The repertoire in store for you tonight is truly inspired, it dips and weaves beginning with one of the most important and influential orchestral works of all time, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, before moving into Prokofiev’s third piano concerto – arguably his most famous – which while you may question how this piece appeared amongst the French-born composers, was written by the composer during his time in Brittany, on France’s coastline. Following the Prokofiev, we will return to Debussy, with some added help from our friend Brett Dean, who has masterfully orchestrated the Ariettes Oubliées (Forgotten Songs) for orchestra and mezzo soprano and we end the evening with a work that Stravinsky hailed as ‘one of most beautiful products in all of French music’, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, the second suite. So, now you know about the musical feast ahead of you, let’s dive in, beginning in 1880s Paris.
Debussy is in his 20s in the 1880s, playing as an accompanist for singing classes, having affairs with the singing students he was playing for, and composing, doing great amounts of composing. In the years prior, he had studied the form at the Conservatoire in Paris, where he’d been since the age of 10 – initially as an industrious piano student and excellent sight reader, but eventually, as a failed piano student but active composition major. Now, his exam failures had nothing to do with his talent, but more to do with the intermittent diligence he showed in his studies. Debussy’s interest in composition only continued to strengthen as his performance career took a backseat, which again, started well, but as his ideas got bigger and bolder and stopped fitting the mould the Conservatoire was happily operating within, his work began to garner faculty disapproval. His composition teacher in particular was upset that his promising student seemed incapable of following any of the orthodox compositional rules he had painstakingly laid out in front of him.
But, experimentation pays off, and just a few years after he left his formal studies, he won France’s most significant music award, the Prix de Rome. He had chased his own artistic ideas, and it had paid off. There was no turning back for Debussy. On the music he was creating, the composer said “I am sure the Institute would not approve, for, naturally it regards the path which ordains as the only right one. But there is no help for it! I am too enamoured of my freedom, too fond of my own ideas!” And lucky we are that he did, for his own artistic ideas and the circles in which he ran in the heady time that was the 1880s and 90s in Paris – the beginnings of La Belle Époque and a vibrant time for artists, musicians and poets, bohemian’s and freethinkers – led him to discover the great impressionist fine artists and influential poets whose work would inspire the pieces we will hear later in the program, but also this first work, the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.
Stéphane Mallarmé, the French symbolist poet and critic, was a bohemian in the truest sense – he worked as an English teacher, which afforded him no luxury, and he spent most of his adult life living in more or less poverty, but was incredibly well known around Paris for his salons – gathering groups of artists and intellectuals and people of general interest for long discussions on philosophy and life and art and poetry. The group gathered on Tuesdays, and become known as les Mardistes, welcoming significant figures not only from France but across Europe. It was at one of these events that Debussy first heard a reading of Mallarmé’s poem about that fateful faun. The poem itself is incredibly important in the history of French literature, and specifically, the development of symbolism in French poetry. It is a sensual piece of poetry full of evocative language and brilliant imagery, when reading it, you can see vivid colour, which I suppose gives away the thing that Debussy saw in the poem and drew him to create a symphonic reading of the text. He wasn’t the only one tugged by the words though; Ravel, Milhaud and Boulez all created pieces that drew on the faun and his dream.
So, the music! Debussy has created a re-reading of the poem with symphonic colour. It sits somewhere between awake and dream and as you listen, you can almost feel yourself moving in between those two states. He is drawing out that moment that occurs just as you open your eyes after a deep sleep; are you fully awake? Not quite. But you still hold all the comings and goings of your fantasies in your mind. Here is a little of the beginning. Close your eyes, if you’d like and consider this quote from the composer himself as you listen: “The music I desire must be supple enough to adapt itself to the lyrical effusions of the soul and the fantasy of dreams.”