Subscription Concert No.834 C Series

Debussy: Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune

Claude Debussy: Born in St. Germain-en-Laye, August 22, 1862; died in Paris, March 25, 1918

The inspiration for Debussy’s first orchestral masterpiece came from the poem “L’après-midi d’un faune” (The fternoon of a Faun, 1876) by the French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé. The Symbolists worked with elusive images, imprecise feelings, evocative atmosphere, sensuous language, abstruse syntax, transient ideas, inferences and ubtleties, all bathed in a suggestive half-light.

Debussy’s musical sensibilities corresponded closely to the Symbolist aesthetic, and having read Mallarmé’s poem sometime around 1877, the composer set about creating a musical interpretation that influenced the course of much twentieth-century music. Written in 1892-1894, it was first heard on December 22, 1894 in Paris. A faun, incidentally, is a mythological woodland creature which walks upright like a man, but which has cloven hoofs, horns, a tail and fur like a beast. Its chief concerns are eating, sleeping and the pursuit of sensuous gratification.

The substance of Mallarmé’s poem, what the English critic Edmund Gosse called a “famous miracle of unintelligibility,” s described in his well-known synopsis as follows: “A faun … wakens in the forest at daybreak and tries to recall his experience of the previous afternoon. Was he the fortunate recipient of an actual visit from nymphs, white and golden goddesses, divinely tender and indulgent? Or is the memory he seems to retain nothing but the shadow of a vision, no more substantial than the ‘aired rain’ of notes from his own flute? He cannot tell … The sun is warm, the grasses yielding; and he curls himself up again, after worshipping the efficacious star of wine, that he may pursue the dubious ecstasy into the more hopeful boscages of sleep.”

The music’s luxuriant effects, its lambent colors and tonal ambiguities are all a reflection of Mallarmé’s own style. The poet is said to have exclaimed: “This music prolongs the emotion of my poem and sets its scene more vividly than color.”

Pierre Boulez sums up the historical import of the Faune in these words: “The flute of the Faune brought new breath to the art of music; what was overthrown was not so much the art of development as the very concept of form itself, here freed from the impersonal constraints of [classical forms], giving wings to a supple, mobile expansiveness, demanding a technique of perfect instantaneous adequacy. Its use of timbres seemed essentially new, of exceptional delicacy and assurance in touch.”

d'Indy:Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français, op.25

Ⅰ Assez lent – Modérément animé

Ⅱ Assez modéré, mais sans lentuer

Ⅲ Animé

Vincent d’Indy: Born in Paris, March 27, 1851; died in Paris, December 2, 1931

Vincent d’Indy came from a noble family from the Cévennes Mountains in southeastern France. He served with distinction in the military, as timpanist in the newly-formed Concerts Colonne in 1873, as prompter for the premiere of Bizet’s Carmen in 1875, as spectator at the premiere of Wagner’s Ring at Bayreuth in 1876, and as a founding member of the Schola Cantorum in 1894, a new school of music whose influence became worldwide.

Among d’Indy’s interests was collecting and arranging French folk songs. One of these became the basis of his best-known composition today. Its full title in French is Symphonie pour orchestra et piano sur un chant montagnard français, in English usually shortened to just Symphony on a French Mountain Air. In English the “air” takes on a double meaning: translation of the French word chant (a song), and the English word air (what we breathe). D’Indy’s friend and fellow connoisseur of French folk songs believed that songs of the mountain people have a special quality of their own, “something of the purity of their atmosphere … something fluid, ethereal, a gentleness that is not found in folk songs of the plains”; hence, fresh mountain air. The first performance was given at a Lamoureux Concert in Paris on March 20, 1887.

This is not a symphony in the conventional sense. Nor is it a piano concerto. The piano plays a leading role but is treated more as a member of the orchestra than as a soloist. (D’Indy may have taken his cue from Franck’s Symphonic Variations or from Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony, both composed shortly efore d’Indy’s work). In formal terms, it is more of a fantasy than a symphony, with the “air” used as the main theme heard throughout all three movements in various shapes, colors, rhythms, moods, and harmonic variants. This theme is first heard quietly in the English horn (the instrument Berlioz also used to depict shepherds’ piping in his Symphonie fantastique) in the score’s opening bars. It then passes in turn to the solo flute, horn, and bassoon. At this point the piano enters in its low register, very quietly, and builds in waves to a grand climax, from which a new theme emerges (actually derived from the “air”); shortly thereafter a third theme is heard – a flowing, descending line in the flute, horn and harp against shimmering strings and piano. In the second movement piano and orchestra engage in gentle dialogues using variants of the theme, while the finale puts the theme through a series of joyful, rollicking adventures.

Beethoven: Symphony No.6 in F major, op.68, “Pastorale”

Ⅰ  Awakening of happy feelings on arriving in the country: Allegro ma non troppo

Ⅱ By the brook: Andante molto mosso

Ⅲ Merry gathering of country folk: Allegro

Ⅳ Thunderstorm: Allegro

Ⅴ Shepherd’s song - Happy and thankful feelings after the storm: Allegretto

Ludwig van Beethoven: Born in Bonn, December 16, 1770; died in Vienna, March 26, 1827

The dividing line between program music and absolute music is a thin one, but Beethoven proved himself a master of both in his Sixth Symphony. Although the work has been produced with scenery, with characters who move about on stage, and as part of the cinema classic Fantasia, Beethoven took care to advise that the symphony is “more an expression of feeling than painting.” The composer’s own love for the pleasures of the country are well-known. The time he spent in the woods outside Vienna offered his tortured soul precious solace and peace of mind. To quote the composer: “How glad I am to be able to roam in wood and thicket, among the trees and flowers and rocks. No one can love the country as I do … In the woods there is enchantment which expresses all things.”

The symphony received its first performance in Vienna as part of that incredible marathon concert of 22 December, 1808 at the Theater an der Wien, an all-Beethoven concert that also included the Fifth Symphony, Fourth Piano Concerto, Choral Fantasy and some vocal and choral music.

The symphony’s opening places us immediately in relaxed, beatific surroundings. The day is sunny, warm and abounding in nature’s fragrances and gentle breezes. But aside from conjuring nature imagery, the music is remarkable for its motivic writing - virtually the entire movement is built from tiny musical cells found in the first two bars. Entire phrases and sentences are often formed from these motivic ideas repeated again and again.

The second movement invites contemplation. To Donald Francis Tovey, this is ‘a slow movement in full sonata form which at every point asserts its deliberate intention to be lazy and to say whatever occurs to it twice in succession, and which in doing so never loses flow or falls out of proportion.”

The Sixth is the only symphony in which Beethoven departed from the four-movement format. The remaining three movements are played without interruption. Rough, peasant merry-making and dancing are portrayed, but the boisterous festivities suddenly stop when intimations of an approaching storm are heard. There is not much time to take cover; a few isolated raindrops fall, and then the heavens burst open. Timpani, piccolo and trombones, all hitherto silent in the symphony, now make their entrances.

With the tempest over, a shepherd’s pipe is heard in a song of thanksgiving for the renewed freshness and beauty of nature. The joyous hymn is taken up by the full orchestra as if, to quote Edward Downes, “in thanks to some pantheistic god, to Nature, to the sun, to whatever beneficent power one can perceive in a universe that seemed as dark and terrifyingly irrational in Beethoven’s day as it can in ours.”

Program notes by Robert Markow

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