Masterpieces by Serge Lancen
Masterpieces for Band 19
Serge Lancen was born in Paris on 5 November 1922 in a family of surgeons from father to son. His father was head of the rheumatology ward at the Saint-Antoine hospital. From his early youth onwards, Serge Lancen felt attracted to music while listening attentively when his mother played the classical pieces by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin etc. on the piano. All of these classical composers will influence Lancen later. His mother was not only a fine pianist, but also an excellent painter, whereas his father had played the violin in an amateur symphony orchestra. Young Serge never got fed up with listening to the symphonic music concerts that were broadcast every Sunday afternoon and soon he starts learning to play the piano. Not even five years old, he composes a Berceuse (Cradle Song) which will be published much later and which was written down by his mother as little Serge could neither read nor write music yet. When he was eight years old he started studying solfeggio and piano and when he was fifteen, he had written enough piano music in order to give a complete recital with his own compositions. That concert took place at the London Rudolf Steiner Hall in 1937. Later, he studied the piano with Marguerite Long and Lazare Lévy as well as composition with Noël Gallon and Tony Aubin at the Paris National Superior Conservatory of Music. In 1950 he was awarded the 'Prix de Rome', the most prestigious reward for a young composer. Several composition prizes will follow; among those several Composition Prizes of the French Broadcasting Union, a Prize of the European Radio Union and Composition Prizes warded by the SACEM, the French copyright society. Serge Lancen composed all kinds of music such as chamber music, works for piano, ballet music, a chamber opera commissioned by the French Radio and quite some symphonic compositions. His rather original style is clearly influenced by the great classical composers he heard so often in his youth. Among his early symphonic compositions we mention the Concertino for Piano (1949), the Piano Concerto (1951) and the Symphonie Légère (1955).
and the symphonic band.
There was absolutely nothing that could make one expect Serge Lancen to become one of the great French composers of original wind band music in the 20th century. Indeed, he had grown up in a musical world that was completely focused on the piano and the strings. The soloists he had heard when he accompanied his parents to the Sunday concerts always were either pianists or violinists. To him, winds only had a function in the orchestra when surrounded by the strings and so, he was completely predestined to become a purely symphonic composer. However, fate decided otherwise. One of his ancient friends at the Paris Conservatory, clarinettist Désiré Dondeyne, was appointed conductor of the Paris Metropolitan Police Band in 1954. As Dondeyne wanted to enrich the original contemporary wind band repertoire he not only started composing himself but incited his ancient fellow-pupils to write music for symphonic band. Serge Lancen attended some concerts by this popular wind band and was deeply impressed by the splendid sonorities of the symphonic band with its mass of clarinets, saxophones and saxhorns. Later, he will admit that it was above all the massive sonorous communion of the wind band that attracted him and fascinated him for the rest of his life. For the symphonic composer by training, the upper register of the symphonic band definitely lacked volume and power, but the inventions by Adolphe Sax certainly add exceptional natural colours to the medium and low registers. So it happened in 1960 that Serge wrote a Marche de Concert that he had orchestrated for band by Dondeyne, as he himself was confronted with the huge difficulty of having to cope with the numerous transposing instruments of the symphonic band.
A trip to the United States inspired Lancen to write his Manhattan Symphony (1961-1962) for symphonic band and once more he entrusted the orchestration to Désiré Dondeyne. And so he also did with his Symphonie de Noël (1964) and the suite Festival à Kerkrade (1966) two other wind band pieces. Serge Lancen discovered the World Music Contest that took place once in four years since 1950 at Kerkrade a small southern Dutch city near the German and the Belgian borders. Serge became a special guest of the World Music Contest since his Manhattan Symphony had been chosen as test piece in the 1st Division in 1966. At the 1970 edition of the WMC, the famous Banda Primitiva of Lliria performed his Mini Symphony in concert, whereas the colliery band DSM played his Manhattan Symphony. In 1974 Serge himself played his Parade Concerto with the Marine Band of the Royal Dutch Navy, in 1978 Cap Kennedy brought the house down as test piece in the 1st Division and in 1981 his Festival Rhapsody, commissioned by the WMC organizers, was the test piece in the 2nd Division. Four years later, still at Kerkrade, Serge played his Concerto de Paris with the Symphonic band of the Maastricht Conservatory of Music and this concert was broadcast on television. Serge Lancen's music was also often on the program of the gala concerts given by prestigious professional wind bands during the consecutive WMC editions. After the Festival à Kerkrade in 1967, Serge Lancen thought he was quite capable of writing himself the symphonic band orchestrations. The Mini Symphonie (1967) can be considered as his first ‘complete' composition for symphonic band. Then, still fascinated by this unique sonorous spectrum, Lancen continued to write regularly for symphonic band, especially when he was encouraged by his Dutch publisher Pieter Jan Molenaar who had been impressed by the Manhattan Symphonie at the world premiere by the Musique des Gardiens de la Paix (Paris Metropolitan Police Band) on 29 April 1962 at Argentan. Obsession (1969), commissioned by the French Radio for a European composition contest was awarded a First Prize. Next he composed the masterpiece Cape Kennedy (1969-1970), a symphonic poem that was immediately very successful even far beyond the borders. Among the numerous wind band compositions (some sixty) we should mention the symphonic sketches Le Mont Saint Michel (1976), the symphonic poem commissioned by the French Government Le Chant de l'Arbre (1979-1980) and Mascarade (1985) for brass quintet and symphonic band, premiered during the third WASBE world conference in Boston on 20 July 1987. Serge Lancen attended the foundation of the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles at Manchester in July 1981 and actively supported this organisation for many years. From 1985 to 1991 he was a member of the international board and represented his native country. Besides the already mentioned Mascarade first performed at Boston in 1987, several compositions by Lancen were either premiered or performed at the different WASBE conferences. Festival à Kerkrade was played by the Le Havre Municipal Band, conducted by Claude Decugis, at Skien, Norway on 14 July 1983; the Symphonie de l'Eau was premiered by the Musique de la Police Nationale (National Police Band), conducted by Pierre Bigot, at Kortrijk, Belgium on 17 July 1985 ; the Ouverture pour un matin d'Automne was played by the Senior Musicians Band of the Netherlands, conducted by Henk van Lijnschooten at Kerkrade on 20 July 1989, whereas the Manhattan Symphony was played by the Musique de l'Air de Paris (Principal French Air Force Band) conducted by François-Xavier Bailleul on 21 July 1989 during the same Kerkrade conference; the Sonate Concertante for clarinet and symphonic band was performed by clarinettist Mark Vertessen and the Lier Concert Band on 14 July 1993 at Valencia, Spain and the Oboe Concerto was played by the same Belgian band (renamed 'Concert Band for Flanders') on 8 July 1997 at Schladming, Austria.
