“A French Salon”
Chamber Music Tulsa
With J. Y. Song, piano
November 19, 2005
Gabriel Fauré Fantasy for Flute and Piano, Op. 79
Maurice Ravel Jeux d’eau
Edgard Varèse Density 21.5 for Solo Flute
Heitor Villa-Lobos Chôros No. 2 for Flute & Clarinet
Jean Françaix Divertissement for Oboe, Clarinet, and Bassoon
Lili Boulanger D’un jardin clair and D’un vieux jardin
Claude Debussy Première rapsodie, for Clarinet and Piano _________________________________________________________
The Zéphyros Winds and J. Y. Song present
“A French Salon”
Program notes by James Roe
There is a visceral connection between French music and wind instruments. More than any of their European musical counterparts, French composers were concerned with characterization and color and thus were strongly inspired by the timbral possibilities wind instruments offer. They also, famously, had the greatest virtuoso woodwind instrumentalists in the world at their disposal. Around the turn of the 20th Century, there was a great flourishing of wind chamber music in France. The music from this period is sensuous and evocative, witty and fiendishly difficult. We have selected a group of French works (including one by a South American interloper with strong Parisian connections) from the early 20th Century, with the hope of creating a sophisticated Parisian musical soirée. We hope you will enjoy your visit to this “French Salon.”
Gabriel Fauré (May 12 ,1845 – November 4 ,1924), organist, composer, music critic, and teacher, bridges the gap between 19th-century Romanticism and the musical developments of the 20th. A student of Camille Saint-Saëns, he went on to head the Paris Conservatoire, where his many students included Maurice Ravel, Nadia Boulanger, and George Enescu. Known as a composer of poetic lyricism with a distinctly French voice, his catalogue includes opera, oratorio, orchestral works, art songs, and a large body of chamber music. His “Fantasy for Flute and Piano” of 1898, the earliest work on this program, sets the tone perfectly for tonight’s concert. Its melodically generous opening section leads into virtuosic flourishes and cascading passage work. Infused with charm and warmth, this felicitous work is one of the most popular for flute and piano.
From teacher to student, we move from Fauré to Maurice Ravel (March 7, 1875 – December 28, 1937), and his Jeux d’eau (“play of water”) for solo piano. Ravel wrote that this work was “inspired by the sound of water and the musical sounds made by fountains, cascades, and streams.” Apropos of this inspiration, the poet Henri de Régnier added an inscription to the score from his poem, Fête d’eau, “River god laughing from the water which tickles him.” Written only three years after Fauré’s “Fantasy,” we now enter a completely new musical world, one where aural simulacrum of visual images takes precedence over purer musical considerations. In a letter of 1906 to music critic, Pierre Lalo, Ravel points out that Jeu d’eau “is based on two themes, like the first movement of a sonata, without however submitting to the classical tonal scheme.” This beautiful work makes impressive demands on the performer. To create the lapidary image of moving water, the pianist’s fingers are kept quite busy with cascading arpeggios and melodic arabesques. There is a charming story about this piece recorded by Ravel’s lifelong friend, the poet, Léon-Paul Fargue. While visiting Vienna, Ravel went to store to purchase a new wallet. When he attempted to pay, the shop girl recognized the composer’s name and said that she loved performing Jeu d’eau. Was he really the composer of this work, she inquired. When he confirmed that indeed he was, she presented him the wallet for free.
Parisian born composer, Edgard Varèse (December 22, 1883 – November 6, 1965), is one of the towering figures of 20th-century music. Always out of the mainstream, his music speaks with an expressive immediacy not associated with many of the compositional schools of his coevals. In a 1936 lecture given in Santa Fe, he said that his music “flows as a river flows,” and that his pieces comprise a “melodic totality.” Varése’s small masterpiece for solo flute, Density 21.5, would seem to distill these ideas to their essence. The piece was written for flutist Georges Barrère, to celebrate his new platinum flute. The work’s title comes from the metal’s density: 21.5. (Barrére’s flute is now on display in the musical instrument collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.) This intensely expressive work exploits the complete range of the flute from highest to lowest pitches and volumes. Varèse even introduces non-pitch sounds created by clicking keys. Profound and dramatic, this musical monologue is a unique utterance for a solo wind instrument.
