Martin-Pierre Marsick

© archives BNF

José Quitin, an eminent musicologist, deplored one day that we had forgotten to commemorate in 1969 the 150th anniversary of the birth of the great Belgian violinist, Hubert Léonard. In 1970, he wrote that we were preparing all the same to commemorate the anniversary of Henri Vieuxtemps. Last year, in 1997, we commemorated this time the 150th anniversary of the birth of another great representative of what was then known as the Franco-Belgian school for the violin, Martin-Pierre Marsick, so famous in his time, but unfortunately little known today.

A clay medallion
Martin-Pierre at the violin

During the last century, we know that Liège and its surroundings were the thriving grounds for great violinists. Looking at the list given in the annex, albeit incomplete, is the prodigal son Martin-Pierre Marsick, who on Saturday, April 30, 1887, inaugurated with three other violinists from Liège (Rodolphe Massart, César Thomson et Eugène Ysaÿe) the new concert hall of the Conservatoire de Liège, rue Forgeur (boulevard Piercot).

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Martin-Pierre Marsick, César
Thomson, Rodolphe Massart,
Eugène Ysaÿe
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During the first part of the concert, a composition of circumstance, the lyric poem Patria ; in the second part, other works, of which the Concerto for four violins by Maurer, as well as a Rêverie for violin by their notorious fellow countryman Henri Vieuxtemps and finally Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

His origins

Saint Martin church

[...] It is in the town of Jupille-sur- Meuse, a few kilometers from Liège, that Martin-Pierre Marsick was born on March 9, 1847. The father, a tinsmith by trade, is 28 years old and the mother 24 years of age. He is the fifth child of a family, who in 1868, numbered 18. (A progeny that if it amazes today, was nevertheless typical of the large catholic families of the times.) Curiously, the Marsick children were not baptized in the church in Jupille, but rather in the Basilica Saint-Martin, in Liège.

It is also said that Martin-Pierre participated in the church choir as well as being part of the choir school of the church of Saint- Paul. Martin-Pierre Marsick does not have good memories of his childhood. Financially, life was certainly quite difficult for the Marsick family and we can ask ourselves how his father succeeded in sending his first child, Louis, then Martin-Pierre and later one of his daughters to the Conservatoire royal de musique.

Students' marks of Martin-Pierre and Louis
©archives Jacques Marsick

At the age of 7, Martin-Pierre was admitted to the Conservatoire royal de musique on December 2, 1854. "I am satisfied with this child" wrote in his report M. Decortis, flute professor. Puny and of a weak constitution, the little boy joined his older brother, Louis, who had entered the Conservatoire a year earlier. He is a little fellow, whom we say is very intelligent and who was surely most impressed with the grandiose establishment that is the Université de Liège and that accommodated at that time the Conservatoire, place du Conservatoire, today place Cockerill. No one at this time doubts that the little fellow will inaugurate some thirty years later, as an invited artist, the concert hall of the new Conservatoire.

For now, Martin-Pierre is enrolled in the flute and theory classes. The poor child is not very good at theory. which does not preclude him from obtaining a Second Prize in 1856 and a First shared Prize in 1857. In March of the same year, Martin-Pierre celebrated his 10th birthday; in June, he was admitted to the violin class of M. Dupont, first step in his apprenticeship as a virtuoso violinist. From 1857 to 1861, the young boy worked well and progressed despite his "weak fingers" and the "stiffness of his right arm " (Archives du Conservatoire royal de musique de Liège). An interesting remark, as the rumors of those who had heard him play stated that his strength resided in his right arm.

He obtained a merit certificate in 1860,at the same time when his brother Louis obtained his First Prize.

Hereafter, Martin-Pierre Marsick continued in the class of Désiré Heynberg, a Liégeois, who formed a large number of great violinists. Despite having shared a Second Prize in 1852, Heynberg found that Martin-Pierre was not focussed on his work and that he did not put in much effort . The latter was more frequently absent than the average student and this for motives that were not always legitimate.

