The Peninsula Music Festival - Season 2009 Program Notes
Program 3 - Saturday, August 8, 2009 - Unmistakably French
Toccata from the Organ Symphony No. 5 in F minor, Op. 42, No. 1
Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937)
Composed in 1878.
Premiered on October 19, 1879 in Paris by the composer.
Among the musical effects of the secularization of French society in the wake of the Revolution and the Napoleonic wars was the liberation of the organ from its function as a strictly ecclesiastical instrument to one that was also integral to the nation’s secular concert life. The instrument’s potential to rival the power, subtlety and tonal range of the orchestra was first realized by the great organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811-1899), who constructed some of the most celebrated organs in France, Belgium and the Netherlands after arriving in Paris in 1833 from his native Montpellier. Among the earliest composers to fully exploit the possibilities of Cavaillé-Coll’s revolutionary “symphonic” instruments was Charles-Marie Widor.
Widor was born in 1844 in Lyons, the son of a family of organists and organ builders. His father, organist at the church of St. François, gave him his first music lessons, and by age eleven Charles-Marie was performing in public. On the recommendation of Cavaillé-Coll himself, Widor studied organ and composition at the Brussels Conservatory, and then returned home at age sixteen to take over his father’s position at St. François. He gained a reputation with performances in southeastern France, and in 1870 he was given a provisional one-year appointment as organist at St. Sulpice in Paris, for which Cavaillé-Coll had completed one of his most monumental instruments eight years before; Widor remained at St. Sulpice for the next 64 years, until his retirement at age ninety. In 1890, he succeeded Franck as professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire and six years later he was appointed the school’s professor of composition; his students included such later-eminent musicians as organists Marcel Dupré, Louis Vierne and Albert Schweitzer (with whom he collaborated on an annotated edition of the organ works of J.S. Bach), pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, and composers Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud and Edgard Varèse. Widor also worked as a music critic for the daily L’estafette (“The Messenger”), conducted the Concordia Oratorio Society, authored a textbook on the Technique de l’orchestre moderne, and wrote a large amount of music, including two ballets, three operas, five symphonies (three with organ), a half-dozen concertos, sacred and secular vocal pieces, chamber music, piano compositions, and, most memorably, ten organ “symphonies” (really suites) that took full advantage of Cavaillé-Coll’s instruments. In recognition of his services to French music, Widor was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1910 and became its permanent secretary four years later. He died in Paris in March 1937 at age 93.
Widor’s best-known work is the Toccata that closes his Organ Symphony No. 5, composed in 1878 and first performed at his recital at the Palais du Trocadéro on October 19, 1879. This movement, with its dynamic rhythmic energy, coruscating arpeggios and grandly striding bass melody, is a descendant of the old Baroque virtuoso display piece that took its name from the Italian word “toccare” — “to touch” — indicated a “touching” with the fingers on the keyboard to create great roulades of sound.
Offrande à une ombre (“Offering to a Shadow”)
Henry Barraud (1900-1997)
Composed in 1941-1942.
Henry Barraud was born in 1900 into a family of wine merchants in the iconic oenophilic city of Bordeaux in southwestern France. Barraud’s early life was shaped around his parents’ intention that he enter the family business, for which he was trained in London, but he was more strongly driven by an apparently irresistible musical urge that he satisfied by learning what he could from local musicians, teaching himself about the subject, and trying his hand at composition. By 1926, music had beaten out claret, and he entered the Paris Conservatoire to study composition with Paul Dukas and Louis Aubert. Barraud was ill suited to the school’s rigor and convention, however, and he got himself thrown out the following year when he submitted a string quartet that the faculty considered too outrageously innovatory. He continued to compose, and in 1933 the estimable Pierre Monteux conducted his Finale to a Symphony and followed it the next year with his Poème. Barraud thereafter gained a prominent position in French musical life, not least by helping to establish the Triton Society to encourage the performance of contemporary music, and he was appointed music director of the 1937 Paris Exposition (whose most memorable souvenir is the huge painting in which Pablo Picasso recorded his impressions of the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War). Barraud had other significant performances of his compositions during the late 1930s, including a piano concerto, an opera based on the anonymous 15th-century play La Farce de Maître Pierre Pathelin (“The Farce of Master Pierre Pathelin”), chamber pieces and choral works. He became an officer in the infantry at the outbreak of World War II and helped to organize Resistance broadcasting after France fell in June 1940; his brother Jean was murdered by the Gestapo in 1944 for his part in that effort. Barraud was appointed music director of Radiodiffusion France when Paris was liberated in August 1944, and after the war he opened French national radio to a wide variety of music, particularly new music, and encouraged higher standards of orchestral and choral performance throughout the country; he retired from that post in 1965 and was awarded the Gran Prix Nationale du Musique four years later. After his retirement, Barraud continued to add significantly to his creative catalog, which came to include five operas, two ballets, three symphonies, three concertos, numerous independent orchestral pieces, scores for film and radio, a dozen large choral works and chamber music, as well as books about Berlioz, opera and contemporary music. He died in Paris in 1997.