Serge Lancen has written several concertos with wind band accompaniment. First of all there are the two piano concertos. Parade Concerto (1971) premiered by Pierre Nimax at the piano and the Esch-sur-Alzette Municipal Band (Luxemburg), conducted by Georges Wagner, on 6 April 1972. Serge Lancen often played himself that concerto; so he did with Jan Molenaar conducting the United States Air Force Band in Washington D.C. in 1973 and recorded it with Jan Molenaar conducting the Purdue University Symphonic Band that very same year and in 1971 he had recorded it with the Royal Dutch Military band KMK, conducted by Anne Posthumus. The Concerto de Paris was premiered by the composer and the Royal Dutch Military Band KMK conducted by Jan van Ossenbruggen on 25 November 1983 at Zaandam during a concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of Molenaar Edition.
Then there are also concertos for different solo instruments with symphonic band. Dédicace (1974) for alto saxophone solo and wind band was premiered by Jaques Desloges and the Musique de la Police Nationale, conducted by Michel Mériot, during the 4th World Saxophone Congress at Bordeaux, France in 1974. Next to the already mentioned solo pieces, there are also concertos for trombone (1988), for French horn (1991) and for Harp and symphonic band (1990). All these solo pieces have been recorded by the Symphonic Band of the Brabant Conservatory of Music (The Netherlands), conducted by Jan Cober: 'Masterpieces for Band 3' (Molenaar MBCD 31.1016.72) and 'Masterpieces for Band 11' (Molenaar MBCD 31.1040.72). It is also quite interesting to know that the Oboe Concerto (1991) was in fact a new version of the Concerto for Harmonica and Symphony Orchestra (1954) commissioned and also premiered by Larry Adler at the Birmingham Town Hall, Rudolf Schwarz conducting. The composer has always expressed a preference for his religious compositions. The first one he wrote was Poème Œcuménique (1975) based on texts excerpted from the Bible (Psalms 8, 23, 100 and 150), from books of prayers in their original language (Latin, French, Slavonic, Hebrew) and from individual prayers.
The finale is the Hymne de Fraternité written by Roger Thirault. This religious composition, premiered in the Notre-Dame Cathedral of Laon on 12 October 1975, is written for symphony orchestra and/or wind band, soloists and choir. The second religious composition is the Missa Solemnis (1985) for vocal soloist, choir and symphonic band; it is dedicated to late Pope John Paul II and was premiered by the Royal Wind Band of Thorn, conducted by Jan Cober, at the Our Lady's Basilica of Maastricht, The Netherlands, on 27 May 1989. Then we have the Te Deum (1991) for tenor and baritone singer, male choir and wind ensemble (14 instruments) dedicated to the former Paris cardinal Lustiger. Finally there is the Credo (1994) for mixed choir and symphonic band, commissioned to be included in the 'Missa Solemnis' and premiered in the church ‘Eglise des Françaises' at Bolzano, Italy, by the choir and wind band of Zwölfmalgreien conducted by Markus Silbernagl on 19 March 1995.
Among the later symphonic band compositions by Serge Lancen we should mention Zwiefache Symphonique (1994), Hymne aux Musiciens (1995), Jour de Fête (1995), Jubilé (1996) and the cantata Espaces Harmoniques (1995) for soloist, mixed choir, children's choir and symphonic band, commissioned by the city of Blois for the commemoration of the diocese. This cantata was premiered at the Basilica ‘Notre-Dame de la Trinité' at Blois in 1997 Vincent Ries conducting.
Some time later, Serge Lancen's health got more and more fragile. He did no longer compose and lived quietly surrounded by the loving care of his wife Raphaëlle. He died peacefully on Sunday 10 June 2005 and now rests at the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.
All those who were lucky to meet Serge regularly were touched by his distinction, his delicacy, his balanced vision and his honesty, characteristics we also find back in his compositions. This 'gentleman of French wind band music' was welcome all over the world when attending premiere performances, concerts, recording sessions or simple rehearsals, everybody appreciating the amiability and simplicity of this great Master who deeply respected the amateur musicians.
- Francis Pieters -
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