Martin-Pierre MARSICK

Despite this, the young man was not idle: he simultaneously took lessons in string instruments, harmony, piano and organ. MM. Duquet and Jalheau, respective professors of organ and piano, are also of the same opinion: Martin-Pierre "does absolutely nothing". Adolescence, perhaps? Nevertheless, in 1863, the young Marsick recovered and his performance at the competitive exams that year were brilliant: First Prize with distinction in violin; Second Prize in harmony; First Prize of merit in organ.

Two years later, he finished his studies at the Conservatoire sharing a Second Prize in organ and for the violin, the prize, the Médaille de Vermeil, which he obtained with the highest distinction. (33 years after, in 1897, his nephew Armand, the son of Louis, continued the family tradition and obtained the same distinction at the Conservatoire de Liège. It can therefore be said that Désiré Heynberg, his teacher, had thus obtained his first and his last Médaille de Vermeil thanks to a Marsick.)

Departure from Liège

Countess de Mercy-Argenteau,
by Replin

Admitted at the age of 7 to the Conservatoire, Martin-Pierre Marsick left this educational institution at the age of 18, en route for Brussels, where he was to continue his studies with Hubert Léonard, without doubt one of the greatest pedagogues of the violin. Unfortunately, we know very little of Martin-Pierre's studies in Brussels. However his results were sufficiently brilliant to arouse the interest of the Countess Mercy-Argenteau, née princess de Caraman-Chimay, renowned for her patronage in the music world. It is thanks to her that he was able to pursue his studies in Paris.

It is with no regrets that Marsick left his homeland. It is well known, as seen in his letters, that Martin-Pierre had little affection for his family (except for his brother Louis and later, for the son of the latter, Armand). In 1924, a few months before his death, he would write to his nephew: "...and so, my dear Armand, you were not born during my sad childhood and I was saved when the Countess Eugénie de Mercy appeared before my dazzled eyes when I was but 16, and my childhood was finished. But there were many other times of sadness throughout my life. It is useless to stir up these memories, and you would be so kind as to never speak to me of these." "

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Letter to Armand Marsick,
February 21, 1924.
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He had taken his distance by leaving for Brussels, and it is as a young ambitious man, nearly a Rastignac of Balzac, that he launched an attack on Paris and a new life. In June 1868, he was admitted with the highest honors into the class of Lambert Massart at the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique de Paris, on the recommendation of M. Auber, the director and of the Countess de Mercy-Argenteau. (archives of the Conservatoire de Paris, cote AJ 37 388, page 406)

Lambert Massart

Lambert Massart's class was one of the best known at the Conservatoire. Only very talented students were admitted to it. Massart noted that Martin-Pierre "has superior qualities and would certainly bring honor to the Conservatoire." In July, 1869, it is a done deal : the 22 year old young man, the only foreigner admitted to the exam, was awarded unanimously a First Prize (ex -aequo) . He received 100 francs, a considerable sum in the 19th century and without doubt a violin, as was the custom at that time. (Curiously the archives for the year 1869 are silent on this subject !)

Martin-Pierre had officially finished his studies but he would continue all the same with a brief sojourn in Berlin with Joseph Joachim. It is the debut of the young musician's career.

So what exactly was the career path of Martin-Pierre ?

It was composed of 2 distinct periods, although they do crossover at times: his life as a violin virtuoso and his life as a teacher. Our violinist also had a parallel life as a composer, an aspect of which we will speak about later.

Marsick, the virtuoso

"I hold this artist as the 1st violinist of Paris and of 100 leagues around. And to say that he is a Belgian, a man of Liège, a countryman ! Of that I am proud !"

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Dedication by César Franck
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This "compatriot" is none other than Henri Vieuxtemps, who in November 1875 heard at the Concerts Pasdeloup, the young Marsick interpret his Concerto in F major. The renowned violinist was delighted and his laudatory comments were rapidly circulating throughout the musical community, alongside the concert of praise which already accompanied the technique of the young virtuoso.

