Morlot Conducts Debussy and Ravel

Program Summary: Distant Worlds

This concert presents three works by French composers and one by a musician who spent much of his career in Paris. Interestingly, all four pieces were written to express ideas beyond the abstract play of sounds that characterizes all music, and these ideas are anything but mundane. Rather, they intimate dream states or extraordinary visions. They take us to distant worlds of the imagination.

Claude Debussy evokes the languid reality, or perhaps the reveries, of a mythical satyr. Henri Dutilleux captures the fever-dream quality of poetry by Baudelaire. Bohuslav Martinů imagines ancient visions of the Italian painter Piero della Francesca. And Maurice Ravel writes waltz music “linked in my mind with an impression of a fantastic whirl of destiny.”

Program Notes

CLAUDE DEBUSSY Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune ("Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun")
Completed in 1894, Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was inspired by the poem "L’après-midi d’un faun" (“Afternoon of a Faun”) by the Symbolist poet Stephane Mallarmé. In verses notorious as much for their languid eroticism as for their allusive, at times obscure, imagery, Mallarmé describes what may or may not be the daydreams of a young faun, a mythical creature half man and half goat. On a warm afternoon, this satyr encounters — or perhaps only imagines — woodland nymphs, whom he caresses and kisses but cannot possess, for they always slip away from him.

Mallarmé's poem abounds with musical references, most notably that of the title character playing upon a reed flute. Debussy evokes this activity in the opening measures of his musical gloss on the poem. But more than transforming a poetic image into a musical one, the celebrated flute solo that begins the work establishes a sense of musical uncertainty that permeates the entire composition and parallels the ambiguity of the poem. Just as Mallarmé maintains uncertainty about the reality of his faun’s experiences, the flute melody subtly subverts conventional harmonic verities. Debussy maintains this procedure throughout his Prélude, whose chords rarely form or resolve in a manner that leaves us feeling sure where the music has arrived, or where it is going next.

That novelty — the originality of Debussy’s melodic and harmonic ideas, as well as of his orchestration — is difficult to appreciate today, so familiar has his idiom become to us. But they puzzled early listeners of the Prélude, just as they foretold the further musical innovations that followed. The work is now recognized as one of the prophetic compositions of the fin de siècle period. Composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, who also has made innovative musical settings of Mallarmé’s poetry, articulated this view succinctly when he asserted that the sound of Debussy’s flute awakened music into the modern era.

HENRI DUTILLEUX Cello Concerto, Tout un monde lointain (“A Whole Distant World”)
Our next composition also takes its inspiration from symbolist poetry. Tout un monde lointain (“A Whole Distant World”), a cello concerto by Henri Dutilleux, derives its title, and those of its five movements, from verses by Charles Baudelaire. Each movement is prefaced by a quotation from that writer’s Les Fleurs du mal, and there is an all-but-tangible affinity between the concerto’s strange, sensuous, dream-like music and the tone and images of Baudelaire’s poems.

Dutilleux, who recently turned 96, is the outstanding French composer of recent decades. His works are impeccably crafted and unusually rich in their range of colors, textures, rhythms and musical invention. Dutilleux completed Tout un monde lointain in 1970 for the distinguished cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who as instrumentalist and conductor actively championed the composer’s music.

The first movement, Énigme (“Enigma”), is headed “Et dans cette nature étrange et symbolique...” (“And in this strange and symbolic nature ...”), which can almost be taken as a motto for the entire work. Its opening measures trace a progression from silence to noise (soft drum and cymbal rolls) and on to the singing of the solo cello, whose arching phrases seem both declamatory and rhapsodic. Punctuated by the diffuse sounds of gongs and dense, quiet orchestral chords, these statements lead eventually to the main section of the movement. Here the music is angular and highly rhythmic, with considerable use of glissando, pizzicato, and col legno playing, which has the soloist using the wood part of the bow, with percussive effects, hints of Spanish flavor, massive sonorities and much else. The movement ends with the cello suspended precariously on a high A, which then becomes the starting point for the second movement.

Entitled Regard (“Gaze”), this bears an inscription from Baudelaire’s poem “Poison,” which translates: “The poison that flows / From your eyes, from your green eyes, / Lakes on which my soul trembles and sees itself mirrored....” Dutilleux’s music is appropriately lugubrious, even decadent, in tone. The music grows increasingly elaborate, then subsides, thereby describing a long arch. At the close of the movement we hear a reprise of the music that opened the concerto.

