23 May 1923 - 21 June 2001
Lesure, the erudite and genial French musicologist who was for
two generations of music scholars our primary anchor in Paris, died suddenly
of a heart attack at his home in the rue d'Assas at the age of 78. Lesure
had been a Corresponding Member of the American Musicological Society since
At his death François Lesure was chevalier of the Legion of Honor and the National Order of Merit, commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, honorary music librarian of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and still serving as director of studies, since 1973, at the École Pratique des Hautes Études.
He earned degrees in history and archival studies from the Sorbonne, the École Pratique des Hautes Études, and the École des Chartes (1946, 1948, 1950) before following a course of study at the Conservatoire. He took employment in 1950 as a librarian in the music division of the Bibliothèque Nationale, serving as its chief, 1970-88. He was professor of musicology at the Free University of Brussels, 1965-77, longtime general secretary of the Répertoire International des Sources Musicales (RISM), 1953-67, and twice president of the Société Française de Musicologie, 1971-74 and 1988-91.
The spectrum of Lesure's interests ran from the 16th century to the music of his country-house neighbor Pierre Boulez: he was a pillar of Debussy and Berlioz studies and the history of published music collections in France and elsewhere. His expertise at music bibliography and scholarly edition in general was unsurpassed, placing him in the company of the most influential musicologists in the history of the profession. His published bibliography runs to several dozen articles and well over a dozen books and major editions, including any number consulted routinely today by musicians around the world: his Anthologie de la chanson parisienne au XVIe siècle (Monaco, 1953), for instance, or his now-standard work on Debussy--the Catalogue . . . (Geneva, 1977), anthologies of essays and letters (1971ff.), and critical biography (Paris, 1994)--or the Dictionnaire des éditeurs de musique français he published with Anik Devriès, 1979-88. His most recent major work was a Dictionnaire musical des villes de province (Paris, 1999). Lesure organized major exhibitions at the Bibliothèque Nationale and Opéra (Mozart, 1956; Debussy, 1962; Berlioz, 1969; Two Centuries of French Opera, 1972) and more recently the lovely Debussy and Symbolism at the Villa Medici in Rome (1984); additionally he was editor of Le Pupitre, Heugel's series of early-music editions, and since 1983 of the Complete Works of Claude Debussy published by Durand.
In these enterprises, François Lesure's name appears on the title page. In countless other epochal turns of French musicology he was an equally driving force: the establishment of the Debussy center in St. Germain-en-Laye, the rescue of the archives of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire (and thus the great majority of Berlioz's performance material), the claiming of hundreds of artifacts of French musical patrimony--notably the autograph of Gounod's Faust (and, with it, the composer's baton)--for the national library. He continued to sit, often as not encircled by the smoke of his Havana cigars, on numerous high commissions and, vivaciously, to the end of the long dinner parties that inevitably followed. His wisdom and guidance helped, for instance, mold the work of the Berlioz 2003 International Commission, nearly every member of which is, one way or another, his protégé. It was altogether in keeping with his central role in my own scholarship that for nearly a decade he has greeted me with a suspicious "Et la Société des Concerts?" and was first in with his list of corrections to the manuscript of what he called "your little booklet," including as a postscript the shelfmark of an untapped documentary source he was certain would shed dramatic light on the subject. Of my generation François Lesure was, quite simply, our bon père.
The funeral was celebrated on 25 June 2001 at the Église St.-Thomas-d'Aquin,
the parish church where Lesure had been baptized, with inhumation at the
Cimetière Montparnasse. The music was offered by Les Arts Florissants,
the Pages de la Chapelle of Versailles, and others, with works by Henry
du Mont, Eustache du Caurroy, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Cabezon, Campra,
Bach, Debussy, and Philippe Manoury (a work dedicated to Lesure). The orations
were by Lesure's successor Catherine Massip, Manoury, and his student Denis
Herlin. Lesure is survived by his wife, the musicologist Anik Devriès-Lesure,
66 rue d'Assas, 75006 Paris.
D. Kern Holoman