Well established, Martin-Pierre Marsick' s career would continue on for approximately 20 years, from 1875 to 1895. First, he was in great demand to perform at concerts conducted by Charles Lamoureux, (Les Nouveaux Concerts), concerts by Jules Pasdeloup (Les Concerts Populaires) or concerts by Edouard Colonne (Les Concerts Colonne), 3 conductors who at that period formed a powerful triumvirate in the music world of Paris.

We hear him also in Les Concerts du Conservatoire, which were prestigious and highly regarded at that time. As expected, his repertoire was made up of great works written for the violin : he played concertos by Bach, Beethoven, Bruch, Lalo, Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns, Tchaïkovsky, Vieuxtemps, Widor, Wieniawski.

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However, it is in chamber music that Marsick displays his full musical talent. Whether playing a Sonate by Fauré (opus 13) or one by Saint-Saëns (opus 75) dedicated to him, whether interpreting the Premier Trio by Chaminade, which was also dedicated to him, or a trio by Lalo, or whether he creates the Quintette by Franck, he was a participant in all these important concerts.

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Letter from Gabriel Fauré
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From 1876 to 1886, he is mainly at the Société nationale de musique. It would unfortunately take too long to relate here the origins of this society created in 1871, in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war. Suffice it to state that its logo is Ars Gallica and to say without hesitation that it had a great influence on the diffusion of French music at the end of the 19th century. Not only did Marsick play frequently, but he was to become a full fledged member of the society in 1877, admitted on the strength of the compositions he submitted. It is also at this time that the Quatuor Marsick was formed which was quickly to become one of the best and famous of the capital. Throughout the years, there were few changes in the members: Martin-Pierre Marsick (first violin), Guillaume Rémy or Richard Loys (second violin), Louis Van Waefelghem (viola) and Jules Delsart or André Hekking (cello). Marsick also formed a few ad hoc quartets, notably with Joseph Joachim, his old professor, when the latter was visiting Paris in 1886, or trios such as the one with the famous Russian cellist Anatole Brandoukoff and the well known pianist Wladimir de Pachmann.

The repertoire of the Quatuor Marsick was most interesting.

LThe last quarter of the 19th century was also the epoch of the salons de musique (music salons) whose influence was considerable on the development of French chamber music. How sad that they still suffer from a bad reputation. They can be divided into three large categories: the aristocratic style of salon, the bourgeois style salon, and the artistic style salon. (Cécile Tardif, Les Salons de Musique à Paris sous la Troisième République, master thesis, Université de Montréal, 1994, page 114).

Cécile Chaminade
Pauline Viardot

Marsick assiduously frequented these salons, but it is his performances in the artistic salons that are the most interesting. We see him first at the Chaminade, neighbours and friends at the Vésinet ; then at the home of Saint-Saëns, then at the home of the cellist Charles Lebouc, whose name has drifted into oblivion but who held one of the most sought after salons of Paris, then at the home of Louis Diemer where he played for the second and last time during the life time of Camille Saint-Saëns, the Carnaval des Animaux created in 1886 during the annual Mardi Gras celebrations at the home of Charles Lebouc. We also saw him at the home of Pauline Viardot, whose salon attracted all the big names in the music milieu of France and elsewhere : Lizt was a regular visitor, Fauré was engaged to one of Pauline's daughters, Saint-Saëns as well as Tourgueniev were said to be in love with the mistress of the house, Verdi himself was a frequent visitor to the salon rue de Douai.

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An invitation from Pauline Viardot
© Jacques Marsick
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A note addressed by Pauline Viardot to Martin-Pierre Marsick gives an idea of the atmosphere present in this salon. To unite Tchaïkovsky, Brandoukoff, Viardot, and Marsick for a small concert " no fuss", what could be better ?

