Suite Bergamasque (1890/1905) by Claude Debussy
This suite for piano in four movements is nearly overshadowed by the popularity of its third movement, Clair de lune, surely one of the most played pieces in the piano literature, so much so that the suite is not often performed in concert. Suite Bergamasque was begun in 1890 when Debussy was still a student and shows his earlier influences of the French clavecin, a harpsichord, and of the Symbolist poets, particularly Verlaine, in the titles. In 1905 Debussy was approached by his publisher Durand, who wanted to publish everything of Debussy’s to capitalize on the composer’s popularity. Debussy reworked the suite which he felt was an immature work and did not reflect his developed mastery of compositional style. However that may be, the Suite Bergamasque is still much beloved like an old friend one hasn’t seen in a few years. Bright, cheerful, mysterious, danceable and romantic, it is as delightful as soft, perfumed air to the senses.
by Heidi Lesemann
Chanson madécasses (1926) by Maurice Ravel
“I am quite conscious of the fact that my Chansons madécasses are in no way Schoenbergian, but I do not know whether I should have been able to write them had Schoenberg never written.” Maurice Ravel’s Chansons madécasses was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. The texts are drawn from an eighteenth century Creole poet, Evariste-Désiré de Parny. The blend of overt sexual imagery and racial tensions in the poems brought out a work that its composer considered one of his most crucial.
La Création du monde, Op. 81b (1923) by Darius Milhaud
Dance was the rage in Paris in the 1920s. The conventions of classical ballet changed and demanded a new and almost savage, barbaric music. La création du monde, Op. 81b by Darius Milhaud was commissioned by the Swedish Maecenas Rolf de Maré. Maré assembled a trio of Milhaud, Ferdinand Léger and Blaise Cendrars (a one-armed poet-journalist) to compose and design a story combining jazz and African folklore. The intent was to be savage in the extreme. Léger had to give up on the idea of inflatable skins representing flowers, trees, and animals, which would be blown up and transformed into balloons at their moment of creation. The technology of the time would not control the sound of gas needed to inflate the balloons – the orchestra would have been drowned out. Milhaud’s music is a vibrant impression of le jazz hot he experienced from the Hotel Brunswick Orchestra and the New Orleans-flavored jazz of Harlem. Though not a jazz composer, the convergence of serious and popular music finds one of its most persuasive advocates in Milhaud’s La création du monde.
Quintet for Piano & Strings (1882) by César Franck
Franck’s Quintet in F minor for Piano and Strings was written in 1878-79 during completion of his magnum opus, Les beatitudes. It was first performed on January 17, 1880 in a concert of the Société Nationale in Paris. There is an almost narcotic need for Franck to cyclically connect the different sections of the work. The more one studies it, the more the music reveals a network of implications, footnotes, and references, not unlike the layers of The Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust, or the emerging cubism of Paul Cezanne. It is this preoccupation with creating an organic structure that makes Franck an augury of numerous tendencies in the 20th century music. A comparison of his music with that of Olivier Messiaen is in fact not an idle pursuit – both composers were to assign a mystical importance to the key of F-sharp.
The motto theme for the Quintet is the second subject of the first movement, first presented by the violin above a syncopated piano accompaniment. In the second movement, the motto appears in the center, and in D-flat major. In the finale Franck gives still more time to this theme, with a combination of formal elements being extended into, or perhaps until, the coda.
“Pére” Franck, as he was known to numerous students such as Gabriel Fauré, Vincent d’Indy, and Paul Dukas, was beloved by most, but not all, of the musicians of his time. The first performance of the Quintet was by the Marsick Quartet and Camille Saint-Saëns. Franck had been so impressed that he dedicated the work to the composer thirteen years his junior. D’Indy reported that at the premiere Franck had hoped to present a manuscript of the work as a gift to the Saint- Saëns. However Saint-Saëns stormed away after the performance, at odds with the older man’s music.
Program Notes by Jeff von der Schmidt except where noted