The summary of Barraud’s musical personality that English musicologists Jonathan Griffin and Richard Langham Smith provided in their article for the New Grove Dictionary of Music — “Barraud combined a reserved demeanor and a critical spirit with deep and imaginative religious conviction and a great sensitivity to people as well as to the arts” — applies with particular poignancy to Offrande à une ombre (“Offering to a Shadow”), composed in 1941-1942, during the darkest days of World War II. Barraud wrote that the score “is dedicated to the memory of a friend, [the film and theater composer] Maurice Jaubert … who was killed in 1940 during the retreat from Alsace. The work, which is based on a single theme, may be taken as a kind of evocation of his image in the ordeal of war and at last in the glory of sacrifice.” When the Germans executed his brother Jean in 1944, Barraud extended the work’s dedication to include him as well.
Offrande à une ombre traces Barraud’s description with almost painful fidelity. It opens with a long, nostalgic melody that unwinds quietly in a succession of wind and string solos before gathering intensity in the full ensemble. A tocsin sounds from the trumpet, the flute gives one last thought to the nostalgic theme, and brass fanfares announce the onset of battle. Furious music follows until the fatal moment arrives with a roll of drums and a stroke on the gong. The earlier melody resumes but now with the mournful quality of an elegy that grows inexorably into a fearsome funeral march. The music again becomes quiet and thoughtful, and ends in a way that suggests not so much Barraud’s “glory of sacrifice” as a sense of resignation and loss.
Concerto for Organ, String Orchestra
and Timpani in G minor
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
Composed in 1938.
Premiered on June 21, 1939 in Paris, conducted by Roger Désormière with Maurice Duruflé as soloist.
The appearance of Francis Poulenc’s Organ Concerto in 1938 produced mild surprise among the followers of his music. Since first winning public attention at the age of eighteen with his Rapsodie nègre, Poulenc had been primarily known for works of wit, insouciance and elegance. The French critic Henri Collet made an excellent choice when he included Poulenc among Les Six, the group of six young composers who sought (each in his own very distinct manner) to rid French music of Teutonic heaviness, syrupy Romanticism and wispy Impressionism in favor of clarity, athleticism and emotional reserve. Until the late 1930s, Poulenc’s chamber music, songs, ballets, concertos and piano pieces (these last just right, advised Anatole France, for “the intimate conversations at five o’clock”) were brilliant, refined, even impudent. The Organ Concerto revealed a previously unknown facet of Poulenc’s musical personality, one that his friend the American composer Ned Rorem described as “deeply devout and uncontrollably sensual.”
Poulenc’s depth of feeling was grounded in the Catholicism of his youth, but with which, he admitted, “from 1920 to 1935 I was very little concerned.” In 1936 he underwent a rejuvenation of his religious belief brought about by the death of his colleague Pierre-Octave Ferroud in an automobile accident. Deeply shaken, Poulenc wrote, “The atrocious extinction of this musician so full of vigor left me stupefied. Pondering on the fragility of our human frame, the life of the spirit attracted me anew.” His renewed interest in the faith led to a wonderful series of musical works which reflect a more noble vision than do those of the preceding years: the Gloria, the Sonata for Two Pianos, many sacred vocal pieces, the cathartic opera The Dialogues of the Carmelites and the Organ Concerto.
Since Poulenc came of age during the First World War, and missed the opportunity for extensive formal training as a composer because of his service in the military, his music is more a natural expression, without allegiance to any particular school or compositional system, than a studied one. “My rules are instinctive,” he once said. “I am not concerned with [technical] principles and I am proud of that; I have no system of writing (for me ‘system’ means ‘tricks’); and as for inspiration, it is so mysterious that it is wiser not to try to explain it.” Poulenc’s intuitive art was largely based on his superb sense of melody, which, he freely admitted, was heavily influenced by that incomparable writer of songs, Franz Schubert.
The Organ Concerto is cast in a single movement comprising seven sections differentiated by tempo and texture, a formal concept derived from the Baroque keyboard fantasia. The sections are alternately slow, with chordal scoring, and fast, with a dynamic, moto perpetuo quality. To bring unity to the structure, there are thematic relationships among the various formal parts, most notably a great peal from the solo organ, reminiscent of Sebastian Bach’s Organ Fantasia in G minor (the “Great,” BWV 542), which occurs in both the first and last sections. The scoring is a piece of expert craftsmanship, with the timpani reinforcing and delineating the bass line, while the strings are combined with the careful registrations of the organ to produce sonorities that are, by turn, brilliant and hymnal.
Fanfare Preceding La Péri
Paul Dukas (1865-1935)
Composed in 1912.
