Tuesday, February 28, 2017

in memoriam, Claude Pascal 1921-2017

[in keeping with FTBL's principle of including a photo taken by me on each of its days, here's an image of Claude, about to be scanned]

Claude Pascal was one of our very oldest and dearest family friends.  He will, I'm sure, have his share of wonderful formal eulogies: he was one of France's most eminent C20th composers; he was music critic of Le Figaro between 1969-1979; he taught at the Conservatoire in Paris; since 2014, he was the oldest living recipient of the Prix de Rome; he served on numerous juries and committees.  But I knew him as the man who married Gwen Rooke, my mother's best friend from school, and whom I first met when I was about three - they arrived to stay with us, just before the birth of Véronique (whom I can, with confidence, call my oldest friend) bearing a copy for me of Le chat et la lune - my first French book.  

I remember them coming to stay with us a second time in Cumberland, and then in Wimbledon, where he entertained us on the terrible-sounding piano that my father had found abandoned on a roadside and re-strung himself, and then enlivened a whole restaurant - the Contented Sole, just by South Kensington station - "genuine" fish and chips - by playing ragtime in their dining room.  

Above all, however, I remember him in Paris, and at the Pascal's summer houses (first rented, then their own) on the Ile-aux-Moines - always a gracious and generous host.  I recollect his sudden passions for certain foods - there was one occasion in Paris when the cupboard in the hallway proved to be full of cans of palm hearts - and his guidance in the choice of restaurants.  His favorite, he claimed to me, was the Restaurants des Beaux-Arts (now, sadly, no longer there), where he'd eaten so much as a young man that he had his own napkin and napkin ring and little drawer for it to live in.  Music was dominant in his life, and he was generous in sharing his access to it - I once went to a concert in the Salle Pleyel with him at which Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sang Schubert lieder, and that might have been the time that I realized what an influence Schubert must have been on his own composition.  In many ways, he was resolutely non-experimental, but he wrote some terrific pieces.  I loved the cello sonata that he wrote for Rostropovich (I don't think a recording of this exists; I wish it did) - I was staying at the Paris flat whilst he was working on this - and some of his works for children, especially a set of tunes based on circus music. He adored the combination of music and children.  And he also cared deeply about other arts.  I'll never forget arriving off the train from London, and being greeted at the top of the stairs (and they lived up four floors) by Claude opening the door and announcing, lugubriously, "Picasso est mort."

[Claude in the garden of our Oxford house, on James Street]

Above all, I associate Claude with many happy summers on the Ile-aux-Moines.  Here he is with Gwen, and with Brigitte Toulon, Véronique's very good friend.  This was the photo I went looking for this morning - I think I must have given them the good print, because this looks as though it suffered some darkroom catastrophe.  But I'm including it because I always think of Claude, in the summers, as wearing this kind of light sweater, like a cricketer's sweater - and often the little képi that he has in the picture above.  This is a house that they rented just for one summer.

And here he is opening some wine, at Beg Moussir, the house that they rented for years, looking out onto oyster beds in the Golfe du Morbihan.  Claude was very punctilious in his wine pouring - about three quarters of an inch at a time.  Gwen has her back to us; my mother is looking very flirty in a blue shirt, and I'm doing the sulky teenager number on the right.  

More libations, same cast (and Josée Dubuisson's dog, Lia) - I think this must be at a cafe in the island's tiny village.

And there was, of course, always music, even at meals - I recollect one memorable dinner when he had the assembled company beating like a regular metronome with their left hand, and tapping the melody to Ravel's Bolero with their right.  You try it ... In a rented house, music meant renting a piano.  Remember, this was on an island.  So the piano had to arrive, and depart, on a boat ... and to fit it on a boat, on at least one occasion, it had to be taken apart.  Claude's the left-hand man in a white shirt; my father, wearing a tie, on the right; Véronique, wearing orange, on board.  Once on the boat, the piano was reassembled, and I have an abiding memory of it chugging away back to Vannes with Claude seated at the keyboard, playing away, until it was out of earshot of those of us back at Beg Moussir.

I can still hear that music, fading away across the still water.  As my father said, when I called my parents to tell them the sad news, it's the end of a chapter.

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