American recital tour

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Martin-Pierre MARSICK
October 1895

It is during a tour of America in 1895-1896 that Martin-Pierre Marsick reached the pinnacle of his career as a violinist. He had already toured, notably in England and in Russia where he achieved considerable success. However, at the turn of the century nothing could compare to a tour in America, both in terms of monetary fallout and artistic repercussions.

Upon arriving in America on October 20, 1895, Marsick began a series of concerts that brought him from New York to San Francisco, via Toronto and Montreal. The concert programme of Vieuxtemps's Concerto #4 in D minor, Bruch's Concerto # 3 in D minor, Lalo's Concerto for violin were all acclaimed with great enthusiasm by the critics and the public who recognized in Marsick a violinist who did not want to attract attention to himself to the detriment of the music . Marsick impressed with his great musicality. In San Francisco, however, his celebrity was eclipsed, because his regular "accompanist" was replaced by an extremely well known musician. Ignaz Paderewski !

Symphony Hall Archives
San Francisco
"Martin Pierre Marsick and Ignaz Paderewski"

Marsick, the teacher

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Nomination letter
of Martin Pierre Marsick, 1892,
©Jacques Marsick
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Martin-Pierre was surely one of the greatest violin teachers of the late 19th century. He first gave private lessons : at 20 francs a lesson. He is the highest paid teacher in Paris. They say of him that he was demanding, inflexible and sometimes arrogant. Be that as it may, in 1892, he is appointed professor at the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique de Paris, replacing Eugène Sauzay, assumed or rather. forced to retire. It is the height of recognition as attested by the flood of congratulations he received from the music world.

Unfortunately, his career was to be brief. 8 years only, from 1892 to 1900. but fruitful. Three students in particular would ensure his place in history books : Carl Flesh, First Prize in 1894 : Jacques Thibaud, in 1896 : Georges Enesco, in 1899.

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The young Jacques Thibaud
© private collection of Pierre Marsick
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Of his master, Jacques Thibaud has memories of a man sensitive to his material difficulties, attentive to his needs, a shoulder on which to vent when he did not receive a first prize at his first competition. Although we cannot put to doubt the sincerity of his gratitude towards Marsick, the romanticized account of their relationship, totally in the hagiographic style of the epoch would be sharply criticized by Armand Marsick, who wrote in the margin of his copy of the memoirs of Thibaud : "This story is pure phantasmagoria ! There is not a word of truth in all this."

Georges Enesco

Georges Enesco did not like his professor. However, he does not hesitate to give him his just due in his memories : "This excellent teacher of great reputation had succeeded Eugène Sauzay in 1892. He taught me to perfect my violin playing and to learn certain compositions" (source; "Les souvenirs de G.Enesco", ed. Flammarion, 1955)

It is in the memoirs of Carl Flesh that we find the most detailed, and the least biased comments, on the teachings of Martin-Pierre Marsick :

Carl Flesch

""It was he who taught me to think logically without endangering the spirit of the living work of art. He watched and improved the functioning of my right arm and taught me the execution of various dynamic shadings. I found his interpretive style unusually sympathetic and it made me aware of the possibilities of expression which hitherto had lain dormant in me . He showed me an unsuspected world of feeling to conquer which I had to perfect my still inadequate technique." (The Memoirs of Carl Flesh, edited by Hans Keller and C.F. Flesh, New York, Da Capo Press, 1979, pages 66-67)

It is difficult to have a fair idea of the technique and the way a violinist plays when there are no recordings available. We must therefore rely on comments by his contemporaries or his students. We have seen the good that Vieuxtemps thought of the technique of the young Marsick. The Russian composer César Cui, one of the founders of the Groupe des Cinq, recognized this technique when he heard him in Moscow and St Petersburg. He dedicated a uite Concertante to him. Here is what he thought of Marsick's technique : "Mr. Marsick's technique is varied. The sound of his instrument is round, ample, full of warmth ; the purity of intonation is remarkable and extends to the highest of harmonic sounds. The speed of the playing is astounding. All the nuances are accessible to him from the darkest sentiments to those of brilliance and joy delirious. But these contrasts are ennobled by exquisite taste that does not deviate from the limits of true artistry." (La Gazette musicale, January 1886.)

