1896–1928 Youth and Education

Fernande Decruck portrait
Fernande Decruck ca. 1928

© Hélène Decruck 2004, translated and revised by Matthew Welz Aubin 2015

Jeanne Delphine Fernande Breilh-Decruck was born on December 25, 1896 in Gaillac, a town in southwest France, where her father Ferdinand was a merchant. At eight years old, she entered the Toulouse Conservatory where she won first prize in music theory (1911), first prize in piano (1913) and a second prize in harmony (1917). In 1918, eager to join the harmony class of Xavier Leroux, she tried and immediately passed the entrance exam for Paris Conservatory. She was attracted to the Paris Conservatory for its esteemed faculty including Xavier Leroux and Jean Gallon (harmony), Paul Vidal (composition and orchestration), Georges Caussade (counterpoint and fugue) and César Abel Estyle (piano accompaniment). Her studies were crowned by a first prize in harmony (1919), a second prize in counterpoint (1921), a first prize for fugue (1922) and a first prize piano accompaniment (1922). In addition, she won the Théodore Dubois and Louise de Gouy d’Arsy prize in fugue and two Fernand Halphen prizes, one in harmony the other in counterpoint.

In December 1922, she began studying organ with Eugène Gigout. The following year, Jean Gallon gave her the position of teaching assistant of his harmony class. She contributed to the formation of brilliant composers like Olivier Messiaen. Seven of her students went on to win the Prix de Rome. As a young pianist, Fernande often found work improvising music for silent films. On January 29, 1924, she married Maurice Decruck, a clarinetist and bassist from northern France. They met while both were students at the Paris Conservatory in the class of Edouard Nanny. In 1925 the family welcomed a daughter Jeannine followed by a son Michel in 1926.

Business Card
Decruck's business card.
Messaien Note to Decruck
A Fernande Decruck avec toute la reconnaissance et le souvenir ému de l’auteur. (To Fernande Decruck with all the gratitude and fond memories of the author.) — Olivier Messiaen

From 1926, the year of his appointment as professor of organ, Marcel Dupré introduced Fernande to improvisation, an art in which she excelled quickly. Fernande Breilh-Decruck indeed belongs to the first generation of great organists who were trained by the master. Like him, she could improvise entire pieces in public. By the end of 1928, talent earned her a tour of organ concerts in the United States. She eventually went on to solo in many of the large auditoriums in New York City including the Wanamaker Auditorium.

Her early compositions during this period include Soleil couchant for piano (éd. A. de Smit, 1925) and Variations sur un air gallois for organ, dedicated to Marcel Dupré (éd. Leduc, 1928).

NewYork Wanamker Combined
New York Wanamaker Concert
This little word is to introduce you to my very remarkable student Ms. Decruck (Fernande Breilh) organist and composer of the highest order. I know that it will be sweet to find a French heart in America."

Letter of recommendation from Marcel Dupré, dated October 9, 1928, addressed to Mrs. C...

1928–1933 New York City

Michel et Jeanine London Terrace
Michel and Jeannine in front of London Terrace, Chelsea, NYC.

Fernande Breilh-Decruck lived in the United States for several years with her husband and their two children Jeannine (b. 1925) and Michel (1926-2010). They kept a Manhattan apartment at London Terrace in Chelsea and also had a second residence in Forest Hills, Queens. During her first American recital, April 5, 1929, at John Wanamaker's Auditorium in New York, she improvised a symphony in three movements on themes proposed by several American composers, a feat which she repeated thereafter during each of her organ concerts.

This American visit saw the birth of many compositions for piano and organ, including Nouvelles, a series of piano pieces dedicated to Jeanne-Marie Darré, and Suite Ancienne in B flat major for organ. During this period, she composed her early chamber music and orchestral works. Among which, were two concertos, one for organ and one for cello.

After graduating with a first prize in double bass in 1924 from the Paris Conservatory, Maurice Decruck successfully auditioned for the Concerts Lamoureux. Around 1928 or 1929 he auditioned and was appointed to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  He served under the baton of Arturo Toscanini as principal double bassist. After a successful audition, he also became the solo saxophonist with the New York Philharmonic. Maurice's aptitude for woodwind instruments began at an early age. He held a prize at the Conservatoire de Valenciennes for clarinet. He had played the saxophone for many years in cafés including the famous Café de la Paix in order to finance his studies. He even performed with Billy Arnold's American Novelty Jazz Band.

Decruck & Jean Marie Darre
Decruck and Darré
Billy Arnold
Maurice with Billy Arnold's American Novelty Jazz Band (2nd from right).
Maurice Decruck NY Philharmonic Program
New York Philharmonic Personnel List from the 1930-1931 Season. Note Maurice's name under both double bass and saxophone.

