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& Impressions of Paris at the turn of the twentieth century
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© Rachel Kolly d’Alba
In France and Belgium at this time, few scores were being composed for violin and orchestra. Lalo and Saint-Saëns, inheritors of the Romantic period, were exceptions to the rule, but neither Debussy nor Dukas, nor even Franck wrote a concerto for violin; Fauré sketched a few (magical) pages for a concerto. Debussy, encouraged by his friend the great Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, wrote his visionary Nocturnes for orchestra and not, as originally anticipated, for violin and orchestra. Numerous original chamber works were, however, composed for the violin. Saint-Saëns was moreover the prime mover in a renewal of interest in chamber music in France. Debussy dedicated his quartet to Ysaÿe (1893), as did Franck, Lekeu, Magnard, Fauré and Saint-Saëns with their dazzling sonatas. The connections uniting these composers were numerous, their outside inﬂuences shared. All positioned themselves in relation to German Romanticism — to the music of Liszt or Wagner. The music that would be named “impressionist” was in the process of being born. The competitiveness of the age in which they worked and the artistic revolution touched all artists, regardless of the medium. Whereas in Vienna at the turn of the century the rupture between audiences and avant-garde composers was complete, abandoning a dreamed-of synergy, leaving void a social space they might have shared, this was not so with the leading ﬁgures in France: artists and public participated in the same movement of renewal. Painting became music, and ﬂeeting impressions. Music became imagery, poetry, depicting colours or passing emotions. Music opened up to numerous inﬂuences from diverse cultures, rather than being cloistered in a sterile intellectual, even mathematical quest, where understanding became onerous. Parisian audiences often defended the innovations of their fellow citizens with passion. This was true, of course, of the work of Saint-Saëns during the last twenty years of the century, but also of the innovative works that were then emerging, beginning in 1894 with the Prélude à l’après- midi d’un faune. This music labelled “impressionist” — Ravel and Debussy resisting being its representatives, not wishing to be pigeon-holed — was characterised in particular by its tendency to note ﬂeeting impressions, the ﬂuidity of phenomena, rather than the ﬁxed and abstract nature of things depicted by the Romantic tradition. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was greeted with scandalised reactions at its 1913 premiere in Paris, but within weeks it had won audiences’ unconditional support. Those same audiences were quickly to become familiar with a revitalised popular art.
Ernest Chausson (1855–1899) drew the inspiration for his celebrated Poème (1896) from a novella by Ivan Turgenev, The Song of Triumphant Love (1881), a fantastical story in which a brooding melody played on the violin creates such bewitchment that a young woman sinks into strange and terrifying “absences”. The novella lets the mystery hang over the drama being played out, underpinning it with occult, oriental references: will this pure soul succumb to the exotic charms of her husband’s best friend? Through love, torment, frenzy and rapture, Chausson in his Poème, but also in all his musical questing for the absolute, embodies the missing link between the music of Wagner, which he loved, and the French spirit, inﬂuenced as he was by Massenet or Franck, or again by the Impressionist painters he associated with. He wrote little, arriving late to composition after his studies at the bar, and died in an accident at the age of forty-four. Freed from the constraints of having to sell his music in order to live, he pursued his ideal, leaving us a legacy of masterpieces. Audacious in his orchestration, inspired by the Russian Symbolists and by the poets and painters emerging from his salon, the beneﬁciary of its highly individual, intellectual, artistically fertile ground, working slowly — nine years for his opera Le roi Arthus — Chausson created an accomplished, architecturally unique body of work, one with an incomparable emotional range. His Poème, also dedicated to the great Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, received its premiere in Paris at the Concerts Colonne, and enjoyed an immediate success. What is less known is that the famous spellbinding violin cadenza at the beginning of the work is by Ysaÿe himself. In their correspondence the two friends talk of “my–your” Poème. Ysaÿe performed the work all over the world, establishing the name of his friend, exporting Poème’s exuberant harmonies, melancholy strains and Franckian rigour on the greatest of stages.
