December 12, 2003, is the centennial of piano virtuoso Daniel Ericourt’s birth in Jossigny, France. In his youth he knew both Ravel and Debussy. In a long-ago WUNC radio interview, he recounted having visited the Debussy household and seeing the composer’s beloved daughter, Claude-Emma (nicknamed “ChouChou,” and for whom the “Children’s Corner Suite” was composed), on the day before she fell fatally ill with diphtheria. As a teenager, Ericourt performed on a program with Debussy and also turned pages for him during a performance of the cello sonata at a benefit concert. In the same interview, the pianist expressed great regret that, as a child, he failed to save all the correspondence he’d had with the composer, not realizing its significance at the time. Ericourt studied with Nadia Boulanger, and Aaron Copland and Roy Harris were among his classmates. In 1926, he moved to the United States, taking a position at the Cincinnati Conservatory. He left in 1934 to devote his time to his concert career, returning in 1957. After teaching at the Peabody Conservatory, he came to UNCG in 1963 as artist-in-residence, serving for 13 years.

So many former friends, colleagues, and music lovers attended UNCG’s Daniel Ericourt centennial celebration, given on December 7 in the School of Music’s splendid Recital Hall, that printed programs ran out early. Hosted by the Dean of the School of Music, John J. Deal, the evening was divided into personal remembrances, a special lecture-recital, a video clip from WUNC-TV’s “The Ericourt Forum of Music and Arts,” and closing remarks by the Dean – followed by a reception in the atrium.

Ericourt’s longtime friend Claude Hoffman, Professor of French Literature at Guilford College, related a number of aspects of the pianist’s deep culture and meticulous work and play habits from her long relationship with him and his wife Jayne. Rob Johnston, whose childhood was spent in the pianist’s neighborhood, spoke of the world-renowned pianist’s openness to a broad range of people and cited the role model his life had been for many.

Ericourt was a master interpreter of Debussy, and no more fitting tribute could have been imagined than the American premiere of the composer’s last piece for piano, “Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du carbon” (“Evenings Brightened by the Warmth of Coal”). In 1917, there was a coal shortage in France, and Debussy’s coal merchant “was very good to him.” As a reward, Debussy composed this piece for him, writing, in a letter to the merchant, “You can understand I can’t keep writing you piano pieces, but we desperately need coal.” The manuscript lay undisturbed in the merchant’s family trunk until 2001, when it came up for auction in Paris. The purchaser gave it to British pianist Roy Howat for its world premiere, and he, in turn, provided a copy for UNCG guest lecturer/performer Charles Timbrell for this special occasion. Timbrell had interviewed Ericourt as part of his research for his 1992 book, French Pianism: An Historical Perspective .

At the beginning and the end, the three-minute piece quotes an earlier composition, “Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir” (“Sounds and Smells Mingle in the Evening Air”), No. 4 of Préludes , Book I. Both works’ titles were inspired by poems from Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal . Timbrell drew attention to the middle, where there “is a kind of nostalgic kind of café tune with really very striking harmonies. In a way, it’s a kind of summing up of Debussy’s late style.” It is in ABAB form. In addition to the first and second American performances of the newly discovered piece, Timbrell also played three selections from Préludes , Book II: “General Lavine – eccentric,” portraying the antics of an American clown in Paris, “Ondine,” depicting a deadly water nymph, and the brilliant “Feux d’artifice,” evoking an elaborate fireworks display. The pianist brought great clarity and a broad palette of tone color to each work. It was a treat to hear in the long-lost piece the creativity of the composer at the height of his powers.

Before playing the Debussy works, Timbrell gave a fascinating lecture, “Debussy and his Early Champions in America.” The focus was on native or naturalized American pianists who proselytized the composer’s piano pieces between 1904 and 1920, when Alfred Cortot arrived. The most fascinating was Boston-born George Copeland, who met the composer in the course of his 1911 European tour. He had begun playing Debussy’s music earlier, and eventually he had twenty-five pieces in his repertory, more than twelve of which he committed to discs. The pianist made his own transcription of the “Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune,” which he never wrote down. It was at once eerie and evocative to listen through old 78 swishes to an excerpt of Copeland’s recording that Timbrell played from a Pearl CD transfer (GEMS 0001). Once, when Copeland played for the composer himself, Debussy, who was hardly given to anything hinting of false praise, said, “I never thought to hear my music played so well in my lifetime.”

The video clip from Ericourt’s TV series was most welcome, not least because it included him playing a selection from Debussy’s Préludes , the same one that I recall from one of his two WUNC benefit concerts. Most welcome to all music lovers is a reissue of the pianist’s famous recordings of the complete solo piano music of Debussy, first published in the 1960s on six Kapp Lps. UNCG has financed a limited 4-CD edition on the Ivory Classics label (CD-73006). The UNCG Student Store and Borders Books & Music on High Point Road stock the set or it may be ordered directly from [inactive 8/04]. A quick sampling revealed fairly high tape hiss but full and natural piano sound and the mastery of style from another age.

A copy of Judy Foreman Hutton’s 1993 UNCG D.M.A. thesis, “The Teaching and Artistic Legacy of French-Born Pianist Daniel Ericourt” (catalog number 9419163), is available from Pro Quest (800/521-0600, ext. 7044).