Conservatoires in time of war
A reconstructed account
Written on Philippe Gaubert’s death in 1941, this tribute reveals some of the finer details of life at the front. However, a full appreciation of this document requires consideration of the context in which it was written. One can hardly help but question the accuracy and truthfulness of an article written more than thirty years after the fact. Indeed, although the images still seem vivid, this is an account of things remembered, and reconstructed. The language serves a single aim: the glorification of the deceased, assisted by poetic images such as “artillery salvoes [tearing] through fog” and “flares merging into the blanket of stars”. The stretcher-bearer musician, carrying “the torch of beauty”, is presented here as a beacon for humanity; though merely a human being, he has made possible the victory of civilisation (symbolised here by Beethoven and Wagner – this is 1941).
It was during the winter of 1914, east of Verdun, in the little village of Ville-en-Woëvre. Philippe Gaubert was a stretcher-bearer in an infantry regiment. I was an artillery sergeant in the same sector.
A friendship sprang up, formed by music and the war, a brotherly affection that kept its youthful character, despite the vicissitudes of life.
In his infantry greatcoat, Gaubert had the piccolo with which, at the age of 15, he had won his first prize at the Conservatoire. In the château of Ville-en-Woëvre, with its gaping windows and shell-blasted wings, a group of musicians had set up a concert hall, and there, a few hundred yards from the enemy’s trenches, one could hear Beethoven and Wagner; and Philippe Gaubert, accompanied by Jacques Bousquet at the piano, would play a Bach prelude. Beneath the flares merging into the blanket of winter stars, the sweet cantilena rose like a promise of hope . . .
Gaubert, a winner of the prix de Rome, worked by day on musical compositions, whenever his duties as a stretcher-bearer allowed him a break.
I was one of his most admiring and faithful listeners. He would show me his first drafts. I can still see my dear friend Philippe, with his fine, tousled head of hair and pure Roman profile, deciphering and singing at the piano a poem from Henri de Régnier’s “Médailles d’argile”.
Even the thunder from Éparges, where artillery salvoes tore through the Meuse fog, could not prevent poetry and music from communing in a humble room at the front, where the muddy hands of soldiers kept alight the torch of beauty.
Gaubert won second place in the Grand prix de Rome in 1905.
Henri de Régnier (1864-1936), French poet and writer.
Poetry collection published in 1900.
Les Éparges is a ridge in the Meuse department that was the scene of intense fighting, especially from February to April 1915 (battle of Éparges)
Théophile Briant (18 July 1941) “The last evening of Philippe Gaubert” (excerpt), in: Paris-midi, Paris, 18 July 1941, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Performing Arts Department, 8 RSUPP 724, f. 11-12 [on line].
Document description: newspaper cutting.
Catalogue : http://catalogue.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb42650612g