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Alfred Desenclos
1912 - 1971
France
Picture
A. Desenclos
Alfred Desenclos (07/02/1912 - 31/03/1971), a French composer (from Pontel). He had to work as an industrial designer until the age of 20 to help keep his family. Having had to renounce continuing his general studies, he did enter however the Conservatory in Roubaix in 1929 to study the piano which he had until that time played only as an amateur. His sacred music belongs to the tradition begun by Saint-SaŽns and continued by Faurť. He won de Prix de Rome in 1942.
Author:Vincent Genvrin. Translation: Connie Glessner
Messe de Requiem
Period:Modernism
Composed in:1963
Musical form:mass
Text/libretto:Latin mass
Duration:ca.31'
Label(s):Hortus 009
Desenclos' Requiem is reminiscent of the music of Durufle and, to a lesser degree, Camille Saint-Saens and Francois Poulenc.
The requiem has been a 'victim' of plagiarism: it wasn't a conductor or a critic or a music scholar who discovered there was a problem with the Requiem. It was someone in the audience. At some point during the performance here of an "American premiere" requiem mass by the Atlanta-based composer Tristan Foison, that person, a local amateur singer, began to fume. Foison's mass, billed as a new work, was supposedly being heard outside Europe for the first time, a major coup for the small but ambitious Capitol Hill Chorale. But this singer was sure he had sung it before -- in Vienna, Va., only a year ago, with the Fairfax Choral Society.
He approached the Capitol Hill Chorale's music director, Fred Binkholder, after the May 20 concert, but was too angry, or too discreet, to voice his suspicions about Foison's piece. Later that evening he checked his memory against a score left over from the previous performance.
Not only was the piece not an American premiere, it evidently wasn't by Foison. It was by Alfred Desenclos, a minor but distinguished French composer who died 30 years ago. Desenclos' Messe de requiem was written in 1963 and published by Durand et Fils in 1967. In 1999 it was reprinted, somehow, under Foison's name. The Capitol Hill concert (whose May 18 performance was reviewed in this newspaper) was a success. During the applause, Foison smiled, bowed and graciously applauded the singers of the Chorale for their performance. The next day, the singer -- who asked not to be named -- called Binkholder. "After the concert he tried to talk about anything but the piece we had just sung," says Binkholder, who has led the Capitol Hill Chorale since moving to Washington in August last year. "I thought we hadn't sung it well. The next day he called and said, 'Fred, are you sitting down?' "
They talked. The singer sent Binkholder the choral part book from the Fairfax Choral Society performance. What he saw was more than disturbing: Foison hadn't just borrowed ideas from Desenclos; he had apparently stolen the earlier composer's work wholesale. Note for note. Binkholder says he started to shake -- in anger at Foison, who was a colleague from a small music school in the Atlanta area, and with fear. He now knew something that could very well ruin Foison's career.
With evidence in hand, the music director telephoned Foison in Atlanta. Foison, Binkholder recalled, began a series of rapidly evolving explanations, without ever admitting to the plagiarism. At first, he claimed that it was he who was being plagiarized. "He said this kind of thing had happened to him before and he would clear it up," Binkholder said.
When he confronted him with the evidence that a choral part book, dated 1967, matched his 1999 Requiem, and that a 1997 recording of the Desenclos (on the Hortus label) also matched Foison's supposed score, the composer offered a more elaborate explanation. Durand had misfiled Foison's music under Desenclos' name, Foison said; and it was sending out Desenclos' works under Foison's name.
There's one problem with that explanation: Durand, according to its American distributor, Boosey & Hawkes, doesn't publish the music of Foison.
The last direct contact Binkholder had with Foison was in a May 25 e-mail: "Fred, I'm going to Paris early, to get as fast as possible whatever I need to take care of that matter definitely."
In a telephone interview Tuesday from Atlanta, Foison offered yet another twist. Although Durand doesn't publish his works, his Requiem had been printed by someone who worked at Durand (he wouldn't say who). This printer was, in effect, moonlighting by publishing Foison's score in Durand's office, he said. And that score somehow slipped into the Durand archives, was backdated to 1967 and reprinted under Desenclos' name. "I've been receiving royalties from Desenclos' works for several years," Foison said. Asked about the recording of the Desenclos' requiem that matches Foison's score, the composer cut short the interview. He said his lawyer was looking into it. "This is all just a big mess," he said.
The mess gets no clearer when one looks up Desenclos in the Library of Congress. There are at least three copies of the Desenclos Requiem -- which match Foison's score -- in the library's holdings. They bear an accession date stamp on their cover. The Library of Congress acquired them in 1968, more than 30 years before the date printed on Foison's score.
The last news Binkholder had of Foison came from a mutual acquaintance. Again the composer said he was leaving immediately for France, but this time it was to attend to his dying father, who had been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer.
Over the past 2 1/2 weeks, Binkholder has wanted to believe Foison's story. But Foison's "mess" has become Binkholder's as well. There are potential legal implications for the choir, and implications for Binkholder as well. What had seemed a triumph -- the first American performance of a major and difficult new work of choral music -- had to be viewed in a new light.
Any reviews of the performance in publicity materials would have to be excised. Grant applications that mentioned the "American premiere" would have to be revised, and there was the ominous possibility that if they had indeed performed music of Desenclos, they would owe a performance fee to Desenclos' publisher, Durand. Foison had given the choir rights to perform "his" music for free; Durand might not be so generous.
"You ride the euphoria of the concert, but then you have to deal with these kinds of issues," Binkholder said. There was also a personal element. Binkholder, who recognized a distinguished piece of music in the Requiem Foison offered him, thought he'd been doing a favor for his former colleague. The two shared an enthusiasm for Robert Shaw, and Binkholder was touched that the piece was dedicated to that great champion of American choral singing, who died in 1999.
And the Chorale, a growing, eight-year-old group with lawyers and government types throughout its ranks, had extended its fullest hospitality to the French-born composer, who is in his early forties. There had been dinner parties and a reception, and Foison stayed at the home of the choir's president. After the performance, choir members lined up to get his autograph.
Desenclos' Requiem is reminiscent of the music of Durufle and, to a lesser degree, Camille Saint-Saens and Francois Poulenc; so when Foison presented the work as his own, the stark similarity to a compositional tradition more than 30 years old wasn't held against him. Indeed, on the same program with Desenclos' Requiem was a choral work by the contemporary English composer John Tavener, whose musical style is often nearly indistinguishable from the ancient tradition of Eastern Orthodox sacred music.
And then there's the Prix de Rome, which Foison claims to have won. There are several prizes known as the Prix de Rome, but for a French composer, the Grand Prix de Rome immediately suggests the legendary prize won by Debussy (in 1884). That Prix de Rome was one of the most distinguished compositional prizes awarded in the history of music; for more than a century and a half it was given by the French Academie des Beaux-Arts to the country's most academically gifted composers. Gustave Charpentier, Lili Boulanger, Marcel Dupre and Paul Paray also won. And so, too, in 1942, Alfred Desenclos.
Author:Philip Kennicott