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Elmas, Stéphan (1862-1937)

Stéphan Elmas

born: 1862
died: 11 August 1937
country: Armenia

The Stéphan Elmas Foundation, established in 1988 by the composer’s nephews Georges and Grégoire Elmas, aimed in its active years (it was dissolved in 2019) to disseminate the composer’s legacy. The Foundation’s records list five works for piano and orchestra (including the two of his four piano concertos presented here), a sample of more than 120 titles for solo piano, a piano quartet, a piano trio, multiple other chamber works and some vocal pieces.

All of this begs the questions: who is Stéphan Elmas, and why has he fallen into almost complete obscurity? There is a certain amount about his life and career on the internet, but in more than a score of generally informative and reliable reference books and contemporary biographies, Elmas is spectacularly absent. It may be because his music tends to reflect that of an earlier generation to his own—something that is certainly true of the two concertos on this recording. In addition, in later life he lost his hearing, became increasingly bitter and seems largely to have withdrawn from the world—factors that cannot have helped the promotion of his music nor his standing in the musical world.

The basic facts of his life are that he was a child prodigy born into a family of wealthy entrepreneurs in Smyrna (now İzmir), then part of the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey). His first lessons were with a local teacher, a certain Mr Moseer. At thirteen, we read of him giving an all-Liszt recital, and four years later, with the encouragement of his teacher but not the blessing of his family, setting off for Weimar in the hope of studying with Franz Liszt. Impressed by the young man, Liszt advised him to study in Vienna with Anton Door, a distinguished teacher, pupil of Czerny and Simon Sechter, and the dedicatee of Saint-Saëns’s fourth piano concerto.

At the age of twenty-three, Elmas made his debut in Vienna and pursued a busy career playing all over Europe while composing the large body of solo works mentioned above, among them many waltzes, mazurkas and nocturnes. His six études of 1884 are dedicated to Liszt; some fifteen varied piano works are dedicated to his friend Victor Hugo. Elmas’s Piano Concerto No 1 is dedicated to Anton Rubinstein, as is his (unorchestrated) Youth Concerto. Jules Massenet, the pianist Édouard Risler and the lexicographer Guy de Lusignan were among other close acquaintances he befriended on his travels.

In 1897 Elmas contracted typhoid fever, which led to his hearing loss. After 1908 he devoted his time to composing and teaching, and aged fifty decided to make Geneva his base. Here, during the period when he became increasingly reclusive, he met and fell in love with a fellow resident of Geneva, the Swiss painter Aimée Rapin (1868–1956), who had been born without arms, producing her art with her feet.

Elmas suffered from severe depression when he learned of the Armenian genocide in 1915 at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, and it was Rapin who nursed him through this period. In 1922 his family miraculously escaped the Great Fire of Smyrna (the Greek and Armenian quarters were destroyed when Turkish troops took control of the city) and managed to flee to Athens. He brought them all to safety in Geneva. It was here that Elmas died on 11 August 1937. He is buried in the Cimetière des Rois (Plainpalais Cemetery), the burial place reserved for Geneva’s most eminent citizens. Aimée Rapin rests in the same tomb (number 366) as her beloved partner. Elmas’s piano, manuscripts and reminiscences are housed at the Charents Museum of Literature and Arts in Yerevan, Armenia.

from notes by Jeremy Nicholas © 2021


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