Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Program Notes (III)

Here's the next installment of my program-note writing:

Fauré: Masques et Bergamasques - Suite, Op. 112

Gabriel Fauré could almost be considered the French Schubert.  As Schubert was the greatest German composer of songs, so was Fauré the greatest French; indeed, both would be considered immortals had they written nothing else.  Both also left us wonderful piano and chamber music.  Both posessed prodigious melodic invention, and both were quite daring in their use of harmony.  Both also tended to shy away from orchestral writing.  Schubert’s purely orchestral output, the symphonies, while masterly, quantitatively represent a tiny fraction of his total life’s work.  Fauré, likewise, left little for the orchestra, and he withdrew much of what he did write (including two symphonies and a violin concerto).  Nevertheless, his orchestral writing has substance; his symphonic masterpiece is perhaps the suite he drew from incidental music for Maeterlinck’s "Pelléas et Mélisande."

His last orchestral work, the suite "Masques et Bergamasques," has its origin in a theater piece with the same title, assembled for performance at Monte Carlo in April 1919 from various earlier compositions, both vocal and instrumental, some already in print.  The published suite contains four pieces, all of them otherwise unpublished at the time.  Of these, the Ouverture and Menuet use thematic material from much earlier pieces, while the Gavotte is lifted almost verbatim from the first of the withdrawn symphonies.  Only the Pastorale is original, Fauré’s final farewell to the orchestra.

The original program for "Masques et Bergamasques" is as follows:

“The characters Harlequin, Gilles and Colombine, whose task is usually to amuse the aristocratic audience, take their turn at being spectators at a ‘fête galante’ on the island of Cythera.  The lords and ladies who as a rule applaud their efforts now unwittingly provide them with entertainment by their coquettish behavior.”

Debussy: Petite Suite

Claude Debussy is generally regarded as one of the great innovators in musical history; his mature works are remarkably independent of traditional norms in form, harmony and coloring.  Among musicians, his name has become virtually synonymous with Impressionism – despite the fact that Debussy disliked the term; he felt it was misused (as undoubtedly it was).  His music, like the works of the Impressionist painters and poets, expresses Romantic ideals (such as emphasis on mood and atmosphere) through modern-sounding means.  Thus, Impressionism can be seen as a blend of Romanticism and modernism.

That the Romanticism came first is evident in the Petite Suite, one of the earliest works of Debussy that is still in general circulation.  Originally written as a piano duet, it was first performed in March 1889 by the 26-year old composer with his future publisher, Jacques Durand.  It achieved great popularity, which continues unabated to this day, in the 1907 orchestration by Henri Busser, a friend of Debussy and himself a highly regarded composer and conductor (he held a conducting post at the Paris Opera from 1905 to 1939).  There is little evidence of the mature Debussy style, but it is nevertheless a work of great charm which shows, through its tunefulness and the individuality of its melodies, what a successful composer of light music he could have become, if he had not been called on a different path.  And one can see glimmerings of Debussy’s future preoccupations: in the first of its four movements, "En bateau" (Sailing), we see the beginnings of a fascination with the sonic depiction of water, which was to haunt Debussy all his life – reaching its fullest fruition in the orchestral suite "La Mer."

Ravel: Introduction and Allegro

Despite its origins in the days of antiquity, the harp did not come into its own as an orchestral instrument until the 19th century.  In 1810, a French piano builder, Sebasten Erard, patented the modern pedal harp.  Unlike earlier harps, it was capable of playing in all the keys, and thus the way was paved for its exploitation within the orchestra – a process begun by another Frenchman, Hector Berlioz, that master of orchestration, with his "Symphonie fantastique" of 1830.

Maurice Ravel had an intuitive understanding of the harp’s potential.  Himself a master orchestrator (the usually-heard version of Moussorgsky’s "Pictures at an Exhibition," originally for piano solo, is Ravel’s orchestration), he used the harp effectively in every one of his orchestral scores.  But his most famous work featuring the instrument is the Introduction and Allegro, written in 1905 for the harpist Micheline Kahn.  Scored originally for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet, it has been regarded as a miniature harp concerto in one movement, brilliantly written for the harp and requiring a virtuoso technique, complete with a solo cadenza towards the close.  It is frequently performed thus, with an expanded string section.  However, there is a skillfully achieved balance between the harp and the ensemble, with equal sharing of melodies (often the harp plays an accompanying role) more characteristic of chamber music.  Which is it – concerto or chamber work?  The truth is, it straddles both worlds.  In keeping with this idea, we present a performance in which certain portions are played by solo strings, and others by the full ensemble.

It is interesting to note that, in the first commercial recording of the work (in 1923, for Columbia, featuring the harpist Gwendolyn Mason, and now available on CD), this dichotomy was reinforced by the work being called “Septet” on the label, yet it also featured a conductor – Ravel himself!

Gounod: Symphony No. 1 in D Major

It is the fate of many composers to be remembered for only a handful of pieces.  Charles Gounod, though greatly popular and influential in his day, is no exception.  Ever torn between the church and the theater (as a young man he studied for the priesthood), he wrote copiously in both sacred and secular vocal styles; yet we have, in the active repertory, only the “Ave Maria” (based on Bach’s first Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier) and “O Divine Redeemer” on the one hand, and the operas "Faust" and "Roméo et Juliette" on the other.

Gounod, in common with many French composers of his generation, wrote little purely instrumental music; French public musical life during the 19th century revolved almost exclusively around the opera, and concert music was not a commercially viable proposition.  The only instrumental piece of Gounod that is remembered is the “Funeral March of a Marionette” (used by Alfred Hitchcock for many years as the theme for his TV series).  Yet he also wrote two symphonies, three string quartets and a delightful Petite Symphonie for double wind quintet.  These works show modest but unfailing skill in the handling of unpretentious material in traditional forms.

The First Symphony was written in the last months of 1854, as an antidote to the depression that Gounod had lately suffered over the failure of his latest opera, "La nonne sanglate."  After disappointment of the theater it seems to have been a relief for him to write music that had no other aim than his own satisfaction.  As with Bizet’s youthful symphony written the next year, influences of Haydn and early Beethoven are abundant; the Andante has a slyly contrived little fugue and, after a slow introduction, the Finale is of Mendelssohnian vivacity. The work was much appreciated by its first hearers in 1855, and Gounod was encouraged by its welcome to write a successor, his Second Symphony in E-Flat, the following year.


  1. You are very good at explaining the important aspects of the composer and music in a short span.

    1. Thanks, Buster. I admit that was my intention. I was asked to write for an audience that would potentially have little knowledge of classical music, who might be intimidated by lengthy, detailed program notes (such as the Atlanta Symphony tended to print for their concerts in those days) and ignore them. I would like to think that whoever attended the concerts I wrote for came away converted to classical music through a combination of the orchestra's playing and my writing. If I helped reach only one person that way, I'd consider it to be sufficient reward. (Although, they did pay me as well!)

  2. It's again a great pleasure to read your program notes! Thanks again!

  3. As the purpose of the Introduction et Allegro was to show off the harp, and in form it is a concerto, it was wrong to ever call it a septet. In no way are all the instruments equal partners. When played that way, the harp is frequently obliterated in tutti passages. The work was often performed as a concerto with symphonic orchestras. It was introduced to the United States in that format by Carlos Salzedo.