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Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Ravel, Stravinsky

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Claude Debussy
b. St. Germaine-en-Laye, France / August 22, 1862; d. Paris, France / March 25, 1918

This masterpiece of musical atmosphere heralded the emergence of Debussy’s mature style. Poet Stéphane Mallarmé wrote L’après-midi d’un faune in 1876. When Debussy encountered it some 10 years later, he recognized in it a style similar to his view of music. The words of the poem are those of a faun or satyr, a lazy, pleasure-loving half-man, half-goat creature from Classical mythology. Debussy described his musical reflection as “a very free rendering of Stéphane Mallarmé’s beautiful poem. It does not purport to contain everything that is in the poem. It is rather a succession of scenes in which the desires and dreams of the faun pass through in the heat of the afternoon. Then, tired of chasing the frightened nymphs and naiads, he gives in to intoxicating sleep.”

Music as free and as sensuous as this had never been heard before. Its improvisational quality would become a Debussy trademark. Conjured out of silence by the unaccompanied call of the faun’s flute, it evokes Mallarmé’s hazy, dream-like ideas with effortless tonal magic. Short phrases melt one into the other; solo winds take the spotlight in turn; coolness alternates with passion.

Recalling the premiere, conductor Gustave Doret wrote, “There was a vast silence in the hall as I ascended the podium with some emotion, but full of confidence. I waited a long moment, after imposing silence on the audience, then our marvellous flutist Barrère unrolled his opening theme. Suddenly I felt behind my back a completely captivated public! The triumph was complete, so much so that I did not hesitate to break the rule forbidding encores. The orchestra was delighted to repeat this work, which it had come to love and which, thanks to them, the audience had now accepted.”


Violin Concerto No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 61
Camille Saint-Saëns
b. Paris, France / October 9, 1835; d. Algiers, Algeria / December 16, 1921

During a period in French music when composers’ reputations rested first of all with their degree of success in the emotional world of opera, Saint-Saëns proved himself a maverick by preferring the cooler, more abstract realm of instrumental music. He composed the last of his three violin concertos for Pablo de Sarasate, previously the inspiration for his Violin Concerto No. 1, and the Introduction and Rondo capriccioso. He wasn’t alone in drawing inspiration from the sovereign skills of this Spanish-born, Paris-resident virtuoso: Edouard Lalo (Symphonie espagnole), Max Bruch (Concerto No. 2 and Scottish Fantasy), and Antonín Dvořák (Mazurek) also created works especially for him.

Regarding Concerto No. 3, Saint Saëns wrote, “During the composition of this concerto, Sarasate gave me invaluable advice, to which is certainly due the considerable degree of favor it has met with on the part of violinist themselves.” Sarasate gave the premiere in Paris on January 2, 1881. He was not initially pleased with it, feeling it was insufficiently virtuosic to fully satisfy the public. It was only after Belgian soloist Eugene Ysaÿe won great success with it that Sarasate’s enthusiasm revived and he took it into his repertoire. Its dramatic content is confined to the outer movements. They also offer frequent opportunities for violinists to show off their technical prowess. The sweet, melodious second movement provides an interlude of graceful repose.


Une barque sur l’océan
Maurice Ravel
b. Ciboure, France / March 7, 1875; d. Paris, France / December 28, 1937

Ravel composed the five-movement suite, Miroirs (Mirrors, or Reflections), in 1904 and 1905. He dedicated each piece to a member of Les Apaches (The Ruffians), a group of young, avant-garde Parisian poets, painters and musicians to which he belonged. A Spanish pianist (and fellow Apache), Ricardo Viñes, premiered Miroirs in Paris on January 6, 1906.

One movement, Alborada del gracioso (The Jester’s Morning Song) bears a Spanish title and has a bold, wickedly satirical character. It met with such success at the premiere that Viñes encored it immediately. The other pieces, to which Ravel gave French names, are more concerned with atmosphere, and evoking a variety of creatures and locations: Noctuelles (Night Moths); Oiseaux tristes (Sad Birds); Une barque sur l’océan (A Ship Upon the Ocean); and La vallée des cloches (The Valley of the Bells).

Une barque sur l’océan is the longest piece in the collection. It is a sweeping water image, part delicate, part majestic. In it, Ravel expanded upon and deepened the style of his earlier piano piece, Jeux d’eau (Play of the Water). He created an orchestral transcription of Une barque sur l’océan shortly after composing the piano original. Uncertain of that version’s value, he withdrew it in 1907 after a single performance. It was released for further performance only after his death.


Maurice Ravel

In 1922, Ravel heard a recital by Hungarian violinist Jelly D’Aranyi. After the concert, she played gypsy melodies at his request. Intrigued, he decided to pay homage both to her and her music in this fiery composition, Tzigane (the French word for a female gypsy). She gave the premiere of the original, violin-and-piano version in London during April 1924. Ravel created the even more colorful arrangement with orchestral accompaniment over the following summer. It opens with a long, elaborate unaccompanied violin solo. The orchestra then enters quietly, ushering in a dashing, kaleidoscopic segment overflowing with virtuoso fireworks.


The Firebird: Suite (1919 version)
Igor Stravinsky
b. Oranienbaum, Russia / June 17, 1882; d. New York, New York, USA / April 6, 1971

Stravinsky’s ballet, The Firebird, belongs to his first creative period, when his music still showed the influence of the colorful, folk-based style favored by his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. It came into being thanks to impresario Sergei Diaghilev. For the second Parisian season of his celebrated company, Les Ballets russes, Diaghilev envisioned a lavishly mounted new dance production, its plot adapted from Russian fairy tales. He entrusted the scenario and choreography to esteemed dance master Mikhail Fokine.

When his first choice as composer, his former music teacher Anatoly Lyadov, was judged too slow to complete the score on time, Diaghilev cast about for a replacement. Familiar with Stravinsky through the orchestrations he had contributed to Diaghilev’s ballet Les Sylphides, and impressed with two of Stravinsky’s brief, original orchestral pieces, Diaghilev offered the 27-year-old composer a commission for The Firebird. The premiere, in Paris on June 25, 1910 achieved a glittering triumph, launching Stravinsky into the front rank of contemporary composers.

This concert suite contains roughly half the music of the complete score. It follows the sequence of the original scenario. With the help of a magic firebird, the hero, Prince Ivan, rescues a group of spellbound princesses from the clutches of an evil magician, Kastcheï. Stravinsky’s music is highly atmospheric, colorful, imaginative and melodious. It includes two Russian folk songs, one a lyrical tune for the princesses, the other the majestic hymn which closes the score. The whirling, nightmarish Infernal Dance performed by Kastcheï and his monstrous subjects is a tour de force of orchestral brilliance.

© 2013 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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