Premiered on April 22, 1912 in Paris, conducted by the composer.
Paul Dukas spent his entire life in Paris as a greatly respected teacher and composer. He showed his musical aptitude early, teaching himself to play piano, and entered the Conservatoire in 1882, where he proved to be an excellent student, winning the second Prix de Rome in 1888. Though he had to abandon his formal training for a time to serve in the army, he turned that period to good use by studying many of the classical works of music, the basis upon which he later built his own compositions. (He later edited several volumes of works by Rameau, Beethoven, Couperin and Scarlatti.) After his stint in the military, he completed the overture Polyeucte, his first work to be performed publicly. The Symphony in C major followed in 1896, and he gained international recognition a year later with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Dukas held important positions throughout his life as an instructor at the Conservatoire and as a critic, and was awarded the Legion of Honor in 1906. Stern self-criticism of his compositions led him to destroy all his unpublished manuscripts before his death, so that his small musical legacy comprises only three overtures, a symphony, an opera (Ariane et Barbe-Bleu), a ballet (La Péri), three piano works, a short Villanelle for horn and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Dukas’ La Péri was one of four ballets commissioned and premiered by Natacha Trouhanova at her gala performance in Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet on April 22, 1912. (D’Indy’s Istar, Florent Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé and Ravel’s Adélaïde, ou le langage des fleurs, set to the orchestrated version of his Valses nobles et sentimentales, rounded out the glittering program.) The story of La Péri concerns an aged Persian nobleman, Iskender, who wanders the world seeking the Flower of Immortality, which he finds in the hand of a beautiful sleeping “Péri” (an imaginary fairy-like being in Persian mythology represented as a descendent of the fallen angels who are excluded from Paradise until their penance is accomplished). He plucks the Flower from her grasp, she awakens, and he is filled with longing for her. She dances the dance of the Peris for him, and draws nearer until their faces touch. He surrenders the Flower to her, she disappears, and Iskender is surrounded by the darkness of mortality. This visionary story drew from Dukas a twenty-minute score of luxuriant opulence. The stirring Fanfare for brass that precedes the ballet, however, is unrelated to what follows thematically, and was added just before Trouhanova’s premiere performance.
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, Organ
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Composed in 1886.
Premiered on May 19, 1886 in London, conducted by the composer.
“There goes the French Beethoven,” declared Charles Gounod to a friend as he pointed out Camille Saint-Saëns at the Paris premiere of the Organ Symphony. This was high praise, indeed, and not without foundation. Though the depths of feeling that Beethoven plumbed were never accessible to Saint-Saëns, both musicians largely devoted their lives to the great abstract forms of instrumental music — symphony, concerto, sonata — that are the most difficult to compose and the most rewarding to accomplish. This was no mean feat for Saint-Saëns.
The Paris in which Saint-Saëns grew up, studied and lived was enamored of the vacuous stage works of Meyerbeer, Offenbach and a host of lesser lights in which little attention was given to artistic merit, only to convention and entertainment. Berlioz tried to break this stranglehold of mediocrity, and earned for himself a reputation as an eccentric, albeit a talented one, whose works were thought unperformable, and probably best left to the pedantic Germans anyway. Saint-Saëns, with his love of Palestrina, Rameau, Beethoven, Liszt and, above all, Mozart, also determined not to be enticed into the Opéra Comique but to follow his calling toward a more noble art. To this end, he established with some like-minded colleagues the Société Nationale de Musique to perform the serious concert works of French composers. The venture was a success, and did much to give a renewed sense of artistic purpose to the best Gallic musicians.
Saint-Saëns produced a great deal of music to promote the ideals of the Société Nationale de Musique, including ten concertos and various smaller works for solo instruments and orchestra, four tone poems, two orchestral suites and five symphonies, the second and third of which were unpublished for decades and discounted in the usual numbering of these works. The last of the symphonies, the No. 3 in C minor, is his masterwork in the genre. Saint-Saëns placed much importance on this composition. He pondered it for a long time, and realized it with great care, unusual for this artist, who said of himself that he composed music “as an apple tree produces apples,” that is, naturally and without visible effort. “I have given in this Symphony,” he confessed, “everything that I could give.”
Of the work’s construction, Saint-Saëns wrote, “This Symphony is divided into two parts, though it includes practically the traditional four movements. The first, checked in development, serves as an introduction to the Adagio. In the same manner, the scherzo is connected with the finale.” Saint-Saëns clarified the division of the two parts by using the organ only in the second half of each: dark and rich in Part I, noble and uplifting in Part II. The entire work is unified by transformations of the main theme, heard in the strings at the beginning after a brief and mysterious introduction. In his Organ Symphony, Saint-Saëns combined the techniques of thematic transformation, elision of movements and richness of orchestration with a clarity of thought and grandeur of vision to create one of the masterpieces of French symphonic music.
©2009 Dr. Richard E. Rodda