Today we say happy birthday to one Émile Prudent, born this day in 1817. I’m ashamed to say (yet again!) that until today I hadn’t even heard of Prudent, let alone tackled any of his music, but one of the joys of my daily delve into the nineteenth-century is the discovery of ‘new’ composers. New, perhaps, but certainly not isolated. Prudent, for example, apparently made his Paris concert debut sharing a stage with none other than the pianistic giant Sigismond Thalberg. He was a successful teacher at a time when Paris was the undisputed piano centre of Europe. He was received favourably in London, too, and it is fair to assume he would have mixed in similar musical circles as those pianists and composers whose names have better stood the test of time.
Prudent composed some 70 works, mainly salon solos and morceaux de genre, and several scores are available for free download on the wonderful IMSLP website. In 1900 Grove’s stated that Prudent’s compositions are “cleverly calculated to display the virtuosity of the pianist” and that his music is “clear, melodious, and correct; pleasing the ear without straining the attention”. I imagine no composer relishes being described as merely correct, and it would be easy to dismiss Prudent without so much as trying out his pieces – just another salon show-off with little to say, a product of his time, a time when pianists were everywhere. But the music speaks for itself, and in a world where the likes of Bürgmuller always appear on student piano stands and indeed exam syllabuses, and when there has been a resurgence in interest in previously neglected composers like Thalberg, it strikes me as a shame that Prudent is largely unheard of.
His Opus 11 L’hirondelle is a Thalberg-inspired study, all right-hand arpeggios and bel canto melody split between the hands. His Opus 16 Études de genre pour le piano are not un-demanding studies in dexterity and most importantly, melody. The third of these Études, Marine, is perhaps almost impressionistic with its murmuring left hand and chromatic opening motif, ebbing and flowing their way to a beautiful, almost Field-like melody. The final incarnation of this melody almost reminds us of that other oft-neglected French composer, Alkan.
Writing in Groves, Chouquet tells us that the young Prudent had no patron to push him and his music, and this combined with his lack of education (Prudent apparently never knew his parents, and was adopted by a piano-tuner at a young age), he had a ‘long struggle with the stern realities of life’. Clearly he did well to overcome this rocky start, and he established himself not only as a concert performer and excellent teacher, but also as a liked and respected man of a ‘kind and generous’ disposition. I would encourage any pianist looking for something new, to download a selection of Prudent pieces and begin to discover the lesser-heard side of the Romantic piano genre.