The third movement, Houles (“Swells”), from the poem that gives the concerto its title, carries a nautical reference: “You contain, ebony sea, a dazzling dream / Of sails, rowers, flames, and masts...” It begins with a cadenza for cello alone. Gradually the orchestra joins in, adding sonic color and texture to the soloist’s phrases. An important new element is contributed by the piccolo: wild arabesques that are soon developed in a colorful orchestral passage. The general tone is weird and hallucinatory, but the music fades to an ethereal conclusion. The final three notes of the harp provide a bridge to the fourth movement.

The title Miroirs (“Mirrors”) is part of an erotic metaphor: “Our two hearts will be vast torches / That reflect their double lights / In our two spirits, those twin mirrors...” A series of brief phrases from the marimba provide a strange, clockwork context for the musings of the cello. Orchestral chords — pools of liquid sound — accompany. The first violins reflect portions of the cello’s phrases at a higher register and in backwards motion, creating a musical symbol for the movement’s title. Apart from a long chord that swells and fades in the middle of the movement, the music conveys a sense of mystery and quiet reverie. The final phrase is an orchestral crescendo leading to the finale.

That movement, Hymne (“Hymn”), carries a hopeful inscription: “Guard your dreams: the wise do not have such beautiful ones as fools.” Here Dutilleux recalls the animated music of the first movement, the arabesque figures from the third, and other elements heard previously. The movement proceeds through a series of climaxes and finally just evaporates, the cello music vanishing on a nervous tremolo figure.

BOHUSLAV MARTINU The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca
Born in Bohemia, the major part of what is now the Czech Republic, Bohuslav Martinů began his career in Prague but soon gravitated to Paris, where he spent much of the period between the World Wars. During the 1940s he took refuge in the United States but returned to Europe in 1953, eventually settling in Switzerland. In 1955, during a visit to Italy, Martinů was deeply impressed by a series of frescoes by the Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca (ca. 1415-92) at the Basilica of San Francesco, in Arezzo. He responded to that experience with a three-movement orchestral piece, The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca.

Piero’s frescoes in Arezzo depict the Legend of the True Cross, a story that begins in Eden, progresses through the life and crucifixion of Jesus, and concludes with the restitution of the Cross to Jerusalem. Martinů stated that he was concerned only with capturing the larger aesthetic qualities of Piero’s art, its "solemn, frozen silence and opaque colored atmosphere, which contains strange, peaceful, yet moving poetry." Nevertheless, he identified each movement with a particular fresco, and connections between their images and his music seem clear.

The first movement corresponds to Piero’s painting of the Queen of Sheba crossing a bridge to Solomon's palace, and her revelation that its wood will be used to create the Cross. The opening sounds evoke a strange atmosphere in which a supernatural vision might well occur. There follows brighter music suggesting a regal procession.

The second movement concerns a dream had by the emperor Constantine, in which an angel reveals that Constantine will triumph in battle by adopting the Sign of the Cross. Once again, Martinů creates impressionistic music intimating supernatural events. The finale imagines the battle in which another emperor, Heraclius, defeats the Persian King Khosrau. The initial music seems to suggest the King’s horde advancing from the east. Sounds of conflict and final triumph ensue.

Living in an era of fast-paced and provocative entertainment, we are apt to regard the waltz as a quaint relic of a more genteel age. But this dance did not always appear as innocent as it does today. There was, for those more familiar with it than we are today, a dark side to the waltz, an intimation of hedonism and risk. This quality fascinated Maurice Ravel, who captured both the elegance and danger of the dance in his tone poem La Valse.

Ravel began this work, he told a friend, as “a sort of homage to the memory of the great [Johann] Strauss.” By the time he finished, in 1920, the character of the piece had changed. Now, in addition to celebrating Viennese gaiety, the music suggested something sinister. Ravel described La Valse as an “apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, which was linked in my mind with an impression of a fantastic whirl of destiny leading to death.” It is doubtful that this was part of Ravel’s initial idea for the work. But the years between his initial sketches and the finished score had seen the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire in Austria and the pleasure-loving aristocracies of other nations, this in a war that had left the youth of Europe gassed and bleeding in trenches, fields and forests across the continent.

La valse begins with little more than a rustling in the low strings. Gradually bright melodic figures appear, fragments of waltz themes that coalesce into a succession of brilliant episodes. An initial climax brings back the low murmurings that opened the work, but this return to the music’s point of departure signals a change in character. The brass figures now are menacing, and the whirring of the flute seems ghostly. Melodies begin to crowd each other indecorously, strange harmonies appear and the music assumes the character of a danse macabre.

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