Saturday, June 29, 2013
Party in the Park
Vieuxtemps, Ravel. Poulenc
Sunday, October 21, 2012, 3pm, DeBartolo
Pavane for a Dead Princess
Maurice Ravel was born in Ciboure, France in 1875 and died in Paris in 1937. He composed this work for solo piano in 1899, and it was first performed in Paris in 1902 by Ricardo Viñes. Ravel orchestrated the work in 1910, and this version was first heard in Paris in 1911 under the direction of Alfred Casella. The score calls for 2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, harp, and strings.
Salon music—music for performance in the home—is meant to be light, accessible, nearly disposable. This has not prevented the easily excitable from concocting outlandish programs for this little salon piece from Ravel. The composer was wryly amused: “The remarkable interpretations of this inconclusive and conventional work have, I think, in great measure, contributed to its success.” Actually, Ravel had no program, no story, not even a princess. He chose the title because he liked the way it sounded: Pavane pour une infante défunte.
Ravel composed the work as a student (probably with little thought) for performance in the home of a Parisian music patron. Once published, its elegance and simplicity put it in the hands of amateur pianists everywhere, making Ravel famous in the process. The price for that fame was that Ravel had to suffer through innumerable bad performances of it. After one youngster’s gruesomely slow reading he had occasion to say, “Listen, my child, what I wrote is a Pavane for a Dead Princess, not a Dead Pavane for a Princess.”
Ravel hoped his suavely orchestrated version would bring the work both a wider audience and better performances. He was uneasy about the Pavane’s popularity, but he needn’t have been: all salon music should be this good.
Concerto for Violin & Orchestra No. 5 in A minor, Op. 37 “Grétry”
Henri Vieuxtemps was born in Verviers, Belgium in 1820 and died in Mustapha, Algeria in 1881. He composed this work in 1858-1859 as a competition piece for Hubert Léonard at the Brussels Conservatory. The Concerto originally had two movements; Vieuxtemps later added a third. The score calls for solo violin, flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.
Born to a musical Belgian family, Henry Vieuxtemps began violin lessons with his father at age four. He later studied with Lecloux-Dejonc and Bériot, and before long critics like Robert Schumann were comparing him to Paganini. He had neither the demonic intensity nor the cult following of Paganini, but he had an astounding technique and ravishing tone. No less an authority than Berlioz called him an “incomparable virtuoso.”
After traveling the world as a star performer, Vieuxtemps in later years taught violin at the Brussels Conservatory, something he called a “sacred mission.” He contributed greatly to the growing Belgian school of violin playing, and counted Ysaÿe among his students. After a stroke incapacitated his bowing arm he had to abandon teaching, and he died a few years later in Algeria.
Like many other 19th-century virtuosi, Vieuxtemps needed to compose works for his own use. He studied composition with Sechter and Reicha, and spent several years in Vienna, where he joined a circle of musicians who had known Beethoven. He learned quickly, and well.
Vieuxtemps composed this work as a competition piece for Hubert Léonard, then the principal professor of violin at the Brussels Conservatory. The Concerto originally comprised two movements; Vieuxtemps later added a third and specified that they should be played without pause. The first movement, longer than the other two combined, is a sonata form with three themes energetically delivered by the orchestra. After entering, the soloist provides yet another theme, then embarks on a development that touches them all. The blazing violin part continually astounds, yet we are never served empty calories: Vieuxtemps puts his ultra-romantic lyricism at the core of everything we hear.
Rather than giving a recapitulation after the cadenza, Vieuxtemps uses a brief transition to lead us into the Adagio. This is a touching arioso for the soloist, miles away from the extravagant virtuosity of the first movement. Near the end we hear a melody Vieuxtemps took from André Grétry’s comic opera Lucille; this is the reason for the concerto’s nickname. The final Allegro con fuoco is so short as to be a mere coda to the piece, but it’s a fine opportunity to end the concerto with even more fireworks from the soloist.
Francis Poulenc was born in Paris in 1899 and died there in 1963. He composed this work in 1947 on a commission from the BBC, and it was first performed in a BBC radio broadcast the following year, with the Philharmonia Orchestra under the direction of Roger Désormière. The score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, harp, and strings.
Of the French composers of his generation, Poulenc has had the most staying-power, primarily because his skills and artistic temperament advanced with his years. After the heady boisterousness of his early works, he concluded that his success had come at the expense of a thorough grounding in the basics. He applied himself to correcting that lack and, concurrently with a reawakening of his Catholic faith, matured to where his technique matched his gifts. The devil-may-care brashness that characterized his youthful works was still present, but now as a calculated effect rather than the only hand he knew how to play.
Poulenc’s Sinfonietta has the distinction of having had its premiere in a radio broadcast. The BBC commissioned the work to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their fine arts channel, The Third Programme. Poulenc missed the anniversary deadline, but nonetheless his work was first heard on the radio rather than in a concert hall. The Sinfonietta is also unusual for being one of only a mere handful of works Poulenc composed for orchestra.
The first movement begins with a quirky theme that launches a seemingly random sequence of sometimes playful, sometimes intensely lyrical episodes. It’s probably not as random as it seems. Listen for how the bassoon begins a lyrical second theme by snatching up the quick four-note figure that lies embedded in the first; one can almost hear Poulenc saying, “Look what I found!” Connections like this are everywhere you look. The second movement is a lighthearted scherzo that brings to mind a Tchaikovsky ballet miniature, not least in the warm, sumptuous tune heard in the strings.
The Andante cantabile begins austerely in the winds, but the clarinet melody that ensues is set in a nearly Brahmsian style, full of warmth and nobility. This is Poulenc at his most romantic and most beautiful. The Finale is another kaleidoscope of styles, as if the composer couldn’t decide which to settle on and therefore used them all. We frolic between genteel lyricism and dance hall razzmatazz, and several outrageous head-fakes lead us to an ending that is sure to raise a smile.
Questions or comments?