Concert IV, 2018-19 Season
When opera first emerged as a genre, in the early 1600s, its plots were largely based on Classical myths (as, indeed, were the texts of the dramatic madrigals that preceded opera). One of the attractions of myth as a subject for opera was that its magical ambience lessened implausibility of sung “speech.” Over the years, as people ceased to question the verisimilitude of sung drama, opera acquired a much broader variety of stories and settings, while still reverting to myth on occasion, both for the special-effects potential of a magical world, and for the way myths allow authors to make philosophical and large-scale social arguments (Wagner’s output being a striking case in point). Perhaps not surprisingly, all of this concert’s pieces have been associated with other media which clarify the mythical elements in their stories. The Ravel and Beethoven were written as ballets, the Debussy was very quickly choreographed as a ballet, and parts of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, while written as “absolute” music, found their way into his legend-based Ring of the Nibelungen four-opera cycle.
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
“L’après-midi d’un faune” (“The Afternoon of a Faun”) is a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, the Symbolist poet and older friend of Debussy. The “afternoon” is actually high-noon on a suffocatingly hot summer’s day: an “enervating swoon of heat.” No Bambi, this faun is a sensual and lustful satyr. He is Pan, pursuing “shoulder and thigh” with “leering scrutiny” and carrying off virgins by the pair: “lovely naked burdens gliding to evade my fiery lip that sucks as thrilling as lightning!” In the myth, Pan’s flute was made from reeds he picked to keep close to Syrinx, the water nymph who was turned into a reed to save her from Pan’s unwelcome attentions. Debussy features the flute to remind us of this story.
Mallarmé’s poem was well known in the circles in which Debussy moved in Paris in the 1880s and 90s. This work, finished in 1894, captures both the improvisational lure of Pan’s flute, with which it begins, and the sensuality of naked flesh on a hot day.
Richard Wagner (1813–1883)
Written originally as a birthday present for his partner Cosima on the 1869 birth of their son Siegfried, this work is one of Wagner’s very few works of modest dimensions. It was originally written for an ensemble of only 12 instruments, but later revised for a larger orchestra. Siegfried was a heroic figure from Norse myths, who died killing a dragon. He became a associated with German nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and both these associations were no doubt in Wagner’s and Cosima’s minds as they named their son. Some of the music from this piece shows up in Siegfried, the third opera of Wagner’s Ring cycle, but some of the tunes also evidently had particular domestic significance for the composer. The music is tuneful, sweet, and reflective, with a middle section featuring horn and other wind solos that evoke the natural landscape which nurtured the operatic Siegfried.
Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
The Creatures of Prometheus was Beethoven’s only full length ballet, written to accompany the choreography of Salvatore Viganò, who was ballet master at the Imperial Court in Vienna from 1799–1803. The outlines of the plot are shrouded in mystery. There is evidently no libretto, the individual numbers in Beethoven’s complete score only have subtitles like “Adagio” or “Moderato,” and the relationship of a later Vigano ballet entitled Prometeo to The Creatures of Prometheus is completely unclear. Regardless, this cheerful overture gives no hint to its mythological or pastoral associations.
Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 2
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Ravel’s original version of Daphnis and Chloe was a full-length ballet, commissioned by Serge Diaghilev, the director of the Ballets Russes, the company for whom Stravinsky wrote Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913). The two suites excerpt the most characteristic sections of the ballet in chronological order; unsurprisingly, they are much more commonly performed than the whole piece.
The figure of Daphnis goes far back into Greek mythology: taught to play the flute (syrinx) by the god Pan (see the note to the Debussy work, above!) he was a semi-divine shepherd and singer. The myth of Daphnis and Chloe comes from later antiquity and got popularized in France via a sixteenth-century translation. The story is not hugely eventful. In the first part, Chloe gets kidnapped by pirates, but Pan magically restores her to her proper place. The second suite begins as the sun rises over a pastoral scene, Daphnis and Chloe are reunited, and re-enact the story of Pan and Syrinx in honor of the god who saved Chloe. General rejoicing (indeed, a bacchanale) ensues.
The work is scored for a huge orchestra with a particularly large and colorful percussion section. Ravel was famous for his orchestration—that is, the way instruments are deployed to create particular effects. This suite has a number of wonderful such effects. At the beginning, for example, the burbling of the streams (or maybe it’s the rising sun glittering on the dew, or maybe just the feeling of pleasure at being in nature) is created by very fast notes in up and down patterns in the winds, the celesta (a bell-like keyboard instrument, here imitated on the electric keyboard) and eventually the violins, paired with glissandi in the harps. The strings, which mostly play very long notes, are sometimes divided into as many as ten different parts, so that the chords they can play are much richer; and on top of this, the piccolo and flute play bird songs. A tune wells up from the middle of this background, giving a sense of direction to what has been a very out-of-time experience. In the middle section (the re-enactment of the love story of Pan and Syrinx), Ravel deploys all levels of flute in the solos—not only the normal one, but also the tiny piccolo and the rich alto flute. In the frenzied last movement, one of the most striking effects is the wild percussion that punctuates the dance. Watch the back of the orchestra to see how busy Ravel keeps the percussionists!
The result of all of this is not so much a retelling of the myth but a series of connected tone poems that take us into the sensuous experience of particular moments, rendered more powerful by their imaginative connection with a magical world.
© Mary Hunter