Skip main navigation

Schaeffer & Henry: Symphony pour un humme seul (1949-50)

Listening exercise for Schaeffer & Henry's Symphony pour un humme seul (1949-50)

Listening exercise

The Symphony pour un humme seul consists of 12 movements and a duration of around 22 minutes. If you don’t have time to listen to the full work twice today, have a listen to the first half and answer the questions accordingly.

Listen on UbuWeb

The Symphony pour un humme seul (Symphony for One Man Alone) was the first collaboration between Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry and follows directly on from the territory explored by Schaeffer in his Cinq études de bruits. Schaeffer discusses what Henry brought to the studio in this excerpt from his publication In Search of a Concrete Music (1952):

All of the musicians whom until then we had invited to join us had practically run away from a musical undertaking bristling with difficulties and defended by the barbed wire of technique. Composers, conductors, virtuosi had passed through the studio. We had also appealed to jazz musicians, trusting in their improvisatory abilities and their unconstrained sense of sound material. But jazz, even more than the classical orchestra, makes its music with nerves and muscles. The jazz musicians declined as well.
Finally there appeared a young prize-winning composer from the Conservatoire with a respectable background (he had worked in the Messiaen class), who could start straight away. A pianist but, most of all a virtuoso percussionist, he was predisposed to violence because of his frail appearance. An instinct for power, very characteristic of his generation, inclined him to maximum disruption, minimum melody and harmony. Invited for a trial session, Pierre Henry came into the Studio as so many others had done. This, as I had assumed ephemeral, passing presence was not to leave it again. The Symphonie pour un homme seul began with the friendship of two isolated people.
There’s a really interesting continuum that Schaeffer and Henry establish in this piece. Their organisation looks at not just the qualities of sounds but how they are situated in relation to the physical body. This kind of framework was not uncommon for composers of music concrète. In exploring a musical form which eschewed conventional harmony, historically the main way musical materials was organised, composers had to start thinking of other ways these sounds might have meaningful relationships.
In this case, Schaeffer and Henry sought to organise two categories of sounds (sounds interior to man, and sound exterior to man) along a spectrum of noise to musical sound. For interior sounds this sees the spectrum proceed from breath sounds, to vocal cries, to whistled tunes. For exterior sounds, this sees the spectrum proceed from footsteps, to percussion, to orchestral instruments.
Shaeffer summarises the structure of the symphony as follows:
The Symphonie pour un homme seul comprises, rather than the four or five traditional movements, about ten pieces— or “sequences”— that are connected to each other in a clearly perceptible manner, like the links of a chain, symmetrical or asymmetrical, contrasting or blending, depending on their matter or form.
The first four are respectively: Prosopopee I, Partita, Valse, Prosopopee II. Prosopopie I establishes the setting for the whole work. Prosopopee II, and, between the two prosopopoeias, a transitional Partita, then a waltz, open the gates upon a universe swarming with human life, with the waltz of voices, deliberately scrambled, for the rhythm of voices, their pure presence, is enough for their music.
These are followed by: Collectif (Collective), Erotica, Scherzo, Cadence. The domain of voices glimpsed in the Valse develops: Murmuring, mysterious voices in the Collectif. The suggestion of a single burst of laughter in Erotica, and, in the Scherzo, the commotion of high-pitched voices. Finally, after the Scherzo, where the prepared piano responds to voices that seem to come from playtime at a village school, the Cadence repeats the most important rhythmic theme in the work. The Symphony ends with: Eroica, Apostrophe (Utterance), Strette (Stretto).
Contrasting with the previous sequence, Erotica, Eroica again has as its central motif a human noise, this time whispering as opposed to laughter, man as opposed to woman. The Apostrophe seems to want to introduce an element of intelligibility into this now more tragic atmosphere. The voices, until now scrambled, desire to escape from indistinctness and pronounce a word at last. An important word, which had initially been emphasized like a dominant in the first version of the work. But now, in the definitive version, a word henceforth pronounced rapidly and in an undertone, for anything explicit seems to be forbidden in a work of this type.
Finally, the Strette owes its name to the fact that it begins with a short reprise of the main elements heard previously. It develops rapidly and makes room for completely new elements that eventually attract the attention, which until then had been unfocused. These elements, mostly cyclical, intermingle, and in a series of approximations finally achieve pure stridency, crowning the whole work with its final chord.

Over to you

What sounds can your identify in Symphony pour un humme seul? How do they fit along Schaeffer’s spectrum of internal/external and noise/musical? What did you think was interesting, and what did you think wasn’t interesting? What differences can you hear between this work and Schaeffer’s earlier studies of noise?


Schaeffer, P. (2012) In Search of Concrete Music. Translated by Christine North and John Dack. Berkley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.

This article is from the free online

English Electronic Music: Delve into the Digital Archives

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now