Our Brazilian guest, Heitor Villa-Lobos (March 5 ,1887 -November 17 ,1959 ) hardly comes uninvited to this “French Salon.” At the time he wrote his Chôros No. 2, he was enjoying great success in Paris, where the cultural attitudes of the 1920s offered a favorable port-of-call for this prolific South American composer. The exotic sounds of his native country made a sensation with the Parisian musical public, who embraced African music, American Jazz, and the sounds of Asia as explored by Debussy and Ravel. Villa-Lobos’ major musical achievement during the decade of the 20s was to create a fourteen-work series based on Brazilian folk music, titled Chôros. The chôros itself was improvisational popular music from Rio de Janeiro; a music of the city street, which blended popular dances, Indian modes, and the magnetic urban energy of Brazil’s cultural center. His evocative Chôros No. 2 for flute and clarinet feels truly improvisatory in its sultry and sensuous dance rhythms and spiky dissonances.
The most recent work our program comes from the fecund musical imagination of Jean Françaix (May 23 ,1912 – September 25 ,1997 ). A student of Nadia Boulanger (who had been a pupil of Fauré, a teacher to Ravel, and whose sister’s music is next on the program), Françaix’ Divertissement for oboe, clarinet, and bassoon displays a wit, sophistication, and élan that is utterly Parisian. In fact, few composers come closer to expressing the vagaries of Parisian life than Jean Françaix. Whereas some composers are reticent to speak about their music, Françaix was not. The following comments were translated by Celia Skrine. In 1947, “I composed a ‘Reed Trio’ (a divertissement for oboe, clarinet and bassoon) which was quite an undertaking: the smaller the ‘Aeolian consort,’ the greater the danger of squeezing all the breath out of ones long-suffering performers by expecting them to play impossibly long musical phrases. Dear listeners, I know you may begin to doze off if a piece goes on too long, but my wish is that you should follow the example of the wise virgins and keep awake during my Trio. I hope you will also spare a kind thought or two for the efforts of my humble servants, the performers: their talents are easily underestimated, because their sensitive and intelligent artistry appears so perfectly easy and natural…” This is our hope.
It is impossible to think of Lili Boulanger (August 21, 1893 – March 15 1918) without acknowledging her immensely influential sister, Nadia (September 16 ,1887 – October 22 ,1979 ). Both women were child prodigies. Lili, the younger, was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome in composition (1913), and Nadia went on to become one of the most influential music teachers of the 20th Century, as well as a champion of her younger sister’s music. Lili, who was a student of Gabriel Fauré, had a musical gift that was noticed even at the age of two. She suffered throughout her life from various physical ailments, including bronchial pneumonia and Crohn’s Disease. Her life was tragically cut short at the age of 24. In her few years, she produced an attractive body of work, much of it for solo voice or chorus. The two works for solo piano presented here show the poetic and lyric side of her creative force. Often the particular intensity of her musical voice is linked with her experience of sickness and acquaintance with her own mortality. The gardens depicted in these works by the 21 year old Lili invite us to contemplate these questions, which no one of her age should have to face.
Our “French Salon” concludes with the music of the most important French composer of the 20th Century, Claude Debussy (August 22, 1862 – March 5, 1918). Commonly associated with Impressionism, Debussy’s musical voice was broad, encompassing influences as disparate as the operas of Richard Wagner and traditional Javanese gamelan music. He was a supreme musical colorist and his music is infused with expressive power. “The primary aim of French music,” he wrote in 1904, “is to give pleasure.” His Première rapsodie for clarinet and piano has given immense pleasure to musicians and audiences for almost a century.