Eugène Ysaÿe (1858–1931) wanted to become a composer in his early youth, preferring to create rather than to perform, but his high-powered international career as a violinist and his renown as an artist eclipsed the composer. At ﬁrst under the inﬂuence of violin teachers such as Wieniawski or Vieuxtemps, or the salon music which he was still playing with the Bilse Orchestra in Berlin in 1880, he composed a number of miniature pieces and six concertos. He tore them up, however, after having immersed himself in the music of Franck, and more particularly after having attended the premiere of Parsifal in Paris (with his guests Chausson and Fauré). He deemed the music he had composed up until then as belonging to another century; in his eyes, it was ﬁnished. Henceforth he became the advocate of his young composer friends, placing his fame at their service — admiring the colour, tonal explorations and invention of their music. He formed his own concert society, where a number of works were given in Brussels, conducting and playing as soon as he was able to the works of Franck, Pierné, Ravel, Chausson and Lekeu, and visiting as yet unknown composers such as Fauré or D’Indy on the organisers. He continued to compose, but now as a genuine Impressionist: for him, the nuances of orchestration held little mystery. Writing poèmes came naturally to him, often with rich orchestration and demanding a sizeable number of instruments. Works such as his Poème élégiaque, op.12 (1893) served as blueprints for Chausson when he came to write his own Poème. In recent years, we have rediscovered the music of Ysaÿe: his opera, his various poèmes, his six celebrated Sonatas for solo violin. There remain, however, works worthy of being programmed more often: Exil, op.25 for orchestra and strings without basses, or Harmonies du soir, op.31 for quartet and orchestra, works of crepuscular mystery. His Berceuse de l’enfant pauvre, op.20 is one of his shorter, almost anecdotal works, which are nevertheless small masterpieces. Its harmonies, whether dramatic, wistful or delicate, recall. The sound of the violin turns to breathing. As regards his Rêve d’enfant, op.14, this has reached us only as a reduction for violin and piano. It was important for me to be able to recreate a tender and touching facet of this great man, especially after having recorded the Six Sonatas whose virtuosity at times leaves little room for Ysaÿe’s poetic dimension. The work was written when his son Antoine, at that time aged ﬁve or six, was suffering from a serious illness. Ysaÿe, then far away on tour, wrote this small work in a state of deep anxiety, dedicating it “to my little Antoine”. Over a number of nights the work was completed, and his son
recovered. This was a time when artists were also composers, thinkers, writers, teachers and humanists… 3 )
Worlds of opposites: primitive elegance, stylised power, “mechanised” folk dances. As Alex Ross has written, new “national” schools in Europe — represented by Stravinsky in Russia, Béla Bartók in Hungary, Leosˇ Janácˇek in a ﬂedgling Czechoslovakia, Maurice Ravel in France, Manuel de Falla in Spain — began to devote themselves to their neglected traditional heritage and to all that urban civilisation had cast out of its cultural history.1)They were also concerned with describing emotions and what was real. Tzigane by Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) is part of this reﬂection, this quest for the natural, as found with Monet or Cézanne: be it in painting, music or literature, it was the end of artiﬁce; it was time for the material reality of things, sound turning to breath, light, or sheer emotion. The aim of music was to make us “see” the atmosphere of streets, of nature, as never before. With Ravel, one ﬁnds hints of this from 1904 in piano works such as Miroirs or Jeux d’eaux, where there is the impression of taking a journey, of hearing the chiming of bells, or rainbow-coloured splashes; one is participating in a musical narrative in a new genre. In his brilliant Rapsodie espagnole, one is fascinated by texture or substance, rather than by melody. Jazz, too, is woven into Ravel’s eplorations, in the handling of trombones, or in his Violin Sonata.
