Philippe HERSANT

© Cathy Bistour

Philippe Hersant was born in Rome in 1948. He lives and works in Paris. After studying music at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, where he was a composition student of André Jolivet, he was awarded a scholarship to the Casa Velasquez in Madrid from 1970 to 1972 and then to the Villa Médicis in Rome from 1978 to 1980.

He was a producer at France Musique from 1973 to 2005.

He has been composer-in-residence with the Orchestre National de Lyon (1998-2000), the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire (2007-2009), the Orchestre de Bretagne (2008-2010), the Festival des Forêts (2015-2018), the Festival de Besançon and the Cité de la Voix in Vézelay (2016-2018), and the Festival Aspects des Musiques d'aujourd'hui in Caen (2017).

He headlined the Radio France Festival Présences in 2004. In addition to the premiere of his Violin Concerto and Éphémères for piano, a major retrospective of his works was presented.

He was guest composer at the Festival Ombres et Lumières de Clairvaux (2011-2016). His work with prisoners at the Clairvaux power station has given rise to several choral works (Instants limites, Métamorphoses, Kitoo, Résurrection).

Between 2006 and 2017, he served three terms as a director of the SACD, where he chaired the Music Commission on three occasions.

He is a member of the boards of the Ensemble vocal Aedes, the Compagnie La Tempête and the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris.

He is Chairman of the Association Jeunes Talents, which is recognised as being of public interest, and Chairman of the Music Jury of the Fondation d'Entreprise Banque Populaire.

His catalogue includes almost two hundred works for a wide variety of ensembles: solo instrumental music, chamber music, orchestra and choir. He has written three operas: Le Château des Carpathes (1992), commissioned by the Montpellier Festival and Radio France, Le Moine noir (2006), commissioned by the Leipzig Opera and Les Éclairs, based on a libretto by Jean Echenoz (2021), commissioned by the Opéra-Comique.

He has also written ballet music for the Paris Opera, Wuthering Heights (2002) with choreography by Kader Belarbi, Vêpres de la Vierge (2013) commissioned by Notre-Dame de Paris for the 850th anniversary of the cathedral, and a choral opera, Tristia, commissioned by Teodor Currentzis and the Perm Opera in Russia.

He has also composed a large number of stage and film scores (including Nicolas Philibert's Être et avoir).

Widely recognised in the music world, he has been awarded numerous distinctions: Grand Prix musical de la Ville de Paris (1990), Prix des Compositeurs de la SACEM (1991), Prix Arthur Honegger (1994), Prix du Syndicat de la Critique Musicale et Dramatique (1994), Prix Maurice Ravel (1996), Grand Prix de la Musique Symphonique awarded by the SACEM (1998) Grand Prix de la Fondation Del Duca awarded by the Académie des Beaux-Arts (2001), Grand Prix Lycéen des Compositeurs (2012), Prix Musique awarded by the SACD (2014) and three Victoires de la Musique Classique (composer of the year, in 2005, 2010 and 2016).

He is a Commandeur des Arts et Lettres.


" Les Éclairs "



> World premiere: November 2, 4, 6, 8, 2021
Opéra-Comique (Paris)
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
Ensemble Aedes, choir
Jean-Christophe Lanièce, Gregor
André Heyboer, Edison
Elsa Benoit, Betty
Marie-Andrée Bouchard-Lesieur, Ethel
Jérôme Boutillier, Parker
François Rougier, Norman
Stéphane Lara, Antoine Pinquier, extras
Ariane Matiakh, conductor


A dive into the New York of the industrial revolution, with the extraordinary destiny of Nikola Tesla, inhabited by his revolutionary visions on electricity. Writer Jean Echenoz adapts his novel for the stage and Philippe Hersant premiered his third opera, for this world premiere commissioned by the Opéra-Comique. He tells us a little more below:

It has been several years since your last opera, a genre that you have enriched with rare but essential works in the past. Why this long silence?
Fifteen years separate Le Moine noir from Éclairs. But this long silence is not due to any disinterest in the lyrical genre; I had a few opera projects over the years, but they didn't come to fruition. The random nature of commissions made me turn to other horizons: a large number of sacred works and choral works, in particular, have punctuated this entire period.

What were the main reasons that convinced you to take on such a task?
Olivier Mantéi contacted me as soon as he took up his duties at the Opéra-Comique. But as I said, certain projects did not come to fruition. When he suggested that I set to music the libretto he had commissioned from Jean Échenoz, I was immediately interested. First of all because of the admiration I have for this writer. And also because I found in this libretto themes similar to those of my previous operas, but in a very different form, which allowed me to renew myself. Scientific innovation is at the heart of the action of Château des Carpathes and Éclairs - and Jules Verne’s character Baron Verne brings to mind Edison. As for the Gregor in Éclairs (inspired by Nikola Tesla), he looks a bit like Andrei, the hero of Moine noir: bright, brilliant, but a little crazy and incapable of living in society.

Those are the commonalities. But the rhythm imposed by this libretto is totally different from that of my two previous operas, which is rather slow. There is no rest in Jean Échenoz's libretto, there is a lot going on. The scenes are brief, follow one another at high speed and are extremely varied: comical, sentimental, ironic or horrific. That is what won me over.

Based on your experience, what "pitfalls" did you manage to avoid? How would you judge this latest adventure compared to those of Château des Carpathes or Moine noir ?
There was a certain static nature in my previous operas. And the orchestral part was often predominant and perhaps, at times, a little overwhelming. In Éclairs, the orchestral writing is less dense and the voice-orchestra balance is more finely tuned. I wanted to be true to the title. Lightning [Éclairs]! Everything goes fast here, everything is linked together and sometimes even telescopes. Jean's libretto is reminiscent of a film script. I tried to keep that cinematic fluidity.

