Jean Barraqué

Jean-Henri-Alphonse Barraqué (January 17, 1928  August 17, 1973) was a French composer and writer on music who developed an individual form of serialism which is displayed in a small output.


Barraqué was born in Puteaux, Hauts-de-Seine. The family moved to Paris in 1931. He studied in Paris with Jean Langlais and Olivier Messiaen and, through Messiaen, became interested in serialism. After completing his Piano Sonata in 1952, he suppressed or destroyed his earlier works. A book published by the French music critic André Hodeir, titled Since Debussy,[1] created controversy around Barraqué by claiming this work as perhaps the finest piano sonata since Beethoven. As the work had still not been publicly performed, and only two other works by him had at this time, the extravagant claims made for Barraqué in this book were received with some scepticism. Whilst with hindsight it is clear that Hodeir had accurately perceived the exceptional features of Barraqué's music—notably its searing Romantic intensity, which distinguishes it from the contemporaneous works of Boulez or Stockhausen.

As Paul Griffiths' recent biography has clarified, Boulez had in fact attempted to get the Barraqué Piano Sonata performed for some years after it was finished.[2] Barraqué's music was published starting in 1963 by the Florentine businessman Aldo Bruzzichelli,[3] who provided much-needed material assistance for the composer, but whose promotion could not perhaps compete with that of the better known Universal Edition in Vienna who published Boulez, Berio, and Stockhausen. In any event, Barraqué did not obtain ready access to the better-known new music festivals and concert series until much later than they.

Barraqué was involved in a car accident in 1964, and his apartment was destroyed by fire in November 1968.[4] He suffered from bad health for much of his life. Nevertheless his death in Paris in August 1973, at the age of 45, was sudden and unexpected, and he appeared to have resumed serious work on a number of larger compositions from the Death of Virgil cycle.

Music and reputation

Barraqué stated that he wrote about 30 works before those that he eventually acknowledged; as far as is known they were destroyed by him. They included a Nocturne and Mouvement lent for piano, at least three piano sonatas, a sonata for unaccompanied violin, and a Symphony in C sharp minor.[5] The presumably fourth, but un-numbered Piano Sonata, for which he gave the date 1952, was his earliest acknowledged work. Barraqué then produced his only electronic piece, the musique concrète Etude (1954), made at Pierre Schaeffer's studio. Subsequently he planned a large-scale cycle of pieces, La Mort de Virgile, based on Hermann Broch's novel The Death of Virgil, a book which Barraqué's friend and sometime lover Michel Foucault recommended to him. This cycle, along with other pieces deriving from it or acting as commentaries upon it, he envisaged as his principal lifelong creative project. Following the scheme of the novel, it was to be divided into four sub-cycles: 'Water (The Arrival)', 'Fire (The Descent)', 'Earth (The Expectancy)' and 'Air (The Return)'. Most of Barraqué's creative efforts went into the works which were to take their place in 'Fire (The Descent)', which - to give an idea of the projected scope of the whole design - was to have consisted of thirteen works.[6] Before his death he completed two of the projected parts: Chant aprés chant (1966), and Le temps restitué (1957/68). Fragments of some of the other parts exist.

Barraqué also wrote ... au dela du hasard (1959) for three female voices and ensemble, and a concerto for clarinet, vibraphone and ensemble in 1968, which are related to The Death of Virgil, but not actually part of that cycle. (... au dela du hasard is described as a commentary on Affranchi du hasard, which was to have been the eleventh piece of 'Fire (The Descent)' but was not actually composed.[6]) The only other extant piece by Barraqué is Séquence (1955–56), a setting of Nietzsche for soprano and ensemble which is partly a re-working of three songs for soprano and piano from the early fifties.[7]

Barraqué's use of tone rows in his work is quite distinctive. Rather than using a single tone row for an entire piece, as Anton Webern did, or using a number of related rows in one work, as Alban Berg or Arnold Schoenberg sometimes did, Barraqué starts by using one row, and then subtly alters it to get a second. This second row is then used for a while before being slightly altered again to make a third. This process continues throughout the work. He called this technique "proliferating series".[8]

Harry Halbreich has written that "Barraqué's whole work is marked by terrible despair, lightened by no religious or ideological faith, and entirely dominated by the great shadow of Death".[6] In 1998 the record company CPO issued his entire output on CD, in performances by the Austrian ensemble Klangforum Wien.

The major reference work on his music in English is a biography entitled The Sea on Fire by the British music critic Paul Griffiths (2003). In German, Heribert Henrich's book of 1997 is its complement. His music is now published by the German firm of Bärenreiter.


Barraqué wrote many articles on other composers (including Alban Berg, Monteverdi, Mozart and Messiaen) and on theoretical aspects of contemporary music. His major prose work is his book on Claude Debussy (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1962). He also made numerous analyses of works in the standard repertoire from J.S. Bach to Honegger, some of which he used in his teaching.[9] His few pupils included the British composer Bill Hopkins.


Completed works

Unfinished works


  1. Hodeir 1961.
  2. Griffiths 2003
  3. Griffiths 2001.
  4. Janzen 1989, 241–42.
  5. Henrich 1997, 7-8.
  6. 1 2 3 Halbreich 1987, 7.
  7. The songs are published in Henrich 1997, Abb. 21–23.
  8. Riotte 1987
  9. Full list in Henrich 1997, 276–78.


Further reading

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