By Jack Bryce
St. Olaf College Professor Emeritus
The video below contains a link to our YouTube playlist featuring music from this weekend’s concert. Click here for the direct link.
Preview our concert with detailed notes and suggested online recordings
Claude Debussy (St-Germain-en-Laye, August 22, 1862 – Paris, March 25, 1918) failed to become a sailor as his father Manuel-Achille had hoped; instead he is one of the most significant and beloved of composers. In the chaos of the Franco-Prussian war he had no schooling, but was admitted to the Paris Conservatory in 1872, to study piano, solfège, harmony, and accompanying. In the summers of 1880–1882 he was engaged to teach piano to the children of Tchaikovsky’s patroness Nadezhda von Meck, and in 1884 he won the Prix de Rome for his cantata L’enfant prodigue. He spent spent two years in Rome at the Villa Medici. Back in Paris, he played piano and composed, and falling under the influence of Richard Wagner made pilgrimages to Bayreuth in 1888 and 1889. His glorious String Quartet was premiered in Paris in 1893, at the time when he discovered Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and first saw Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande, which he began to set as an opera. In 1901 he began to write voluminous musical criticism, at first under the pseudonym ‘Monsieur Croche,’ or ‘Mr. Eighth Note.’ He began to turn his back on Wagnerism and instead praised the baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764), and promoted the French national tradition. In 1909 he became a member of the advisory board of the Paris Conservatory, and in 1910 started work on The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian for the dancer Ida Rubinstein. He sadly came down with the cancer which, after one of the earliest colostomy operations in 1915, finally killed him in the midst of the bombardment of Paris in 1918.
The Sonata for flute, viola, and harp, composed in 1915, has three movements, Pastorale: lento, dolce rubato; Interlude, tempo di minuetto; and Finale, Allegro moderato ma risoluto. Premiered privately at the home of Debussy’s publisher Jacques Durand on December 10, 1916, the first public performances came in 1917. It was originally conceived for flute, oboe, and harp, but Debussy changed his mind, thinking that the viola would be a better match for the flute than the oboe. Its texture is quite complex, as the composer writes idiomatically for three very different instruments: tunes and rapid scales for the flute, arpeggios and passionate gestures for the viola, which also often serves as a bass instrument for the trio, with lively arpeggios and melodies for the harp. The Pastorale, ‘slow, sweet, with a flexible tempo,’ is gentle and soothing, though with a slightly teasing variety of keys and scales. The Interlude, though in three-quarter time like a minuet, doesn’t sound like a typical minuet because of its elaborate structure. With rapidly changing moods and tempi, it is extremely imaginative and offers, in miniature, quite a range of experience. The finale, ‘moderately fast but resolute,’ also displays a variety of moods and textures, and is the most virtuosic of the movements, with a thrilling ending.
Jean-Michel Damase (born at Bordeaux on January 27, 1928 – Paris, April 21, 2013) was a French composer and pianist. He began instrumental studies at the age of five, and at nine, after meeting the famous author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, set some of her poems. In 1943 he was awarded a first prize in piano at the Paris Conservatory, and in 1947 he won the Prix de Rome. He wrote seven operas, seven ballets, orchestral works including a symphony and ten concertos, chamber and instrumental works, and vocal works for soloists and choirs.
The Dix-Sept Variations for Wind Quintet, op. 22, composed in 1951, comprises a delightful set of pieces for the standard wind quintet of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon. The main theme is a bit like a march, but the clever variations put it into many different guises, even a slightly sarcastic piece for solo bassoon. Damase fully exploits the numerous possibilities and strengths of these five flexible instruments; the final variation provides a splendidly triumphant declaration, accompanied by elaborate and rapid gestures.
