Marcelle Meyer is well known by record collectors from the famous LPs she made with Les Discophiles Français. However, these wonderful recordings reveal only a part of her repertoire and the major role she played in the development of Twentieth Century French piano music. To recall the name of Marcelle Meyer means no less than to evoke the golden era of the Groupe des Six, with Poulenc, Milhaud and Auric, the Ecole d'Arcueil with Satie, Sauguet and Désormière, or the magical world of the Ballets Russes with Stravinsky and Diaghilev, for she was very close to all these artists. Indeed she counted Ravel, Stravinsky and Jean Cocteau among her closest friends.
She was born on May 22nd 1897 in Lille in northern France. At the age of five she received her first piano lessons from her sister Germaine, nine years older and herself an excellent pianist. Marcelle entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1911 at the age of fourteen enrolling first in Marguerite Long's class. She quickly changed to Cortot's class who was to guide her to her Premiers Prix in 1913. She played her Saint-Saëns concerto so wonderfully that Cortot threw himself onto the stage to kiss her. A period under the tutelage of Ricardo Viñes opened her up to the world of Ravel. However she received her essential lessons in Spanish music not from Viñes but from José Iturbi.
In 1917, her marriage to the actor Pierre Bertin introduced her into the circle of Eric Satie and his friends. Responsible for presenting Satie's 'Piège de Méduse', Bertin was a vibrant and talented character who moved freely between the theatrical and musical worlds of Paris. Meyer immediately became Satie's favourite pianist. He called her his 'pretty little lady'. She was still only twenty years old.
She worked with Debussy shortly before his death on his Préludes and was the first to play them in recital at Salle Gaveau, a recital notable also for being the first devoted wholly to Debussy's work. (Though recorded by DF in 1957, Meyer's complete Books of the Préludes, despite being allocated a catalogue number, would not be issued until 1989 – on CD).
In 1918, at a Lyre et Palletes concert (a series of concerts where artists and musicians could meet), Meyer gave the debut performance of Poulenc's Sonata for Piano Four Hands with the composer at her side. This was the beginning of a life-long friendship. She would premier several of his works - the Impromptus in Brussels in 1921 (Poulenc absolutely wild with joy!), 'Napoli' in May 1926 and 'Mélancolie' in May '41. It is no surprise that he was her partner in the recording of Chabrier's Valses Romantiques on the DF LP set. During the same season she played works by Louis Durey (a lesser known member of the 'Six'), the rare melodies Images to Crusoë with her husband and Auric's 'Carillons et Neige' with the composer.
In April 1920 Ravel invited her to play with him a two piano version of 'La Valse' privately before Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Poulenc. The reaction was not the one hoped for. Diaghilev was dismissive, "It's not a ballet, it's a painting of a ballet!". Stravinsky remained frostily silent. Humbled, Ravel went home with his scores under his arm.
Other notable creations the same year were Milhaud's 'Printemps' for solo piano and the controversial Five Studies for Piano and Orchestra under the Vladimir Grolschmann. Despite the noise made by the scandalised audience, and to Milhaud's great satisfaction, Meyer never faltered.
Diaghilev found her as enchanting as a Modigliani – "If she can play as well as she is beautiful.." he was heard to comment. After seeing her perform Ravel's 'Jeux d'Eaux' and 'Alborada del Gracioso', he was totally convinced – "You are one of us!" and immediately engaged her to play one of the two piano parts in his production of Satie's 'Parade'. Not only was she regarded as a faithful and brilliant pianist but for most French composers of the early 20th century, she was their muse. A modest and delightful person, she remained a close and indispensable performer for the Groupe des Six, Ravel and Stravinsky, ignoring the inevitable personal quarrels and never taking sides. She served their music with an equal and total devotion - and always avoided over-playing the score.
In 1921 she was asked by Stravinsky to play one of the extremely difficult piano parts from 'Petrouchka' under the direction of Monteux - without rehearsal. For the composer it was "a reference performance". In June 1923, Meyer, Auric and Poulenc played three of the four piano parts of Stravinsky's Les Noces. The same year, at a concert at the Sorbonne devoted to the newly formed Ecole d'Arcueil (Satie's circle), she premiered the work of a young composer and protégé of Désormière – Henri Sauguet's 'Trois Françaises' for piano. To be able to serve and associate with composers of such different personality and aesthetic as Ravel, Stravinsky, Sauget, Poulenc or Satie (the latter three being notably 'anti Ravelian') without friction, tells us more about Marcelle Meyer than a thousand words.
