Performance History

Chamber Music Tulsa • November 20, 2005

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Zéphyros Winds 

Chamber Music Tulsa
Tulsa, Oklahoma

With J. Y. Song, piano

November 20, 2005

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Claude Debussy Syrinx for Solo Flute

Debussy Rhapsodie for English Horn and Piano [Reconstruction by James Roe]

Johannes Brahms Clarinet Sonata in F Minor op. 120 no. 1

Albéric Magnard Tendre for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, and Piano, Op. 8

Jean Françaix Quartet for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, and Bassoon

Felix Mendelssohn Concertpiece, No. 1 in F Minor, for Clarinet, Bassoon, and Piano, Op. 113

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The Zéphyros Winds with J. Y. Song, piano

Program Notes by James Roe

Our program this afternoon spans the 100 years from the 1830s to the 1930s.  This period saw a great emergence of virtuoso wind chamber music—the greatest since the Baroque era.  A combination of factors contributed to this emergence, but two in particular stand out.  The first were the technological advances made in instrument construction.  From the mid-19th Century through the early 20th, woodwind instruments changed dramatically, often decade by decade.  Keys were added, reed making equipment became more sophisticated, the bores and mechanisms were refined, and the intonation was made more secure.  The instruments we play today have changed little since the 1930s.  The second factor was an increased emphasis on musical coloration.  As color asserted a greater pull on composers’ imagination, the possibilities offered by wind instruments became more an more attractive.  The marriage these two factors resulted in the rich body of chamber music from this period.

We open our concert with two works by the most important French composer of the 20th Century, Claude Debussy (August 22, 1862 – March 5, 1918).

The musical monologue, Syrinx, is written for flute alone.  Based on Ovid’s tale from Book I of Metamorphoses, it was written as incidental music for a play by Gabriel Mouray that premiered in 1913.  The myth tells the story of a beautiful Arcadian nymph named Syrinx.  She was so beautiful, in fact, that she had to constantly flee from satyrs and other minor gods, as she intended to remain a virgin.  She met her match in Pan, a rather ugly looking god of fields, forests, and wild animals, who had legs, ears, horns, and beard of a goat with the torso and head of a man.  He chased her up to a river bank.  Syrinx prayed to her nymph sisters that her form might be changed, and thereby avoid being deflowered upon her now sure capture.  The rest of the story comes from Rolfe Humphries’ translation of Ovid:

“and so, when Pan had caught her
And thought he held a nymph, it was only reeds
That yielded in his arms, and while he sighed,
The soft air stirring in the reeds made also
The echo of a sigh.  Touched by this marvel,
Charmed by the sweetness of the tone, he murmured
This much I have! and took the reeds, and bound them
With wax, a tall and shorter one together,
And called them Syrinx, still.”

The musicologist, James McCalla points out that Debussy’s arresting work is not a retelling of this story, but rather, his subject is Syrinx in her post-metamorphosis state.  Debussy has followed Ovid by turning longing into music.

Debussy’s Rapsodie for English Horn may very well be receiving its Oklahoma premier today.  The work comes to us by a circuitous route.  Elise Hall (1853-1924), the daughter of an important Boston family and wife of a prominent surgeon of New York and Santa Barbara, took up the saxophone as a treatment for either a respiratory ailment or a loss of hearing.  Apparently, the force of blowing on the saxophone would clear her clogged passages.  This unorthodox prescription had the happy result of creating of many new works of music, and eventually led Mrs. Hall to become one of Boston’s most important musical supporters.  She commissioned works for saxophone by many of the leading French composers of her time, including Vincent d’Indy, Florent Schmitt, Andre Caplet, and finally, Debussy.  His initial offering was a four line piece titled, Rhapsodie mauresque, or Moorish Rhapsody, which because of its brevity was not considered satisfactory.  Almost ten years after the commission, a completed work arrived in Boston, and it retained some of the “moorish” character, but most of the interesting material was not in the solo line.  Whether this was because of Mrs.Hall’s respiratory limitations is much speculated on in saxophone circles.  Recent research by English saxophonist, John Harle, has resulted in an edition which puts Debussy’s evocative music back into the solo line.  When the piece was first published, an alternative solo instrument was suggested, the English horn.  Now with the reconstructed solo material, this work now gives the lower member of the oboe family its masterpiece.  Debussy wrote for the English horn beautifully in his orchestral music, and he had planned to write chamber music for the instrument at the end of his life, but died before he could realize these plans.  My performance edition is based on Harle’s and the English horn version published by Durand in 1919.

