An Important Minor Composer
In addition to major works by Duruflé and Bach, Chorale will sing some smaller motets by French composers at our June 9 concert. Among these is Dextera Domini, by César Geoffray (1901-1972).
I first heard Dextera Domini in the late 1980’s, when Rockefeller Chapel sponsored a choir from the University of Minnesota in concert. The group’s conductor, Thomas Lancaster, was noted for his wide-ranging, adventuresome taste in choral repertoire, and this particular concert program was no exception. I customarily have a pencil in hand at performances and take notes about the repertoire, and this piece warranted a large star in the margin of the printed program. I later contacted Tom for more information, and found that he had actually visited with Geoffray in France, and had had a long conversation with him, which effectively fills some gaps in published accounts of his life and activities.
Geoffray manifested his musical abilities at an early age, and enrolled at the Lyon Conservatory at the age of thirteen, majoring in violin. He studied with composer Florent Schmitt, who in turn had worked closely with Claude Debussy, and obtained first awards in harmony and counterpoint under him. He later wrote that working with Schmitt formed his compositional and musical technique: clarity of harmony, clarity of melody, polyphony, love of music, "inculcating rigor, accuracy, correctness of writing and a certain elegance of the composition” (In “Cesar Geoffray "by François Jaeger / Editions PIF).
After leaving the Conservatory he lived the demanding life of a jobbing musician—playing, teaching, working as assistant conductor at the Casino de Lyon, and composing light music under a pseudonym for the Casino. He also participated in the founding of a new choir in Lyons, Les Fêtes du Peuple. In 1930, he was invited to join an intentional community of artists, Moly-Sabata, under the leadership of Albert Gleizes, where he remained for ten years. During that time, he was increasingly drawn to choral work, especially for young people. In 1932 he became director of the Lyre Ouvrière Bressane, and in 1936 the assistant director of the Chanteurs de Lyon. In September 1940, he was asked to present some musical entertainment, before and after a talk on Scouting, with forty girls and boys. His success with this performance inspired him to continue with this improvised choir, now called the French Scouting Choir. Geoffray became the National Master of Singing for the Scouts of France from 1942 to 1955. Out of this involvement he founded, at the end of WWII, the popular choral movement, À coeur joie, which became an international movement with more than 450 choirs spread over the French-speaking countries (France, Belgium, Canada, Lebanon, North Africa).
As he states in the preface to one of the collections of music he composed for this organization (over 1,000 original compositions and harmonizations), Geoffray's aim was twofold: pedagogical and social. He wanted to teach children to sing, by a clear and precise method, through a series of choral compositions of graduated difficulty. And he had a sincere social concern: he was convinced that group singing would heal the wounds of the World War by providing children with a positive activity around which they could gather and experience the joy of living.
Dextera Domini is typical of Geoffray’s style at the more sophisticated end of his spectrum. His text:
The right hand of the Lord hath wrought strength; the right hand of the Lord has exalted me. I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.
is powerful, positive, and uplifting, and he sets it with very specific vocal and rhythmic gestures which clearly elucidate the words. “Rigor, accuracy, correctness of writing and a certain elegance” aptly describes the experience of this short motet. Geoffray learned Schmitt’s lessons well, and adds his own irrepressible, buoyant spirit to the mix. I am as impressed with this piece now, as when I first heard it.