Subscription Concert No.862 C Series

Berlioz:Roman Carnival Overture, op.9(Le Carnaval Romain, op.9)

Hector Berlioz: Born in La Côte-Saint-André, near Grenoble, December 11, 1803; died in Paris, March 8, 1869

On September 10, 1838, Berlioz saw his first opera, Benvenuto Cellini, receive its premiere in Paris. The opera failed miserably, due partly to a faulty libretto, partly to a disastrously ineffective Cellini, partly to the unsympathetic conductor, and partly to an audience expecting a stage spectacle of Meyerbeerian proportions. After three more poorly-attended performances it was dropped and not heard again in France until 1913; even today this magnificent work is rarely presented. The only popular excerpts from the opera are its overture and the additional music written in 1843 to serve as either the Introduction to Act II or as an independent concert work. This music is known today as the Roman Carnival Overture. Its first performance as an independent work was given at the Salle Herz in Paris on February 3, 1844, conducted by the composer.

The frenetic bustle of Carnival season (just before Lent) has been depicted on numerous occasions in music. The best-known expressions in orchestral terms are probably Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio italien, Dvořàk’s Carnival Overture, and Berlioz’ Roman Carnival Overture. The latter became an immediate hit and has remained one of Berlioz’ most popular works. The composer himself described it as “a pretty bit of madness which has been madly successful this winter in Paris.” Much of the musical substance derives from the opera itself, especially from the Carnival scene, portrayed by the joyous, exhilarating saltarello theme. The long, expressive English horn solo, which occurs just after the brief introductory flourish, is one of the most famous in the repertory for that instrument. The melody comes from the first-act duet between Cellini and Teresa, and later becomes the subject of a fugato section. This leads into the Allegro, the famous saltarello (an Italian dance whose rhythm is characterized by rapidly pulsing triplets grouped into pairs). The impetuous verve, orchestral brilliance and rhythmic energy of this music combine to make the Roman Carnival Overture one of the most famous and enduring in the entire repertory.

Ravel:Piano Concerto in G major

I     Allegramente

II   Adagio assai

III  Presto

Maurice Ravel: Born in Ciboure, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France, March 7, 1875; died in Paris, December 28, 1937

Ravel toyed with writing a piano concerto as early as 1906, according to one source, and again in 1914, but the actual composition of what became the Piano Concerto in G was undertaken between 1929 and 1931, interspersed with work on the Concerto for Left Hand. The first performance was given in Paris by the Lamoureux Orchestra on January 14, 1932. Ravel had originally intended to play the piano part himself, but because of declining health, he granted the solo role to the concerto’s dedicatee, Marguerite Long, while he conducted. Ravel and Long then set out on a twenty-city tour of Europe with the concerto; Long recorded it as well, with the Portuguese conductor Pedro de Freitas-Branco.

A number of elements combined to influence the style and form of the Concerto. Music of the Basques is immediately evident in the opening bars, for instance, where the exuberant piccolo theme bears strong relation to the folksong style of the Basques. The second theme, played first by the piano, suggests the influence of neighboring Spain. Ravel had spent much time in the Basque country during the summer and autumn of 1929, when he began to write the Concerto. Ravel’s Basque hometown of Ciboure (a tiny seacoast town on the Bay of Biscay where France and Spain meet) honored him the following year, strengthening the composer’s ties to his homeland.

The jazz influence is even more pronounced, stemming from Ravel’s tour throughout the United States in 1928. He visited the jazz clubs of New Orleans and Harlem, and no doubt heard, among others, Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. With George Gershwin he struck up a mutually admiring friendship. The influence of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F can be felt in Ravel’s Concerto, especially in the first movement with its “blue” notes, jazz harmonies, and rhythms.

Ravel professed that “the music of a concerto should, in my opinion, be lighthearted and brilliant, and not aim at profundity or at dramatic effects.” In this respect his Concerto in G succeeds splendidly, and Ravel liked to refer to it as a divertissement de luxe.

Debussy:“Ibéria” from “Images” for Orchestra

I     Par les rues et par les Chemins (Along the Streets and Byways)

II   Les parfums de la nuit (Fragrances of the Night)

III  Le matin d'un jour de fête (Holiday Morning)

Claude Debussy: Born in Saint Germain-en-Laye (near Paris), August 22, 1862; died in Paris, March 25, 1918

Ibéria (the Spanish peninsula) is the central and largest part of a triptych whose flanking panels represent England (Gigues) and France (Rondes de printemps). The French seem to have a special predilection for portraying Spain in music ̶ think of Bizet’s Carmen, Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso and Chabrier’s España. One of the most vivid of these musical evocations is Debussy’s Ibéria. Strangely enough, Debussy’s travel in Spain was limited to an afternoon in San Sebastian, where he attended a bullfight, yet so compellingly did he conjure up the sights, sounds and sensations of this land that the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla was moved to pronounce that “the entire piece down to the smallest detail makes one feel the character of Spain.”

