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Concert I, 2018-19 Season

In the 1700s, before any of the pieces on tonight’s program were composed, writers about music were very interested in “national styles” (the universe of nations consisting of only three countries worth mentioning: France, Italy, and Germany). French music was understood as more rigid, more based on the rhythms and contours of speech, and less  inviting to both virtuosity and improvisation, while Italian music was understood as more songful, more virtuosic, and more inviting to elaborate ornamentation and improvisation. German music was thought to be harmonically rich, but also to be able to borrow Italian songfulness and French rhythmic precision. Fast forward a century and a half or so, and French music was still an outlier: some of its distinctive qualities were still thought to be based on the French language, but French composers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also cultivated an attention to timbre (sound-color) for its own sake, often deploying the different parts of the orchestra in ways quite different from German and German-influenced music of the time.

But of course, as with any human endeavor, the story of national self-representation in music is never simple or one-sided. The three pieces on this program suggest some of the complexities of “national style.”

Prelude and Mazurka from Coppélia    
Leo Délibes(1815–1910)

Leo Délibes is chiefly known for his exoticist and very French-sounding grand opera, Lakmé, but early in his life he was associated with the Bouffes-Parisiens, a theater devoted to light operetta (Offenbach was an important composer there), before he moved on to being chorus master and sometime ballet composer for the Paris Opéra, a much more august institution, for which, in 1870, he wrote the ballet Coppélia, based on a story by the German Romantic author E.T.A. Hoffmann. Both the prelude and the mazurka music come from the overture to the ballet, but the mazurka  “proper” occurs as a set piece about ten minutes into the stage work—as such, it’s a “divertissement” which stops the narrative flow, a feature typical of French opera and ballet. The music itself bears no obviously French characteristics: indeed the horn opening may remind us of Richard Wagner, who was hugely influential in France. The mazurka is a Polish dance: Chopin wrote hundreds of them for piano. The underlying rhythm is waltz-like, but the first beat of every bar has a skippy figure that identifies it as something more heavy-footed and folk-like than the salon-based waltz.

Concerto for Marimba and Vibraphone, Op. 278    
Darius Milhaud (1892–1974)

As the opus number for this work suggests, Milhaud was an extraordinarily prolific composer: 16 operas, 18 ballets, 21 concertos, 12 symphonies, film and radio scores, lots of orchestral music, music for brass band, choral music, songs, and chamber music. He was steeped in French music and literature, but decisively rejected the Impressionist style of  Debussy and Ravel. He wrote, “So much woolliness, perfumed billows, rocketing pyrotechnics, shimmering finery, vapours and wistfulness, marked the end of an era whose affectation I found insurmountably repugnant.” At the end of World War I, he spent time in Brazil, and the music of that country is evident in much of his output. When the Germans invaded France in 1940 he moved to the United States and taught at Mills College until 1971, dividing his life after the war between France and California. He had been introduced to jazz in London in 1920, and that genre also plays a conspicuous role in his music. The first and last movements of this concerto not only show off the soloist’s chops, but also have rhythmic motifs clearly derived from the Americas. In the slow movement, which features the richer-sounding vibraphone rather than the marimba, that instrument is featured essentially as a member of the  orchestra, inflecting the sounds around it with its own color, rather than standing out as a soloist. That focus on color and the restraint of virtuosity are both typically French. Even given the influence of “exotic” musics on his works and the way in which the early twentieth-century French interest in orchestral color was to be absorbed into Modernism more generally, this work, like much of Milhaud’s output, still exudes a noticeably French ambience.

Symphonie Fantastique    
Hector Berlioz (1803–1869)

If French music at and before the turn of the twentieth century was a distinct musical language, one might think that the extraordinary differences between Berlioz’s music and that of the emerging Austro-German mainstream (think Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann) was due to his Frenchness. But in fact his striking originality was excoriated as much at home as abroad—more so, indeed. Robert Schumann was much nicer about the Symphonie Fantastique than was François-Joseph Fétis, an important (Belgian) contemporary composer and critic, and a professor at the Paris Conservatoire during the time Berlioz composed this symphony. And among Berlioz’s most profound influences were the Germans Beethoven and Goethe, and the English Shakespeare (indeed, he went so far as to fall in love with, and eventually marry, the actress Harriet Smithson, whom he first encountered playing Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1827. It didn’t end well.) What Berlioz got from these older creative giants was (in part) a sense of epic scale and of the power of dramatic contrast and intensity. Berlioz was also strongly influenced by British and French Romanticism—Walter Scott and Lord Byron were favorites, for example.

All of these influences are easily detectable in the Symphonie Fantastique. It is epically long—nearly an hour in most performances. It traces the emotional life of an artist who suffers from unrequited love and goes from yearning to mania to hallucination, and it reflects a Romantic fascination with drugs and the supernatural—the last two  movements depict the contents of opium dreams. It is also boldly original (originality being a virtue much prized by the Romantics). It is the first frankly autobiographical symphony, it uses an unprecedentedly large and varied orchestra, and it deals in literal pictorial effects to an unusual (though not unprecedented) degree. My personal favorites are the  call of the cowherd in the middle movement, played on the solo English horn, the plopping of the artist’s severed head into the bucket at the end of the fourth movement, and the rattling of the dancing skeletons’ bones in the last movement, imitated by the strings hitting the strings with the wood of the bow rather than the hair.

Each movement is an episode in the life of our lovelorn hero, and despite their strong contrasts with one another, they are united by a tune (called an idée fixe) that represents the beloved. We hear it first about 6 minutes into the first movement, when the music finally seems to get going. It’s a short tune, with a contour like two little mountain peaks and a slope down the other side. Each time we hear it, it is changed a bit, most grotesquely in the last movement, where it is sped up hugely and played on the very rude-sounding E-flat clarinet. The effect is akin to a classic Disney cartoon, where a face we think of as friendly transforms into a terrifying monster.

The first movement describes the “indefinable longing” for his lost beloved, and then his “volcanic love,” which is where we hear the idée fixe most prominently. The second movement is very clearly a waltz, where he finds the woman again. In the third movement, our hero finds himself in the country, listening to two cowherds playing songs to each other. But even there, her image appears, and “spasms contract his heart.” The distant thunder reflects his disquiet. In the fourth movement, he dreams that he has murdered her and is being condemned to death. She (i.e., the idée fixe) appears to him as a sweet vision just before his head comes off. The last movement depicts a “witches sabbath,” or a “diabolical orgy” in which “unearthly sounds, groans, shrieks of laughter, [and] distant cries” are heard. This movement owes a lot to Goethe’s Faust. We hear bells toll death knells, and the Latin “Dies Irae” (Day of Wrath) chant, which combines with the grotesque version of the idée fixe to form a truly Gothic picture.

Particularly in this last movement, Berlioz expanded the orchestra to an extraordinary extent—unprecedented amounts of percussion, double harps, piccolos at the top end, and contrabassoons at the bottom. This extravagance was the stimulus for many satirical cartoons that showed Berlioz conducting orchestras consisting of entire military batteries,  but it also set the stage for the distinctively French concern with color that produced Debussy, Ravel, and Milhaud.


© Mary Hunter