As a classical saxophonist, his interpretations of Maurice Ravel's Bolero and Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (orchestrated by Ravel) were acclaimed by the orchestra and Toscanini himself. Capitolizing on his role as one of the first classical saxophonists, he collaborated with his wife, to write an educational book for the saxophone, L’Ecole moderne du saxophone, published by Alphonse Leduc in 1932.

At this time, Fernande Breilh-Decruck began to write her first works for saxophone. It is very likely that this moment corresponded quite closely with the rise of key players in the birth of the French school of saxophone, mainly François Combelle and Marcel Mule. Fernande's relationships with these players must have been fruitful because she returned to France many times during this period. During the summers, she would compose at the family's second home in Auzeville and spend the rest of her time at their Paris apartment. In 1932, during a 6-month stay in France, she composed The Chant lyrique op. 69 for solo saxophone and piano. She dedicated this work to François Combelle. This work was significant as it marked the first time a female composer’s composition entered into the repertoire of the Garde Républicaine. Chant lyrique was used for many years as an audition piece for the Garde Républicaine. It was such a successful piece that Decruck orchestrated it for Marcel Mule. In addition, Pierre Dupont transcribed it for the Garde Républicaine and Decruck revisited the work in the late 1940's, orchestrating it for piano and wind quintet.

1933–1937 Return to Paris

Maurice Decruck's solo career was brutally interrupted by an accident, which deprived him of the mobility of one of his hands. In 1932, after the accident, he returned to settle in Paris and founded "Les Editions de Paris", a music-publishing house which specialized in popular music. Les Editions de Paris enjoyed a certain prosperity and contributed notably to the discovery and development of Edith Piaf. Fernande remained in the United States for nearly a year before joining Maurice in April 1933.

Trio d'anches de Paris
Trio d'anches de Paris.
Mule Chant Lyrique Best
Program from Marcel Mule's premiere performance of the orchestrated version of Chant Lyrique, Op. 69.

Shortly after her return to France, Fernande Breilh-Decruck wrote many compositions for a wide range of solo wind instruments with piano accompaniment. Fernande preferred to compose in the evening when her young children were asleep and the house was quiet. She did not use the piano to compose. During this period, Fernande wrote some short instructional piano works for her young children. She also composed solos, duets and quartets for saxophone. One of them, Pavane, was dedicated to the Saxophone Quartet of the Garde Républicaine, which had been formed a few years earlier by Marcel Mule. Fernande eventually reorchestrated Pavane for reed trio and oboe or violin with piano accompaniment. 

It was during this time that Fernande was commissioned by the Trio d'anches de Paris. Founded in 1927, this ensemble, comprised of an oboe, clarinet and bassoon, was the first of its kind. In addition to multiple works written by Fernande, the trio commissioned several prominent French composers including Jacques Ibert and Darius Milhaud. Decruck's Piano Sonata was also composed and first performed by the celebrated pianist Jeanne-Marie Darre at the Société Nationale de Musique in April 1935. It was received with great success, according to press reports at the time.

On April 8, 1937 Fernande gave birth to a third child, Alain. The birth nearly cost her her life, but luckily she recovered quickly. Six months later, she was appointed professor at the Toulouse Conservatory to teach advanced music theory.

1937–1942 Toulouse

Fernande left to settle alone in Toulouse with her three children while her husband remained in Paris to manage his publishing house. This period was marked in particular by the orchestration of Chant lyrique and the composition of two great works: Symphonie Rimbaldienne subtitled "Les Illuminations", for orchestra, soprano and baritone soloists, chorus and narrator and Symphonie Orientale, a ballet freely inspired on One Thousand and One Nights. Several of her works were played and premiered by the orchestra of the Société des Concerts of the Toulouse Conservatory. 

She regularly gave organ recitals, which included, almost invariably, an improvised symphony. In 1942 she decided to resign her teaching position and return to Paris to publicize her works to the public in the capital and devote herself entirely to composition.

Alain Painting
Painting of Alain Decruck as a boy.

1942–1947 Premieres in Paris

Rimbaldienne Poster
Poster for Symphonie Rimbaldienne

Fernande Breilh-Decruck was finally entirely devoted to composition. This marked a prolific period for her. She wrote two concerti - Concerto for Harp and Orchestra (1944) and Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra (1946) - and several other orchestral works some with one or more solo instruments: Hymne à Apollon for harp and orchestra (1944), Suite française for string orchestra and solo wind instruments (1945), Poème héroïque for solo trumpet, solo horn and orchestra (1946) and a suite for harpsichord and orchestra called Les Trianons (1946). She also created several works for voice and orchestra utilizing texts by French poets including Cinq Poèmes Chrétiens (1944) and Tapisserie de Sainte Geneviève and Jeanne d’Arc (1946), an oratorio. Additionally she continued to compose many chamber works and numerous songs. This included Sonatine in E for violin and cello (1944), which was written at the request of André Asselin and Paul Bazelaire, three trios for flute, cello and piano and the Sonata in C sharp minor for saxophone (or viola) and orchestra, dedicated to Marcel Mule (1943).

