Jacques Drillon, music critic, grammarian and man of letters, is dead

« Weakness was not his strong » was one of the favorite formulas of Jacques Drillon, who loved it so much that he will serve it often, to Sviatoslav Richter for example, one of the pianists he admired the most, and to others. These words are also a kind of self-portrait in concentrate: our colleague, who has just died of a brain tumor on December 25, at the age of 67, was an uncompromising music critic, author and essayist. , loving and hating with passion and panache.

Born in Paris on June 25, 1954, Jacques Drillon studied literature and cinema (a discipline to which he thought to devote himself for a while) in Nancy and Metz, before settling in Paris in 1975. He joined the team brought together by the rebel Louis Dandrel (died January 22, 2021) at France Musique – from which, in 1977, he resigned collegially with the latter.

In 1978, still with Dandrel, Jacques Drillon was part of the founding team of World of Music, a monthly magazine originally co-founded by the daily The world and the weekly Telerama. There he signs record reviews, portraits and long-term articles, in a highly recognizable language and style.


His claws and his formulas, sometimes cookie-cutter, as funny as they are cruel, soon reach the columns of the New Observer, of which he was the official music critic, from 1981 – after the departure of Maurice Fleuret, who became director of music at the ministry of culture under Jack Lang – until the date of his retirement, on 1is May 2017.

Drillon’s pen was elegantly precise, with perfect punctuation – and for good reason: this grammarian, specialist in crosswords (in 2003 he took over from Robert Scipion in L’Obs), was to become the author of a resounding Treatise on punctuation (1991), published in the « Tel » collection, by Gallimard, and presented as the “First complete work on French punctuation. «  And, as in everything, Drillon went without slack, illustrating each sign, each use with good and bad examples – the « Mongers » not always being the least illustrious.

Redoing the translation of Roi Lear, by William Shakespeare (Actes Sud, 1993, reed. Gallimard, collection Le Manteau d’Arlequin, 2021), Drillon presents her, as a musician, as a « Transcription for the French scene », intended, above all, to sound good, from the mouth of the actor to the ear of the spectator. And does not hesitate to ridicule, in an insolent preface, such a translator who “Had the qualities required to translate Shakespeare; all that was missing was talent. « 

When he transcribed for two pianos – one of his passions as an amateur pianist and decipherer, which he shared with one of his idols, the musicologist François Michel, author of theFasquelle Encyclopedia of Music (1958) andHistorical Atlas of the Provinces of France (1969-1979, various editors) -, Jacques Drillon thought, as sincerely as proudly, to have done better than everyone – except Liszt, all the same, to whom he devoted a Liszt transcriptionist or Well-ordered charity (Actes Sud, 1986).

And if we thought otherwise – and, above all, if we thought without talent – then Drillon could split himself into avenging chickens: his art of insulting letters was legendary and his quarrels numerous: in the days of duels, he would have spent his time seeking redress. In the direct descent of a critical Claude Debussy, Drillon had a consummate art of shooting on sight, rarely with speckled foils.

Scholarly and ruthless

Sometimes unfair, he often admired with passion – and heard with an exemplary ear. The harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt will remain one of his idols – with Glenn Gould, at the piano, in a part of the same repertoire – to whom he will dedicate a number of articles and interviews, collected and completed in the biographical essay Sur Leonhardt (Gallimard, 2009).

Quick to mix genres and functions, he wrote about those whose recordings he directed (at Harmonia Mundi), to whom he entrusted his transcriptions, or with whom he gave his texts on stage as a reader. But his friendships were never of indulgence and bound him lastingly to the best.

Received Doctor of Letters in Linguistics with the thesis Formal law and its influence on artistic and literary creation, in 1993, Jacques Drillon will have been as much carried by literature as by music. He will publish, among other things, Charles d’Orléans or The Melancholic Genius, theater to read (Lattès, 1993), Tomb of Verlaine (Gallimard, 1996), The recumbent statues, study on « The Death of Lovers » by Charles Baudelaire (Gallimard, 2001). The first volume of his autobiographical essay Cadence (Gallimard, 2018) should be completed by the posthumous publication of his sequel, Coda.

You can read the list of Jacques Drillon’s contributions on his Wikipedia page, written with maniacal precision (probably by his care: you are never better served than by yourself) and find these literary coffee counter briefs, these aphoristic notations in the manner of an egotistical journal that he kept, a few weeks before his death, on the site The Republic of Books, by Pierre Assouline.

One of his last posts, dated September 10, is Drillon pure juice – enjoyable, erudite and ruthless. He reminds us that the bourdaloue, before being a tart, is « A chamber pot for ladies » ; provides  » the full list [mais non définitive] sheet music for two eight-handed pianos’ in his possession; curls Bob Dylan’s music (but not his poetry) with a stroke of his pen and mocks Joséphine Baker’s entry into the Pantheon. Jacques Drillon was a reckless man with a well-made brain, whose absence will mark.

The dates

1954: birth in Paris, June 25

1975: producer at France Musique

1981: music critic at New Observer

1991: publishes a « Treaty of French punctuation »

2021: died in Paris, December 25

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