Born: October 30, 1915 – Geneva, Switzerland
Died: November 4, 1992 – Valcros, France
Though largely unknown in North America (his Symphony #1 will receive its Canadian premiere at our concert) Wissmer was a prolific composer from the debut of his first work in 1937 until the performance of his last published piece fifty years later. A look at his catalogue reveals works in almost every genre: opera, ballet, vocal pieces, concertos, instrumental works, chamber music and 9 symphonies.
A critic once said of him that what he composed had, “typical French clarity and Swiss precision, together with a very Italian taste for brilliance and just that touch of Slavic nonchalance, inherited from his mother.” His Russian mother did have a strong influence on his musical education. She was a doctor but with a passion for music, which she passed on to her son. She introduced him to Tchaikovsky and the other Slavic composers. Both parents, his father was also a doctor, recognized his talents and helped channel his interests.
While he was still in high school he began studying music at the Genève Conservatoire. He graduated as a classics major and, following his parents’ advice, studied law. At the same time he remained involved in his piano studies and was encouraged to continue. The music scene in French-speaking Switzerland had close artistic ties with France and promising young musicians were encouraged to go to the Paris Conservatoire. Wissmer prepared for the entrance exam and made the first round at the top of the list. However it appears he may have enjoyed Paris just a bit too much and spent more time with his girlfriends than with his piano. He flunked the finals.
His musical education continued at the Schola Cantorum in Paris where he was eventually to become a director and teacher. He travelled extensively as a conductor and teacher, including a period at the Music Pavilion at EXPO 67 in Montréal, but he saw his prime mission as that of a composer.
During the Second World War he served, as a Swiss-citizen abroad, in a motorized artillery unit. In 1958 he became a French citizen and in 1969, he was appointed director of Le Mans National Music School. In 1973 he returned to the Genèva Conservatoire but this time as a professor of composition and orchestration. Ten years later, the city was to award him its Grand Prix Musical for his lifetime achievement and his dedication to Swiss musical life.
Pierre Wissmer died in France in 1992, shortly after his wife, pianist Laure-Ann Étienne who had given him constant support throughout his artistic life. Once when asked about her husband’s work she commented, “Is Pierre Wissmer’s music classical, romantic or modern? Any aspect should not exclude the other two. His music is in no way backward-looking, yet it would be jumping rashly to conclusions to try and confine it to any of the musical ‘schools’ of our century. People usually acknowledge his writing technique to be filled with virtuosity, as regards polyphony or orchestration. Maybe it would even be more relevant to note the subtle adequacy between his language and his very individual thought, robust yet delicate, in which the sheer exhilaration of life stumbles over anxious questioning.”
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