melbourne symphony orchestra | french classics

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.” 

That recording was Daniel Barenboim and Orchestre de Paris. It’s a familiar opening, a dreamy opening that uses the orchestra in a beautifully clever way; there is an ebb and flow, a push and pull, perhaps to mirror sleeping and awake that means we listeners aren’t afforded a grasp on where Debussy is taking us. There are themes of course, and repeated harmonic ideas, but the swells are unpredictable and unrestrained. It is a meditation of the faun; we are utterly at his whim. It’s no surprise then that despite the short nature of the work, it’s only nine minutes and feels as if it’s over much before that time is up, that the symphonic poem is often referred to as a miracle of musical history.

But, for now, dreaming is over and a new verse is to be read. We stay in France, but move away from Paris to Brittany, the country’s northwesternmost region. It has a rugged coastline that extends out towards the Atlantic Ocean and one of its coastal villages is where the composer Sergei Prokofiev found himself for a great stretch during the Spring and Summer of 1921. Prokofiev had begun thinking about his third piano concerto a number of years previously, jotting down small scraps of musical ideas but not completing any until he arrived in France. Ever a resourceful writer, Prokofiev never threw any ideas aside – he always held onto them in case of a later project, which this particular concerto turned out to be. I must say, if this is the cobbling together of the composers scraps, then we are dealing with a most impressive artist! When he got to Brittany he spent time with other Russians who found themselves also Summer-ing along the coast at that time, one of whom was the symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont, whom Prokofiev had known in Russia. Balmont was one of the first people to hear the almost finished piano concerto and on hearing the work, he wrote a few lines to Prokofiev inspired by the music he heard. “Prokofiev!” he wrote, “Music and youth in bloom in you, the orchestra yearns for forgotten summer sounds.” These sweet words came several years after the pairs first collaboration and earned Balmont the work’s dedication. 

The music itself is virtuosic but not simply for the sake of showing off. It’s full of expression, which holds court, regardless of the soloistic fireworks. In three movements, which is usual for a concerto but also relatively unusual for a Prokofiev concerto, this piano work is famously difficult and requires dexterity and stamina of its soloist. Interestingly, I think, for a piece that has become an absolute staple of the concerti diet, if you will, this concerto wasn’t super well received when it was premiered by the composer in the United States. He played it twice in its year of composition – once in Chicago and then again in New York, and neither time did the audience get into it. Prokofiev famously said that the American public “did not quite understand the work”. Luckily, we the Australian public, absolutely do.

Now, rather than play you the concerto itself, I’d like to play you the first of Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives – a series of short piano pieces written a little earlier than the full concerto, but around the exact time the composer began sketching tonight’s work. Prokofiev played these works for Balmont and the poet composed a sonnet on the spot called “a magnificent improvisation”. The name of the collected works, Visions Fugitives, came from this line in Balmont’s sonnet – “In every fleeting vision I see worlds, Filled with the fickle play of rainbows”. This is Maria Raspopova playing Lentamente from Prokofiev’s Visions.

The theme of tonight must be poetry, because we now move back to glorious Debussy, but this time with the poetry of Paul Verlaine, who led an incredibly interesting life. His behaviour was scandalous and caused all sorts of problems with the public and with the literary set. He was a nightmare child, prone to fits of rage that pointed to his behaviour and his poetry as an adult. Verlaine was interested only in poetry and dreams, and like Debussy, as a young person struggled against expectations and institutionalised creativity, following his own path and interests doggedly. Inspired significantly by Charles Baudelaire, his early work was a way of finding peace from a world he wasn’t comfortable in, favouring his dream worlds and ideals of love, symbolism and decadence over real life. He met Debussy through his mother in law, who became the composer’s teacher when he was starting out at the Paris Conservatoire as a tiny eight-year-old. He grew up, more or less then, with Verlaine’s influence, and when he travelled to Rome following his major prize win that I touched on earlier, he packed in his bag the poet’s collection Songs Without Words, which, coincidentally included the poem Ariettes oubliées. Interesting to note the title of the collection, Songs Without Words, and Verlaine’s evident interest in rhythm, tone and timbre. Of course, you can’t have a poem without words, but the feeling of the poem, the maturity of its structure and its broader significance aside from each placement show a heightened understanding of the voice and its emotion.

