Mercure musical, May 15, 1906, p. 471). 

9. Le Mercure musical, December 15, 1905, p. 546. Interestingly, this work was awarded a prize from la Société des Compositeurs in 1903. A more gracious review appeared in Le Matin (October 30, 1905, p. 5) immediately following the October premiere, though it too claimed that the piece lacked originality, possibly due to the Wagnerian influences that dominated much of Kunc’s music. 

10. Le Ménestrel, vol. 71, no. 43, November 5, 1905, p. 357. 

11. Revue Illustré, vol. 40, no. 23, November 15, 1905, p. 1. 

12. “Je commence à trouver que c’est un villain tour, et ce porquoi la simple et franche mélodie de M. Pierre Kunc, qui a pour titre “Complainte,” m’a cause un vif plaisir. Ce musicien me semble avoir choisi une poème tout a fait “musicable” . . . J’ai moins aime la seconde mélodie, ”Sous bois” . . . mais elle manqué par trop d’originalité.” Le Mercure Musical, 1906, vol. 2, p. 471 features a review of the Société Nationale concert of
March 17, 1906. 

13. Kunc’s work is properly titled Grande pièce symphonique. It was published in 1901 by Alphonse Leduc. So, it would appear, that the critic either misread the title or there was a misprint in the program. 

14. Le Ménestrel, vol. 69, no. 2, January 11, 1903, p. 13. The work is entitled here as Suite pour piano et orchestre with Pierre Kunc conducting. 

15. There were thirty-one entries in that competition; only six received awards and performances. According to Kunc’s biography, Samuel Rousseau considered the work to be “a little too Wagnerian.” (Pellecer, François, Pierre Kunc. Self-published, 2001). 

16. Le Ménestrel, vol. 70, no. 21, May 22, 1904, p. 162. 

17. Le Ménestrel, March 14, 1914, p. 87. 

18. Comoedia, April 16, 1923, p. 3. The review mentions that fragments had been performed at several of the Concerts-Lamoureux, but it was finally performed in its entirety in Toulouse, the composer’s hometown. 

19. Le Gaulois, January 3, 1916, p. 4. The work originally premiered in Toulouse as the Overture to Salammbô (see Revue française de musique, November 15, 1912, p. 110.) Interestingly, the overture had three movements (sections): Gloria, Luctus, Victoria, possibly due to the storyline of the Flaubert text. 

20. Académie des beaux-arts [Annuaire], 1929, p. 20. 

21. Le Journal (Paris), May 17, 1909, p. 7. 

22. Le Ménestrel, vol. 82, no. 23, June 4, 1920, p. 234; Le Ménestrel, vol. 84, no. 5, February 3, 1922, p. 49. The reviewer mentions that the composer achieved a happy balance between the dramatic opening movement and the flowery exuberance of the third movement in the Sonata. 

23. The work, premiered at Concerts-Colonne, received a positive review in Paris-Soir, March 24, 1925, p. 6. 

24. Francois Pellecer, Music et Memoria, Pierre Kunc (2001), www.musimem.com/kunc_pierre.htm. According to Pellecer, as of the publication, numerous works are still in the family’s collection with hopes of being published posthumously. 

25. “M. Kunc n’était pas un excellent musician, un artiste plein verve et d’originalité, nous lui dirions: ‘Ce que vous avait fait mérite des éloges; c’est charmant, gracieuse et parfois même brilliant.’” Revue de musique ancienne et modern, 1856, p. 776. 

26. Le Ménestrel, vol. 86, no. 23, June 6, 1924, p. 261. 

27. L’Ouest-Éclair, April 30, 1922 p. 4. 

28. Among his more popular works for solo piano is the Suite symphonie. The earliest documented performance took place at a concert of the Société national des beaux-arts in May 1906, performed by Jean Batalla (see Le Figaro, May 29, 1906, p. 5). 

29. Georges Renard, Revue Sainte-Cecile, 1927, pp. 103–104. 

30. “ . . . conception widorienne de la symphonie orchestrale adaptée à l’orgue.”

31. Le Mercure musical, January 1, 1906,
p. 317. 

32. Published by Durand et Cie. in 1924. Kunc also adapted Saint-Säens’ Laudate
Dominum
.

33. Le Journal, February 13, 1930, p. 6. See also La Semaine à Paris, February 21, 1930, p. 16, and Le Matin, February 10, 1930, p. 5. 

34. Paris Musical et Dramatique, May 1906, p. 4.

35. See La Feu follet, volume 20, tome XI, no. 1, pp. 152–155, and La Nouvelle revue, May–June 1900, pp. 624–630. 

36. Pellecer, op. cit. He mentions Vingt prières but there is no record of them in the Bibliothèque nationale catalogue or
elsewhere. 

37. The reader is referred to the previously cited article by Georges Renard for more details about the work. 

 

 

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