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Congratulations letter
from Jules Massenet following
the nomination of Martin-Pierre
Marsick at the Conservatoire
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Carl Flesch states about Martin-Pierre's technique :

"His strength was in his bowing. His right arm was a model of physiological development, an absolutely perfect instrument although even in his case the staccato had its flaws. He produced an enchanting tone, capable of extraordinary modulation and played with great imagination, constantly engaging one's interest without falling into mannerisms. His left hand, however, seemed to lag behind, probably owing to his late start. At times, it seemed that his intonation was insecure and his changes of position were not entirely reliable. But in Paris itself, he was without rival especially as a chamber musician." (The Memoirs of Carl Flesh, 65)

Martin Marsick
dedicated portrait

In 1900, Martin-Pierre Marsick's career, as a professor, ended abruptly amid a scandal. In October 1899, Marsick had officially asked the director, Theodore Dubois, for a two month leave : "I have the honor, he wrote, of asking you for a two month leave of absence in January and February 1900, in order to allow me to tour in Austria, Hungary and Italy, of which I had previously verbally discussed with you and during which I will be executing various French compositions, among which your beautiful violin concerto." (Archives nationales, lettre au directeur du Conservatoire, October 26, 1899.) He thus was granted his requested leave with pay and left the capital heading west not east.across the Atlantic ! Abandoning his wife, he took with him his mistress, which created a resounding scandal. " My uncle's elopement, wrote his nephew Armand, who takes off with a young woman, Madame. Ch. "

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Letter from Georges Enesco
© Jacques Marsick
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Deception towards his superiors, without doubt, Marsick was sufficiently honest to write to the director to confess all. In a letter from New Orleans, dated February 1900 (Archives nationales, dossier Martin-Pierre Marsick), he submits his resignation, seeing himself, he wrote, unable to return in time for the competitions. His resignation is accepted on April 1, 1900. which was to be the death knoll of his career. Marsick vegetated during a few years in the United States of America, perhaps in Chicago where a Belgian school for the violin had opened. Returning to France at the beginning of the 20th century, he found many students, as his reputation as a pedagogue had not suffered from his escapades, which were to become rarer after the war.

What physical evidence is there of Martin-Pierre's teachings? First, he published in 1906 a small work entitled Eureka, "a novel system of finger exercises " (Archives BNF) that he claims were infallible ! Carl Flesh qualified the work as "highly problematic " without giving further explanation. Marsick also worked on a more important method related to violin technique which he had already mentioned in Eureka like a comprehensive reform of teaching for the violin.

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Letter from C. Saint-Saëns
© Jacques Marsick
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La Grammaire du violon on which he worked for many years would only be published in 1924, shortly before his death. An analysis of this work is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say it highlights the innovative nature on a pedagogical level. Marsick addressed himself directly to the user and provided photographs and illustrations to reinforce his method, in particular the holding of the bow and the position of the wrist.

In brief, although brutally interrupted, Martin-Pierre's career was nonetheless that of a great pedagogue as mentioned by Carl Flesh. "Massart and Marsick demonstrated that a first class teacher could obtain spectacular results. In 5 years, Marsick formed Thibaud, Enesco and myself." (The Memoirs of Carl Flesh, op. cit, page 68.)

Marsick, the composer

Martin-Pierre's works as a composer are not of great importance. In contrast, with Georges Enesco who called himself a composer and a violinist to .earn a living, Marsick was first and foremost a violinist. This being said, he did compose around 40 works, mainly short pieces for the violin as was customary at the time. His poem Mai was an unequivocal success. Nearly all his compositions were published by Durand, Sénart, Schott, Enoch etc. (these works are deposited at the Bibliothèque nationale de France and at the Bibliothèque royale Albert 1er.)