She made her first recording in 1925, in England – Stravinsky's'Piano Rag Music' and Albeniz' 'Navarra'. She premiered Stravinsky's Serenade for Piano. In the late Twenties her career took a more international turn, invited by Mengleberg to Amsterdam, by Beecham to London, by Ansermet, Boult, Monteux. In 1930 she was invited to Budapest by Richard Strauss to play his 'Burleske' under his direction at a festival devoted to his work. She was one of the few pianists invited to play at the 10th Salzburg Festival. In contrast her career at home seemed very low-key indeed.
She was rarely invited by any of the French musical associations - between the two wars she played at the old Société Nationale only once, on April 20th 1920, with a performance of Debussy's En Blanc et Noir with Juliette Meerowitch on second piano). She was invited twice to play by the Société Triton - April 12th 1937 at the Ecole Normale she took part in Delannoy's Rhapsody for Saxophone, Trumpet, Cello and Piano, and in Ravel's Trio. On Febuary 6th 1939, she gave the premier of Roland-Manuel's Concertino for Piano and Orchestra under Rosenthal. At the Société La Sérénade it was no better. In May 1932 she gave the debut performance of the Partita for Piano and Orchestra by the newly discovered young composer, Igor Markevitch, conducted by Désormière. On February 13th 1938 a recital featured the Ravel Trio and Hindemith's Sonata for Flute and Piano.
Having divorced from Bertin in 1932, by whom she had a daughter, Marie, she married Carlo Di Vieto, an Italian lawyer in 1937, with whom she would have a second, Anne Marie. Her last major musical creation before the Second War was Milhaud's 'Scaramouche' in 1937 with Ida Jankelevitch on second piano.
Incredibly she did not receive an invitation to play at the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire until 1940. On November 10th she played Franck's Symphonic Variations under Charles Munch. On March 2nd, 1941 she was again one of the four pianos for 'Les Noces', together with Février, Poulenc and Stravinsky himself, and in May, again with Munch, Honegger's Piano Concerto. In 1948 she repeated the Franck under André Cluytens with Strauss' 'Burleske' (which they went on to record on 78 for HMV). This year she established herself with her family in Rome. The Italian tour in November with Cluytens and Mainardi, seemed to serve as a transition between her 'French' and her 'Italian' careers, for as she had served French composers so would she celebrate and champion the Italians, befriending and performing the works of Dallapiccola, Veretti, Rieti, Petrassi and Casella, while continuing to play with such figures as Kletzki, Karajan and Scherchen through the 1950's.
One of Marcelle Meyer's greatest adventures also began at the end of the 1940's, and indeed her greatest legacy – her collaboration with Les Discophiles Français and the sound engineer André Charlin. It was for this label she made the greater part of her recordings, producing some of the most remarkable records ever devoted to French music. But not only do we have Couperin, Chabrier, Debussy, Ravel and Rameau, there is also Scarlatti, Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Stravinsky. For an artist who was at the forefront of the music of her day and centre of her circle, it is interesting to see how she could embrace the composers of the eighteenth century. Her phrasing pure and fluid, capturing the deep spirit of the music, never allowing the ornament to interrupt the melodic line, her rediscovery and reinstatement of Rameau was perhaps her most miraculous achievement. However, Mozart was always her first artistic love. There has been an opinion based on a handful of early DF cuts that Marcelle Meyer did not understand Mozart and it is true to say, for one reason or another, that they were her least successful sides. The recordings on this record finally reveal her as sensitive a Mozart player as her contemporaries, Lili Krauss and Clara Haskil.
On November 17th 1958 Marcelle Meyer died suddenly at the piano while staying at her sister's apartment. After a career confined to the Old World, at the invitation of Dimitri Mitropoulos she had been planning a tour of North America. From her focal involvement in the post First War musical avant-garde during the heady 1920's, to her startling reappraisal of a decidedly unfashionable classical tradition in the 1950's, her life had been rich beyond words. Given her prolific accounts for Les Discophiles Français, there is no doubt that her early death denied us further revelatory recordings. The LP DF 86 encapsulates her musical testament, its programme containing Couperin and Rameau works, Debussy's 'Hommage à Rameau' and Ravel's 'Tombeau de Couperin' – a whole tradition of French music, the French spirit from its roots to the modern era.
© Jean-Marc Harari / Glenn Armstrong / Coup d'Archet 2003