Francis Poulenc (Paris, January 7, 1899 – January 30, 1963), composer and pianist, was descended on his father’s side from pious Catholics who started an enormously successful pharmaceutical business in the south of France, and on his mother’s from rather more secular Parisians in the arts. The famous critic Claude Rostand summed up Poulenc’s character, derived from these two sources: “In Poulenc there is something of the monk and something of the rascal.” His parents died when he was a teenager, and then came the first World War; but he had already been helped by Igor Stravinsky to find a publisher in London for his early works, and continued to compose while in the army from 1918 to 1921. In 1920 he became a member of the “Group of Six,” young, mostly Parisian composers. In 1921 he began to study composition with Charles Koechlin, and in 1924 came his first great success, the ballet Les Biches. He was now moving in the highest social and musical circles in Paris, but also suffered a serious depression in the late ’20s; his first great love, Raymonde Linossier, died young, even as he was becoming slowly aware of his own homosexuality. He lived in a constant battle with manic depression alternating with phases of great enthusiasm. In 1936 a pilgrimage revived his Catholic faith. He spent the years of the Second World War in the German zone at Noizay, in the Loire valley, continuing to compose. In 1948 he made the first of many tours to the US. He died suddenly of a heart attack in 1963.
Poulencs’s Élégie for horn and piano, written in 1957, is dedicated to the great British horn player Denis Brain, who died at 36 in a car crash. It begins with a sorrowful, wandering melody in the horn, followed by an angry passage for horn and piano. Next the piano plays the sad tune, and the angry passage returns. Then both instruments play the opening tune, and the piece proceeds from there in a mostly elegiac fashion. One can easily hear both rage and grief for an untimely death in this lovely work, which expresses a great deal of tragic emotion, ending with something akin to resignation.
Maurice Ravel (Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, March 7, 1875 – Paris, December 8, 1937), French composer of Swiss and Basque origins, moved with his family to Paris three months after he was born. He studied piano and harmony at the Paris Conservatory, and eventually composition. Between 1900 and 1905 he tried for the Prix de Rome five times, always losing out despite the great success in Paris of compositions such as his glorious String Quartet. A scandal broke out when it became known that all the finalists in 1905 were students of Charles-Ferdinand Lenepveu, a musical archconservative who was destined to become head of the Conservatory; in response the government intervened and put in Gabriel Fauré instead. Other controversies took place between Ravel’s supporters and those of Debussy, thirteen years his senior. After Debussy’s death in 1918, Ravel was regarded as France’s greatest composer, and among other travels he undertook a grueling and extremely successful tour of the US in 1928. After many triumphs he went into a physical decline from 1932, and died in Paris after a brain operation in 1937. He lived alone; his closest friendship was with his mother, who had died in 1917.
Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor, a large piece written for violin, ’cello, and piano in 1914, emerged after six years of planning; in the end it was severely rushed due to the outbreak of the first World War. It is dedicated to Ravel’s counterpoint teacher, André Gedalge, and was first performed at Paris in January of 1915. It begins with a hauntingly beautiful movement marked Modéré (moderately) in an unusual time signature, 8/8. This doesn’t amount to its mathematical equivalent 4/4, because each measure is divided into unequal parts, 3/8 plus 2/8 plus 3/8, which a listener hears as 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2-3; Ravel states that this rhythm is based on a Basque dance form, the zortziko. The two principal themes are set out one after another at the beginning, the second a bit more turbulent and exciting than the first. The second movement is called “pantoum” after a Malaysian verse form that intrigued various writers of the period, and which Ravel reconfigures in music. But simultaneously this movement is structured like a classic scherzo in fast 3/4 time with two initial sections, each repeated, then a third, called the “trio,” also repeated, and then the first two again played without repeats. The trio is remarkable for being written in two simultaneous time signatures. First the piano plays in 4/2 time while the strings continue in 3/4; then they reverse. If you do the arithmetic you’ll see that the two parties return to a downbeat together every eight measures if you count in 3/4, or every 3 measures of 4/2. The third movement, marked very broad (très large), is a passacaglia in form, a term from Spanish pasar ‘to walk’ and calle, ‘the street.’ It was developed in early 17th century Italy as a set of continuous variations over a repeated bass line in triple time, and has remained very popular with composers into our own day. You will hear the theme at the beginning of the movement, first in the piano, then in the ’cello and violin. The movement is structured as a long crescendo, dying away again after a huge climax. The finale or Final is marked animé, animated. It alternates between 5/4 and 7/4 time, is remarkably virtuosic, and finishes with a brilliant coda.