They lent themselves, these poems, to composition, to orchestration and to the voice. Each piece is a masterclass in capturing and distilling feeling, in its original form, for voice and piano, and tonight, for voice and orchestra. The six songs are tiny stories that work entirely appropriately on their own but together, show a complicated protagonist trying to understand parts of the world and the human condition. We start in ecstasy, the first poem describing the beauty of love and the joy of nature – trees rustle, the breeze moves gently and the grass waves but this contentment does not last – immediately any feeling of happiness turns to sorrow for two songs – there is weeping in our protagonist’s heart that is mirrored by the rain outside. The rain may stop in the third, but the hurting doesn’t – the shadows of trees move like smoke in the river and the doves cry sadly, taking up our poet’s mourning. Finally, we feel we are allowed a moment of relief in the fourth song, with a merry-go-round overrun with children at the centre, but of course with great excitement at games that throw you around, you inevitably have to pack up and go home, a little headachy and overwhelmed. The final two songs are reflections of colours, of feelings. In the fifth, our poet offers presents to their love, anything they can think: fruit, flowers, leaves, trinkets, and their heart, which they beg not to be destroyed. Finally, our poet is tired of all the colours and the presents and the natural things they once loved. All they want is the love from that one special, but elusive person.

I would like to play you just a little of one song, the second, which I find particularly heart-breaking. Il pleure dans mon coeur, it goes, the tears are falling in my heart the way the rain falls on the city; what is this languorous dart that pierces through my heart? The arrangements of these songs that you will hear tonight are by the incomparable Brett Dean, who takes Debussy’s sparkling piano part and turns it into an absolute feast for the entire orchestra. You will be blown away by the stunning settings, but for now, here it is as it was written. Il pleure dans mon Coeur for piano and soprano:  

We’re lucky now that after all that heartbreak we come to a story that, while there are moments of terror and of almost despair, gives us a well-deserved happy ending. Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé came to the stage as a commission Sergei Diaghilev’s then new company, the Ballets Russes. The company choreographer had adapted the story from a romance by the Greek writer Longus – the two title characters are beautiful and innocent and very much in love, and they scramble through a series of conundrums, including kidnapping, before the god Pan steps in and assists them to find one another again. The entire ballet took Ravel a number of years to complete; he was a particularly painstaking composer and constructed the piece as a “choreographic symphony” that covers an enormous amount of musical material and uses a large orchestral palette in a similar way to Debussy’s Afternoon.

The composer used the works of eighteenth century French artists to inspire his mental picture of Greece and creates sounds throughout the orchestra to depict how he imagined the soundscape. Woodwinds become the birds, the flute portrays the nymph Syrinx and strings removing their mutes allows us to picture the sun rising getting warmer and higher in the sky. The ballet itself caused Ravel frustration; working with competing artistic collaborators forced him to set out on his own and he created two suites for orchestral performance, the second one we will hear tonight. It looks at the last scene of the ballet, when our two lovers are reunited, and it is, as Stravinsky said, some of the more beautiful music, French or otherwise, of all time. Here is a moment of Lever du jour, or Daybreak:

If you’re not familiar with the ballet let me tell you where we pick things up in the story in the second suite. Daphnis is sleeping, and so is not aware that his love, Chloé has been found. The day breaks, as we heard, and seeing Chloé, shepherds wake Daphnis and the lovers are reunited as the sun rises. Everything in the orchestra rises and becomes warm. The two dance together honouring Pan, the god of the wild, shepherds and flocks who assisted their reunion, until the Pan himself appears and plays his flute for Chloé to dance to. Finally, all nymphs and shepherds join together to dance in joy; the perfect way to end our French feast this evening. Now, in the score you might hear things that sound a little like Stravinsky, perhaps some Rimsky-Korsakov and even Debussy in that gorgeous wordless chorus that ends the work, but the heart of this piece is so very Ravel. The end is an absolute celebration of love and life and nature and you will hear all of this in the orchestration that is still an incredibly important piece of work that continues to inspire orchestral composers today.

So, we’ve come a long way from the dreamscape that we began with. We’ve battled heartbreak and sorrow, we’ve read poetry and understood virtuosity. I have nothing left to leave you with, except for just one more verse by the poet we met earlier, Paul Verlaine. This one was not set by Debussy, but says everything we need it to say about music:

Let music be, more of it and always!
Let your verse be the thing in motion
Which one feels who flees from an altering soul,
Towards other skies to other loves.

Let your verse be the happy occurrence,
Somehow within the restless morning wind, 
Which goes about smelling of mint and thyme...
And all the rest is literature.