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Boulanger & Beethoven

Psalm 130, “Du fond de l’abîme (Out of the Depths of the Abyss)”
Lili Boulanger
b. Paris, France / August 21, 1893
d. Mézy, France / March 15, 1918

This is the first performance by the RPO.

The bronchial pneumonia that struck Boulanger at the age of two resulted in constant ill health and a life that lasted less than 25 years. Her French father, her Russian mother, and her famous and widely respected sister – the teacher and conductor, Nadia – were all trained and active musicians. She displayed phenomenal musical talent as well, which her devoted family did everything to encourage. She could read music and sing by the age of two, and three years later she was performing the songs of Gabriel Fauré with the composer accompanying her at the piano. She learned to play piano, cello, violin, and harp, and began to compose when she was nine.

When she won the Paris Conservatoire’s prestigious Prix de Rome composition prize at 19 for her cantata Faust et Hélène – she was the first woman to win it for music – it made international headlines. Her physical condition severely restricted her ability to answer the demand for her music. She created a small but consistently intriguing and attractive catalogue of music which, to quote Claude Debussy, “undulates with grace.” It includes songs and choral works, piano and chamber pieces, and a handful of orchestral compositions.

Strongly drawn to the Psalms of David from an early age, she set three of them to music. She composed the last and most ambitious of them, Psalm 30, from 1914 to 1917. It is an extraordinarily accomplished work for a composer in her early twenties. She dedicated it to “the memory of my dear Papa.” Although her father had died when she was only six, he had left a profound impression upon her.

The text is sung in French. Beginning with “Out of the depths of the abyss,” its subject was one that she addressed in several works: humanity’s longing for light and guidance in a dark, troubled world. The score opens with a mournful, darkly colored orchestral prelude which quotes themes from medieval plainchant and grows in emotional intensity to a searing climax. In its wake, the chorus bemoans the doleful fate of humanity and pleads for God’s help in dealing with it. Boulanger used the low brass of the orchestra to great effect in this heart-rending music, which attains a powerful peak of expression.

With the entry of the mezzo-soprano soloist, the music begins to shift toward a more positive tone, and for a time takes on a new, urgent tempo. The soloist sings of God’s forgiveness in music of great tenderness. Boulanger colored this passage with numerous beautiful instrumental solos. A tenor soloist joins the mezzo-soprano briefly to sing a prayer to God in hope of redemption. Mini-choruses join the main chorus for the climactic passage focusing on mercy. Despite this consoling trend, the music ends not in a clear-cut blaze of triumph or a contented glow, but with a passage that recalls the troubled nature, and some of the text, of the introduction.

Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125
Ludwig van Beethoven
b. Bonn, Germany / December 15, 1770
d. Vienna, Austria / March 26, 1827

First performed on March 7, 1935; Guy Fraser Harrison, conductor. Last performed October 11, 2009; Christopher Seaman, conductor.

The evolution of this towering piece, one of the supreme achievements of western art, spanned more than three decades. Once Beethoven read Friedrich Schiller’s poem Ode to Joy in 1793, he determined one day to set it to music. By mid-1823 he had virtually completed Symphony No. 9. But when he came to feel that it cried out for words to express its goals more clearly, it became clear to him that his long-delayed rendezvous with the Ode to Joy had finally arrived. He discarded the instrumental finale he had composed for the symphony. He found it a home as the final movement of the String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132.

Symphony No. 9 was heard for the first time on May 7, 1824, in Vienna with Michael Umlauf conducting. The composer sat in the midst of the orchestra, score in hand, in order to indicate the tempos he wished to be taken. According to Fraulein Unger, the alto soloist, “The Master, though placed in the midst of this confluence of music, heard nothing of it at all, and was not even sensible to the applause of the audience at the end of his great work. He continued standing with his back to the audience and beating the time, until I turned him, to face the people, who were still clapping their hands and giving way to the greatest demonstrations of pleasure. His turning about, and the sudden conviction thereby forced on everyone that he had not done so before because he could not hear what was going on, acted like an electric shock on all present, and a volcanic explosion of sympathy and admiration followed.”

By setting particular words in the Ninth, Beethoven let it be known that he considered it more than an abstract work. This prompts speculation as to whether he had conceived every movement with specific extra musical ideas in mind. He left no direct indications; such considerations must rest with listeners. In general terms, however, the sequence of moods in its three opening sections is as easy to follow as that of the finale.

The first movement begins quietly, yet it vibrates with the expectancy of drama. The musicologist Sir Donald Tovey, citing the great number of times this passage has been imitated, credits it with exerting “the deepest and widest influence on later music” of anything Beethoven wrote. Throughout this movement’s dramatic course, interludes of repose crop up, but tension and turmoil stand squarely at center stage. The conclusion is, if anything, even bleaker than the beginning.

The following scherzo raised this type of piece, formerly a simple jest or dance, to Olympian heights of drive and brilliance. At times, the energy level and driving rhythm push the music close to the diabolical. Beethoven gave the timpani player one of the finest opportunities for display in all music.

The prayer like slow movement at last brings a sense of repose to the symphony. It consists of variations on two gloriously warm-hearted themes.

After the finale’s turbulent introduction, Beethoven proceeded to first review, then reject brief excerpts from the preceding movements. Cellos and basses then quietly state the finale’s principal theme, a melody whose very lack of guile makes it completely appropriate to its function. It gathers momentum slowly, yet inexorably, until a reprise of the movement’s opening outburst sets the scene for the baritone soloist’s entry – and a whole new era in music.

Beethoven’s setting of the Ode to Joy contains a tremendous variety of incident. Its kaleidoscope of episodes, in fact, makes up an entire symphony in miniature. They include passages of almost frenzied choral celebration; a march like tenor solo spiked with Turkish percussion; a brilliant fugue for orchestra alone; and the simple, affecting piety of the central call to faith in God. Finally, orchestra and chorus rush headlong to the exultant conclusion.

© 2014 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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