He also composed a lyric poem Le Puits based on a libretto by Auguste Dorchain, of which there appears to be no trace; a quintet for strings, flute and clarinet, Souvenir de Naples,op. 33; a quartet for piano, violin, viola and cello, op. 43 which may have had its first hearing at the Université de Liège in the context of the Concerts du Midi de la Ville de Liège on October 23, 1997, with the participation of the Belgian Chamber artists. There was a second playing on October 28 in the framework of the Concerts d'Automne in Louvain-la-Neuve. It is to be noted, the happy coincidence ! that the violinist in the quartet was Jerrold Rubenstein, who was the concertmaster of the orchestra conducted by Paul-Louis Marsick, son of Armand and great-nephew of Martin-Pierre.

The last years

After the war, a column entitled "Vie chère" replaced in the Figaro the column "Salons". A lifestyle had reached an end, at the same time as the a multitude of small monarchies, and the times were no longer à la Belle Époque nor music lessons for young girls of good families. In March 1917, during the war Martin-Pierre reached the age of 70. His last years were to be somewhat sad, even a bit pathetic. Although he still managed to find some students, he lived in constant fear of losing them and thereby seeing his earnings dwindle. Life was so difficult that in 1922 he refused to visit his nephew in Bilbao for Christmas. He performed less and less and mainly in small "parochial concerts" of little importance.

Divorced from Berthe Mollot and with no heir apparent, he made a last will in February 1920, legating his belongings to a young singer named Suzane Decourt. She is the one, who well known in musical circles under the name Mitza Rosari, to whom he had dedicated in 1912 one of his last compositions entitled Pur Amour ...

His health is declining:

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Letter to Armand Marsick,
January 23, 1924
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"Life being more and more difficult, I continue to work as much as my strength permits me : I have many devoted friends who have surrounded me during my long illness. I had, amid my numerous ailments, some terrible nerve problems which would have been enough to kill an ox." (letter to Armand Marsick, January 24, 1924.)

On October 21, 1924, Martin-Pierre died in Paris. On October 27, during the funeral mass, an Ave Maria that he composed exactly 2 months before his death and which bore the inscription " To be sung in church at my funeral" was performed. Interestingly, in the last few years of his life, Martin-Pierre, who had so often denigrated his homeland, wished ardently to return. His wish was granted and on the church steps, after the usual speeches, his body was solemnly donated to the city of Liège. Martin-Pierre is buried in the Robermont cemetery, in a plot entertained in perpetuity by the city of Liège.

The grave of Martin-Pierre Marsick
Robermont cemetery

Generally speaking, this is how biographies end. However, this one has an unusual coda. On June 4,1933, Jupille-sur Meuse was the scene of an event out of the ordinary : a plaque was placed on the house where Marsick was born and a concert was given. It was conducted by his nephew Armand Marsick and uniting three of the greatest violinists of the 20th century, Jacques Thibaud, Carl Flesh and Georges Enesco who had come to honor the memory of their professor.

Unveiling of a plaque placed
on the birth house of
©Archives Jacques Marsick

After the customary speeches, the three virtuoso players interpreted the Concerto pour trois violons et orchestre by Vivaldi, followed by a work of their professor. Beautiful poster, that foreshadows the famous concerts given by the .3 tenors. Touching initiative by Armand. Beautiful gesture on the part of Thibaud, Flesh and Enesco, all three at the pinnacle of their careers. Outstanding support from the Société liégeoise de musicologie that sponsored the concert. (I wish to thank M. Stéphane Dado, from the Société de musicologie who kindly gave me the concert program)

"I am grateful to him for his comprehension that teaching is the noblest of artistic activities" wrote Carl Flesh in his memoirs. Without a doubt a fitting homage to Martin-Pierre Marsick.

Cécile Tardif.
Novembre 1998.
Revue de la Société liégoise de musicologie.

Translation : Aline Blain