Tzigane, composed between 1922 and 1924, retains the skill, elegance and attention to proliferation of detail in its articulation and accentuation. Constructed as a series of variations on the initial theme, delicate or fantastic in turn, it offers a catalogue of detail so characteristic of Ravel, and the virtuosity of his orchestration, while drawing its inspiration from folk motifs, Hungarian inﬂections and an exuberant energy suggested by gypsy music that he had heard played by violinist Jelly d’Arányi. The originality of the piece lies equally in its form: never before had a solo violin been presented with such a long cadenza at the beginning of a work, like a lamentation caressing and explosive in turn, before the orchestra is brought in in the most unexpected of ways: with the harp, almost evoking the cimbalom. Where Ravel transcends description and imitation is in his capacity to render each one of his pieces a masterpiece, as much by his mastery of composition as by his genius as an orchestrator. To my knowledge, Tzigane is an utterly unique instance of a pianist having written better for violin than a violinist could have done: the harmonics, pizzicati, virtuosity are handled with formidable skill, the vision is almost limitless. “Yes, my genius, it’s true, I do possess it. But what is it? Well, if everyone knew to work as I know to work, everyone would create works as brilliant as mine.”2 ) But there is a rigour and a reﬁnement behind the inspirational title “Tzigane”. Adding to Tzigane’s demanding and virtuoso its intrinsic blending violinistic possibilities and the passion of folk music… with an elegance and a precision that are inimitably French.
Camille Saint-Saëns(1835–1921) composed his original Violin Concerto No.3 for the virtuoso Sarasate in 1880 and it was given for the ﬁrst time, like Chausson’s Poème, in Paris at the Concerts Colonne. A virtuoso composer, a child prodigy already writing his own cadenzas at the age of eleven for the solo concertos he was performing, a man with an encyclopaedic knowledge, an early defender of the works of Wagner and Schumann (little appreciated in France), but also the ﬁrst French composer to write a symphonic poem in 1872, Saint-Saëns was a musician of prodigious originality and to this — and his lengthy symphonies were much acclaimed. But in France tastes changed quickly: by 1900, Saint-Saëns was held in less esteem than he had been. Everywhere else in the world, he was fêted as the greatest French composer; at home, he was old school, reactionary. Faced with the wealth of German music (Wagner of course, Strauss’s Salome, but also Schoenberg — Pierrot lunaire was written in 1912), but in comparison with French composers too (Ravel’s Daphis et Chloé, Debussy’s L’Après-midi d’un faune), the classical style of Saint-Saëns appeared outmoded, the expression of a bygone age. He was however an agent of this change: had he not single-handedly revived chamber music, a genre which had become altogether obsolete? Was it not he himself who had drawn the attention of his fellow countrymen to the works of German Romanticism, teaching these at the Conservatoire despite criticism? Saint-Saëns, a melodist of genius, is also a harmonist, an architect, a contrapuntal scholar, better than anyone else at conveying atmosphere and character. Even if this sixty-ﬁve-year-old man, as he was in turn-of-the-century Paris, is judged severely, he will ever remain part of the world- wide diffusion of French music. His Concerto consists of three movements: Allegro non troppo, Andantino quasi allegretto and Molto moderato e maestoso — Allegro non troppo. The Concerto’s opening is remarkable. On a Bminor chord creating a sustained tapestry of sound over four short bars, the violin makes a powerful entrance in Csharp, a note completely at variance with the harmony. With unstinting passion, the ﬁrst theme develops and introduces a second theme, lyrical and tender. This returns three times. The second movement is a ﬂowing cantilena where the violin interacts with each solo instrument in the orchestra, ending in a dream-like world with the fantastic harmonies of the clarinet. Saint-Saëns the brilliant organist is recalled in a powerful and original chorale at the conclusion of the ﬁnal movement. Here too the violin, scorching in its ﬁery cadenzas, introduces the martial but elegant theme. This Concerto is proof that virtuosity and intelligence are indeed a ﬁne combination.
TEXT : Rachel Kolly d’Alba
Translation: Warner Classics
1)Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise(Harper Perennial,
2) Orenstein: Maurice Ravel: Lettres, écrits et
entretiens (Flammarion, 1989)
3) Rachel Kolly d’Alba: conversations with
Jacques Ysaÿe, 2009, 2011
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