Between 1943 and 1947, several of her major works were premiered by the Colonne Orchestra, Pasdeloup Orchestra and Orchestre Lamoureux under the direction of conductors such as Eugène Bigot, Paul Paray and Jean Fournet. The critics were mostly very positive, leaving some high expectations about the future of her career as a composer. After hearing the Parisian premiere of Les Illuminations (Symphonie Rimbaldienne), José Bruyr wrote: "The names of musicians are inscribed on rose petals, said Schumann. Instead, write Fernande Decruck on a laurel leaf. It would take much less than the Symphonie Rimbaldienne to give this new musician the place to which she is entitled in our current music scene "(Aujourd’hui, January 15, 1944).

After this remarkable performance, many performances followed including: Cinq Poèmes Chrétiens sung by Hélène Bouvier; Cantique eucharistique for soprano, cello and organ, performed by Noémie Perugia, Georges Jacob and Paul Bazelaire; Hymne à Apollon, conducted by Eugène Bigot; Concerto for harp and orchestra, performed by Pierre Jamet; Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, performed by Louis Cahuzac; and finally Les Trianons, played by Marcelle de Lacour.

Equally talented as a pianist and organist, Fernande gave the premiere performances of several of her own compositions, including Huit pièces lyriques for piano, a Sonatine for piano and a Concerto for organ.

Fernande at Organ
Fernande at the organ

1947–1948 Return to the U.S.A.

E. Power Biggs
E. Power Biggs

Although she had enjoyed a great deal of success in Paris during World War II, after the war ended it became more difficult for her to find performance opportunities in her own country as some viewed her active performing career in German-occupied France negatively. France was rebuilding and male composers that had been proscribed during the war were returning. Fernande's marriage with Maurice was effectively over—they would divorce in 1950. Fernande left for the United States at the end of 1947 with her youngest son Alain. 

They remained in the U.S. for several months living in Marblehead, Massachusetts with her daughter Jeannine and son-in-law, Dr. Walter Scott. During this stay, she composed many pieces for organ including three sonatas, Trois pièces for English horn and organ and a Suite renaissance for trumpet and organ. The latter was dedicated to Roger Voisin, longtime principal trumpet of both the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops Orchestras. Decruck also wrote Huit préludes for piano and began composing a Concerto for piano and orchestra, which remained unfinished. Finally, she made a piano reduction of Poème héroïque and created a version of the Chant lyrique for wind quintet and piano.

Her Trois pièces for English horn and organ were played on January 18, 1948 by Edward Power Biggs during one of his famous radio shows on CBS. Fernande was very excited about these three works, as evidenced by a letter to her son Michel.

After that performance, E. Power Biggs and Roger Voisin would subsequently perform the Suite renaissance.

The great organist E. Power Biggs, who gives concerts throughout America on radio, selected for his Sunday program the Trois pièces for English horn that I had sent. I was not very hopeful, because he is very busy, and does not like contemporary music and I knew that he refused to play contemporary music all of the time. But I learned later that he had removed three pieces from the program from January 18th to make room for mine immediately."

Fernande in a letter to her son Michel

1948–1954 Fontainebleau

Upon her return from the United States, Fernande was appointed professor of harmony and music history at the Municipal Music School in Fontainebleau, a significant drop in stature from her previous positions. This last period of her life was marked by financial difficulties. She was permanently separated from her husband, whom she officially divorced in 1950, and was forced to care for and educate her last child alone. In addition to her classes at the Municipal Music School in Fontainebleau, she taught private lessons.

Her compositions during these years consisted mainly of revisions of earlier works like the Pavane, which she set for reed trio and oboe or violin and piano. She composed mostly short pieces such as the Fantaisie-Prélude for cello and piano and Recueillement for violin or cello and piano, but she did compose a chamber orchestra work, Suite Romane. Additionally, she crafted Les Serenades which were a series of songs inspired by different regions. They were written for small ensembles with which her son Michel, a violinist, performed. She last composed between 1950 and 1951.

During her Fontainebleu period, she was the head organist of the Saint-Louis church in Fontainebleau. In 1952, after contracting a cold while playing the organ during the midnight mass, she suffered a stroke, which rendered her hemiplegic and greatly diminished physically. From that moment, her health, always fragile, never improved and she ultimately succumbed to another stroke on August 6, 1954.

© Hélène Decruck 2004, translated and revised by Matthew Welz Aubin 2015

Decruck with young student
Fernande and one of her young students at her home at 52 Rue d’Avon in Fontainebleau.