In 1890, Johannes Brahms (May 7 ,1833 – April 3 ,1897) announced his retirement from composition.  Fortunately, this was not to be the case.  His final creative output from 1891-94, includes some of his most profound music.  During this period, he wrote four masterpieces of chamber music that included clarinet: the Trio for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano, Op. 114; the Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115; and the two Clarinet Sonatas of Op. 120.  This outpouring of music was certainly due to Brahms’ friendship with the principal clarinetist of the Meiningen Orchestra, Richard Mühlfeld (1856-1907).  The two men met in 1891, and Brahms was so taken by Mühlfeld’s artistry that he nicknamed him “the nightingale of the orchestra.”  Mühlfeld’s played a clarinet designed by Carl Bärmann (1810-1885), which fell out of use in the early 20th Century.  Brahms loved the instrument’s particular singing quality, especially in Mühlfeld’s hands.  Our clarinetist, Marianne Gythfeldt, owns such an instrument, though not in the appropriate key for this this afternoon’s sonata, and she has made a special study of Brahms’ performance style.  Earlier this season, she performed the Trio, Op. 114 on period instruments at the Helicon Foundation in New York City.  The Clarinet Sonatas were Brahms’ last works of chamber music.  Autumnal in nature, the Sonata in F minor is the larger scaled and more emotional of the pair.  It was premiered on September 19, 1894 in the home of the Duke of Meiningen’s sister.  Brahms, himself, played the piano with his friend, Mühlfeld on the clarinet.

The same year as Brahms wrote his Clarinet Sonatas, French composer Albéric Magnard (June 9, 1865 – September 3, 1914) wrote his very first chamber work, scored for the unusual combination of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and piano.  Son of the editor of Le Figaro, Magnard sought to support himself solely on music.  In 1896, he began to suffer hearing loss, but continued to compose, publishing works at his own expense.  During World War I, he shot at trespassing German soldiers from his house, which they in turn set on fire.  The composer perished in his home with many of his scores. His unusual and beautiful movement, Tendre, Op. 8, displays touching sentiment and interesting use of instrumental colors.  Magnard is sometimes called “the French Bruckner” for his use of chorales in his compositions.  This work opens with a quiet chorale in the piano.  An extended, ethereal clarinet solo ensues, lasting almost 50 bars.  The piano interrupts with a restless solo recitative, which leads to a restatement of the chorale for the whole ensemble.  The chorale is then spun together with music from the clarinet melody, and after a soaring climax, the work ends in restful quiet.

The delightful Wind Quartet of Jean Françaix (May 23 ,1912 – September 25 ,1997 ) is scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon.  Françaix wrote a considerable body of chamber music for winds, all of it infused with a particularly Parisian wit and joie de vivre.  Françaix wrote this piece for the staff of Le Mans Conservatoire when he was 22 years old.  He explained the origin of the work this way:  “As the horn tutor who was there at the time was never quite sure what sound would emerge from his instrument — his fame was as a specialist in the art of playing several notes at the same time — I had decided not to ‘rouse the volcano,’ and wrote a quartet without horn which would be less likely to produce disconcerting surprises.”

In 1832 and 1833, Felix Mendelssohn (February 3, 1809 – November 4, 1847) wrote a pair of “Concertpieces” for the unusual combination of clarinet, basset horn and piano.  Why would he do such a thing and what is a basset horn?  The basset horn was a sort of alto instrument in the clarinet family, used occasionally by Mozart, but even by Mendelssohn’s time it was on the verge of extinction.  However, Mendelssohn knew a father and son team of clarinetists, who also made instruments, Heinrich and Carl Bärmann.  The son, Carl, eventually would design the instrument used by Mühlfeld which so inspired Brahms.  Mendelssohn wrote two trios for the Bärmanns, and on New Year’s Day of 1833, he joined them in premiering the first of them.  The work is in three connected sections, a dramatic opening, a touching, almost operatic duet, and a flashy virtuosic chase.  Lacking a basset horn (a common problem these days), the bassoon fits the bill nicely in modern performances.  Mendelssohn wrote the following dedication in the score:  “The Battle of Prague:  a Great Duet for Noodles and Cream Pastry, composed and humbly dedicated to Bärmann senior and Bärmann junior by their completely devoted Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.  (All’s well that ends well.)”

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