Ibert’s music is not easy to clarify, for he usurped labels and formality in all things. His works are richly detailed, stylish and witty and include opera, chamber and orchestral works, incidental music and film scores.
Though learning violin and piano from a very young age, he is said to have preferred improvising at the keyboard. Such artistic freedom could only come with a base of formal training, though, and he began studies at the Paris Conservatoire aged 20.
It was a relatively late start and this due to Ibert having to step in and help his father’s business, which was struggling during what were tough economic times. His father never did wholly support his son’s musical desires and even stopped payments to the conservatoire.
Ibert had other ideas, though, and funded his own education by working as an accompanist, teacher and even a cinema pianist.
Once in the vigours of study, Ibert found his musical voice – alongside fellow students Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud – and was awarded the coveted Prix de Rome for his youthful cantata La poète et la fée. The French Academy in Rome would eventually prove fertile ground for composition, and Ibert would return there later in life, becoming its director in 1937.
World War I rather got in the way of Ibert’s study and he found himself enlisted in the Navy; that in itself was inspirational for the young composer, who based his popular Escales (Ports of Call) on places he’d visited while in active service – Rome, Palermo, Valencia, Tunis, Nafta.
World War II also had an impact, with the composer having to leave Paris and find exile away from occupied Paris. He spent time in Switzerland until War’s end, when he returned to musical life in the city.
Before fully embracing music, Ibert had also aspired to become an actor. While this path never did open up to him, he was never too far from theatre life. A first opera, Persée et Andromède (1921), led to a number of others – including the opera buffa Angélique (1927). He would also pen incidental music for plays and, later, films.
His film work, while largely centred in French cinema, saw him work with Orson Welles, on Macbeth (1948), and Gene Kelly on Invitation to the Dance (1952).
A varied and illustrious life in music meant Ibert was held in the highest regard; he was made director of the Réunion des Théâtres Lyriques Nationaux, which essentially meant he was in charge of both the Paris Opera and the Opéra-Comique.
Five Key Works
Le ballade de la geôle de Reading (1920)
Trois pieces brèves for wind quintet (1930)
Flute Concerto (1934)