Ideally, how would you wish the Opéra-Comique audience to experience the premiere? Could certain musical (your last recordings), literary (Echenoz's novels), cinematic (Le Prestige) or documentary (history of science) works help make sense?
I think it would be interesting for the viewer to read the novel Des Éclairs - both very similar and very different to the libretto. Jean Échenoz has done a great deal of work in adapting the novel. It's a complete rewrite, a very successful genre transposition.

And yes, of course, this is the opportunity to see Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, if only to see the role of Tesla played by David Bowie. The character has even inspired various series writers: Tesla has since appeared in several episodes of Murdoch Mysteries. A biopic has also been recently produced, but I haven't seen it.

Why not also pay a visit to the small Tesla museum in Belgrade? There are lots of photos and documents, canes, hats, costumes that belonged to Tesla (he was a real dandy), but above all, visitors can attend a shocking exhibit, with a Tesla coil and neon tubes. Thrills and sparks guaranteed.

Or (much simpler!) pay a quick visit to the Musée du Luxembourg, where photos by Vivian Maier will be exhibited this autumn. A nice and easy way to immerse yourself in the New York atmosphere.

 Posted by Durand Salabert Eschig on 12 October 2021

" 7 poèmes d'Emilie Dickinson "

for equal voices choir and piano

French composer born in 1948 in Rome, Philippe Hersant studied composition with André Jolivet at the CNSM in Paris, where he obtained the prize for writing, while pursuing literary studies.

In 1970, he wins the Nadia Boulanger prize and goes to the Casa Velasquez in Madrid as a scholar and then in 1978 to the Villa Medicis in Rome. He is winner of the Georges Enesco Prize in 1982 and that of the best contemporary art creation presented by SACEM in 1986 for his first String Quartet.

Then he receives, among other things, the Grand Prix Musical de la Ville de Paris in 1990, the Arthur Honegger Prize
1994 for his Concerto for Cello & Chamber Orchestra, the Prize for New Talents of the S.A.C.D. 1994 for his opera Le Château des Carpathes, which also won that year, two nominations at the Victoires de la Musique, the New Academy du Disque award and the prize of the Union of the music and drama critic. In 1998, he won the Grand Prix SACEM of symphonic music and in 2005 he was appointed Composer of the Year at the Victoires de la Musique classic.

His catalog includes some thirty pieces for orchestra, vocal music, instrumental and chamber music, most of which were commissions. Among his works include Meandres (1981) for violin and orchestra, Missa brevis (1986) for 12 voices and orchestra, Pavane (1987) for viola, Nachtgesang (1988) for piano, clarinet, violin and cello, Melancholia (1989) for bass, Elégie (1990) for string quartet...

After the success of his opera Le Château de Carpathes (1989-91),voice becomes the central concern of the composer; he wrote a succession of songs on poems by Hölderlin, Lebenslauf (1992), a work for chorus a cappella on a poem by Leopardi, the Infinito (1993) and Psalm 130 (1994) for six voices, organ and viola da gamba.

As for Schumann, it seems that Philippe Hersant exhausts all the resources of a theme before turning to another. The next period marks a new taste for aphoristic pieces: Onze Caprices pour Deux Violons (1994), Eight pieces for bassoon and ensemble (1995), Five miniatures for alto flute (1995)... all these pieces have in common the shortness of their form and a concern for instrumental research (search for notes, new sounds, new game modes and attack). In the late 90s, he devoted himself to orchestra and is invited as residing composer with the Orchestre National de Lyon, as from September 1998.

The years 2000 mark a return to the vocals with Illuminations, for 4 horns and eight male voices, on poems by Rimbaud, Stabat Mater (2002) 10 for voice and viola da gamba, Der Wanderer (2002) for male choir and chamber orchestra or piano, Poèmes chinois (2002) for chamber choir and piano. Il était une feuille (2004) for baritone and piano on a poem by Desnos... and a new opera, Le moine noir (2003-2005).

Philippe Hersant's music is a synthesis between tradition and modernity, drawing from the rich reservoir of the past, he reformulates it with the expression of today's language. His music is in the tradition of musicians such as Berg, Janacek, Bartok, but it is also herited from Debussy, Dutilleux and Ohana for his subtle orchestrations, his poetic climate, his introspective musings.

NOTICE The work of equal voices for choir and piano, seven poems by Emily Dickinson in September, commissioned by Radio France, was created June 20, 2006 in Paris.

"In his Leçons américaines, Italo Calvino distinguished "two opposite vocations disputing through the centuries the field of literature: one tending to an element of language devoid of weight, floating on things like a cloud (...) and the other tending to communicate in language the weight, thickness, the concreteness of things, body sensations." He saw in Emily Dickinson an adept of the former, she practiced the "relief of language on which the signified, running on an almost imponderable verbal thread, take an equally rarefied consistency."

A "relief of language" : that is precisely what I hoped for after the two years I spent on my opera Le moine noir.Therefore, when the head of Radio France asked me to write a work to celebrate his sixtieth birthday, I spontaneously turned to the short quatrains of Emily Dickinson.

Wise Orion, the third of seven poems, is the one that best succeeds in this "rarefied consistency" mentioned by Calvino. But, whether they evoke a chime (the first), a nursery rhyme (the second and the fifth), or a hymn (the last) all are short, simple and fragile, they are intended, in my mind, to be sung by very young children.

The seven poems of Emily Dickinson were commissioned to me by Radio France and are dedicated to Toni Ramon." (Philippe Hersant)

Duration: about 11 minutes