If Rabaud is known at all today, it is mainly through two original works: his symphonic poem Procession nocturne (1899) and his opera Mârouf, savetier de Caire (1914), and via his orchestration of Dolly.
Born in 1873, he belonged to a particularly vigorous generation of French composers who took advantage of the increasing self-confidence of France during the Third Republic to distance themselves from German models. This distancing was not without its problems, and Rabaud had some difficulty in finding a consistent voice.
He came from a highly musical family. His father was a professor of cello at the Paris Conservatoire and his mother had been considered by Gounod for the role of Marguerite at the premiere of Faust. In 1892 Henri entered the Paris Conservatoire, studying composition with Massenet and fugue with André Gedalge. In 1894, at his first attempt, he won the Prix de Rome and spent four years in Rome and in Germany and Austria. The performance of Procession nocturne in 1899 was greeted with an acclaim that was to evade him for the next decade and more. His opera La fille de Roland, premiered at the Opéra-Comique in 1904, was felt to be too gloomy and lasted only 10 performances
Rabaud was a good deal more successful as a conductor, notably at the Opéra from 1908 to 1918, but he reached his apogee as a composer with the delightful Mârouf, savetier de Caire ('Mârouf, cobbler of Cairo'), an opera full of brilliantly exotic orchestration and striking scenic effects. After its premiere at the Opéra-Comique in 1914 it had already reached its 100th performance there in 1923. Without doubt, this success led to his nomination as a member of the Institut in 1918. Two further operas, L'appel de la mer (1924) and Rolande et le mauvais garçon (1934), achieved only limited runs.
Undoubtedly Rabaud's greatest achievement of his latter years was as Director of the Paris Conservatoire (1922-41). The war and Fauré's departure, hastened by general awareness that he was now profoundly deaf, had left the institution in some disarray and the post was widely regarded as a poisoned chalice. Rabaud's firm authority (he declared that 'modernism is the enemy') enabled it to weather the anarchic winds of the 'Silly Twenties'.
Profile © Roger Nichols