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Concert IV, 2022-2023 Season

French Impressions


All the music in this concert is either completely or partly French. Since the seventeenth century, the French style had defined itself as, at least in part, in contrast to the German or Germanic, and Italian or Italianate styles. In the Baroque period (1600-1750 or so), French characteristics included more speech-like (as opposed to song-like) vocal lines; less intricate textures (i.e., more music where everyone is playing more or less the same rhythms); and a fondness for uneven and very sharply dotted rhythms (i.e., longer sounds preceded by extremely short ones, as in the word “because”.) By the turn of the twentieth century, French style was characterized by particularly colorful use of the orchestra and by chords that did not lead inexorably from one to the next, as was the case in much Germanic music. Instead the chords seem more to “wander” than to “lead,” often creating a sort of floating feeling akin to the vaguer outlines of objects in Impressionist paintings.


D’un matin de printemps

Lili Boulanger

Lili Boulanger was the first woman to win the famous Prix de Rome composition prize, at the tender age of 20: this was a prize which her father, Ernest Boulanger had won in 1835, Hector Berlioz won in 1830, and Claude Debussy got in 1884. Because of persistent ill health she studied composition privately. Her music is in the same Impressionist style as that of Debussy and Ravel, with vivid orchestral colors and some experimentation with scales and harmonies beyond the normal major and minor. “D’un matin de printemps” (About a Spring Morning) was written in 1917–18, first for violin or flute and piano and then arranged for full orchestra. It begins energetically, perhaps evoking the energy of new life thrusting its way out of the ground, then moves to a dreamier, more lyrical phase. Energy and dreaminess more or less alternate for the rest of this short work.


Suite from Les Indes Galantes

Jean-Philippe Rameau

Jean-Philippe Rameau was the most famous French composer of his time. Although he started life as a church musician and the author of immense music-theoretical tomes, his great fame, then and now, rests on his operas, all written in the later part of his life, all performed at the Paris Opera, and many performed for Louis XV. His opera Les Indes Galantes enacts a series of amorous adventures in the “Indies,” a term that indicated any exotic non-European locale. These are an Indian Ocean island for “Le Turc généreux,” the vicinity of a Peruvian volcano for “Les Incas,” Persia for “Les fleurs,” and North America (nowhere specific) for “Les sauvages.” The settings are of course wildly inaccurate and exoticized, with the indigenous people of these settings (usually the supposed rulers of their groups ) used merely as foils for the hypocrisies and other failings of Europeans rather than as individuals and societies with their own independent characteristics and cultures.

Because French Baroque operas were seriously multimedia events, with elaborate scenery, extraordinary costumes and professional dancers, as well as singers and orchestra, the suite we play today is made up almost entirely of dances that use the rhythms of courtly social dances of the time. They would have occurred between the sung numbers and would also have been staged to illustrate aspects of the imagined “local customs.”


“La Valse”

Maurice Ravel

“La Valse” was written in 1919, just one year after World War I had ended. Commentators have described the work’s extraordinary colors and intermittent hysteria in relation to this cataclysmic world event, but Ravel’s first prose description of it says, “one should only see in it what the music expresses: an ascending progression of sonority, to which the stage adds light and movement.” “The stage” here refers to Ravel’s evident intention that it should be used as ballet music. He called it a “poème choréographique,” and it has been set for dance by several famous choreographers, not least George Balanchine for the New York City Ballet. However, Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario for whom Stravinsky had already written The Firebird and Petrushka, and on whose prompting Ravel had created it, passed it up, saying “it’s a masterpiece, but it’s not a ballet … it’s the portrait of a ballet.”

Possibly in response to the work’s reception among the critics, Ravel revised his own original commentary and in 1922 wrote, “it is a dancing, whirling, almost hallucinatory ecstasy, an increasingly passionate and exhausting whirlwind of dancers, who are overcome.” This is not at all the only way to hear the work, but it does encapsulate both what Ravel does to the idea of the social dance on which it is based and how that idea progresses over the work’s course.


Pictures at an Exhibition

Modest Mussorgsky, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel

Modest Mussorgsky was one of the "Mighty Handful" of five self-consciously Russian and modernist composers (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, and Rimsky-Korsakov in addition to Mussorgsky) in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Having studied piano in his youth (and becoming an accomplished player) he studied composition privately with Balakirev, and then by analyzing the works of many other composers, both Western-European and Russian.

This work was written in 1874, originally for solo piano; like many of Mussorgsky's works it was not published until after his death and was revised (in this instance very slightly) by his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov. Most of the movements are musical responses to pictures by Victor Hartmann, an artist/architect friend of Mussorgsky, who had just died. Opening the work, and then linking some of these musical pictures is the "Promenade" refrain, whose irregular meter gives a wonderful sense of a leisurely meander through a museum. Only a few of the relevant Hartmann pictures are still extant, but there have been numerous attempts to complete the set and match Mussorgsky’s music.

Because this piano work is so obviously picturesque, it has cried out to be orchestrated (set for orchestra). The first orchestration, by Mikhail Tushmalov, appeared only five years after the first publication of the piano work. The one we play today, by Maurice Ravel, is the most famous. Not all reworkings of the piece are for classical orchestra; there's at least one electronic version and a rock one by the group Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

Ravel's version is an amazing orchestral showcase, especially for the brass and winds. From the haunting saxophone solo in "Il Vecchio Castello" to the galumphing tuba in "Bydlo," (hay wagon), or the brilliant trumpet work in "Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle" or the chirping flutes and oboes in the "Ballet of Chickens in their Shells," the palette of sounds is always changing, but always perfectly calibrated to capture the colors of Mussorgsky's responses to these pictures.


© Copyright Mary Hunter 2022