All three parts of Images were originally conceived for piano duet (not to be confused with the two sets of Images Debussy also wrote for piano solo). Their composition occupied Debussy on and off from 1905 to 1912. Early on he decided to score Ibéria for orchestra instead. So full of subtleties and delicate nuances of color is the music that in retrospect it seems almost impossible to imagine this work written for any other medium. Debussy completed the draft of Ibéria on December 25, 1908 and heard the first performance on February 20, 1910 at the Concerts Colonne in Paris, conducted by Gabriel Pierné. Images is seldom performed as a complete unit, but Ibéria alone has become a repertory favorite ̶ not difficult to understand in view of the rousing images Debussy gives us of jubilant crowds, exciting dance rhythms, festive brio, simulated folk songs, guitar effects, bright colors, and the vivid contrasts of brilliant Mediterranean sunlight with mysterious shadows.

In this richly painted “audible landscape” (Debussy’s own description), the composer reveals himself a true master of the orchestra, exploiting the timbre of each instrument and creating marvelous blends thereof as a painter mixes colors from a palette. Frequent use of the castanets and tambourine contribute to the Spanish flavor of the music. Though not without thematic ideas, Ibéria fascinates more through magical orchestral effects than through anything else. To take just one example out of hundreds from each of Ibéria’s three sections, we may note the following:

1) A few minutes into this bright, festive, “audible landscape” the music suddenly turns dark and sullen for a moment, as if one had rounded a corner and unexpectedly found himself in a narrow, covered alleyway. Clarinets in their chalumeau (low) register take over the main theme, which is punctuated by delicate, wraithlike wisps of sound from violins.

2) Midway through this dreamy nocturne, we hear a smoothly executed line for solo horn against an exquisitely glistening background of celesta, harp, flutes, and tremolo violins ̶ a ravishing effect!

3) After the introductory hustle and bustle, violins, violas, and cellos are all strummed like guitars. Debussy even instructs the violinists and violists to hold their instruments under their arms. This technique is used again at the climax of the movement.

Ravel:Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No.2

I     Lever du jour

II   Pantomime

III  Danse générale

Maurice Ravel: Born in Ciboure, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France, March 7, 1875; died in Paris, December 28, 1937

For sheer opulence of orchestral color, for orgiastic rhythms, and for ravishingly sensuous harmonies, Ravel’s ballet score Daphnis et Chloé remains one of the glories of twentieth-century music. The work was commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev for the 1912 Paris season of his Ballets russes. The choreography was by Michel Fokine, the sets by Léon Bakst, and musical direction by Pierre Monteux. Nijinsky and Karsavina danced the title roles at the premiere on June 8, 1912.

Fokine’s inspiration came from his reading of the pastoral romance Daphnis and Chloe by the early (second or third century) Greek author Longus. Fokine showed his scenario to Ravel, who suggested various changes, including reduction from two acts to one.

Ravel began writing with intense enthusiasm, and Fokine was delighted with the composer’s intention to unify the music by means of leitmotivic development. Ravel worked meticulously, but whereas Fokine waited patiently, Diaghilev became increasingly persistent in his letters demanding completion of the score. Eventually Ravel’s inspiration was beaten down by the bothersome Diaghilev, and he found he just couldn’t compose the final scene, beginning with the dawn sequence that opens the so-called Second Suite. In desperation, he appealed to a minor composer and friend, Louis Aubert, to finish it for him, but the latter refused vehemently, arguing that “this work, like no other, belongs to you! You have no right to give it up to anyone, let alone me!” This outburst stirred Ravel to complete the final fifteen minutes of the score within two weeks, an astonishing achievement in view of the languid pace he had hitherto maintained. Aubert died in 1968 at the age of 90. He left no memorable music, but he often remarked that his greatest achievement was “convincing the great Ravel that he should finish his greatest work. In that respect, I think I am a great composer.”

The Second Suite is really not a “suite” at all, but simply the final scene intact ̶ about fifteen minutes ̶ of the hour-long ballet. (The far less oftenheard First Suite is a similar extended episode.) Dawn breaks over the sleeping Daphnis, estranged from his beloved Chloe, who has been abducted by pirates. Rippling woodwinds, cascading glissandos in the harps and celesta, and a slowly rising melody in the strings combine in one of the richest, most sumptuous and magical sounds ever drawn from an orchestra. Birds are singing, shepherds are piping, brooks are bubbling, dew is glistening in the fresh, pure morning air. Daphnis searches for and, aided by the god Pan, finds Chloe. Daphnis and Chloe then mime the love story of Pan and the nymph Syrinx as a tribute to Pan’s help in reuniting them. The languorous flute solos portray Pan’s courtship of Syrinx. Daphnis and Chloe declare their love, and everyone joins in a sensuous dance, which grows to almost unbearable intensity and frenzy.

Robert Markow's musical career began as a horn player in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. He now writes program notes for orchestras and concert organizations in the USA, Canada, and several countries in Asia. As a journalist he covers the music scenes across North America, Europe, and Asian countries, especially Japan. At Montreal's McGill University he lectured on music for over 25 years.

Program notes by Robert Markow

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