Nearly forgotten now for more than a half century, Jean Cras (1879-1932) stands out in stark contrast to virtually every other French composer of his generation. He was born in the coastal town of Brest into a family with a long naval tradition. Although his affinity for music and his talent showed itself early, he was, nevertheless, enrolled at the Naval Academy in 1896. But, in his spare time, he studied orchestration, counterpoint and composition. Feeling he could go no farther alone, he sought out a respected teacher, Henri Duparc. Duparc was astounded by Cras’ talent and meticulously exposed him to compositional techniques of Bach, Beethoven and his own teacher, César Franck. These were Cras' only lessons in composition.
As a composer, Cras' greatest problem was a chronic lack of time to devote to his art as he became a fully commissioned officer in the French Navy. He loved the sea, but served in the navy only out of a sense of patriotism and family tradition. Unlike Rimsky-Korsakov and Albert Roussel, both of whom had begun careers in the navy but later resigned, Cras never left the navy and eventually rose to the rank of Rear-Admiral. His maritime experiences sowed the seeds of an imagination and introspection which enabled him to understand profoundly the alienation of the human condition. And it is this which truly provides the key to his music.
Although he was, as so many other of his contemporaries, drawn to cyclical composition pioneered by Franck, he employed it with a unique iconoclastic language of his own. It was a meticulous and sophisticated autobiographical synthesis of the things which were paramount in his life: the sea, the Church, his native Brittany, and the exoticisms discovered on his many voyages.
The Piano Trio dates from 1907. The opening movement, Modérément animé, begins rather darkly in the lower registers of all the instruments. But beneath the plodding rhythm burns hidden passion. The second movement, Lent, is subtitled Chorale, and indeed, from the opening chords of the piano, we hear an updated version of a Bach chorale. Somber and reflective, the piano sets the tone with its long introduction. When the violin and later the cello enter with their long-lined cantilena melody, the music takes on aura of a Bachian aria. Very different in mood and feel is the lively Trés vif. The main theme is a sea shanty but with modern tonalities. The finale, also marked Trés vif, begins as a fugue. The theme has a jaunty military air about it.
This is a very interesting and original trio which is clearly a first rate work. We hope that professionals will bring it into the concert hall, while at the same time recommending heartily it to experienced amateurs.