Program Notes for July 14th, 2010

21Program Notes By Ed Rutschman

 

Georges Bizet

Georges Bizet

Petite Suite from “Jeux d’enfants,” op. 22 (1871)
Georges Bizet (b. Paris, 1838; d. Bougival, 1875)

Bizet is best known today for his blockbuster opera, Carmen, but the composer knew of that work only as a disastrous failure, and he died within a month of the premiere. He had better fortune with his Jeux d’enfants (“Children’s Games”), a set of twelve descriptive miniatures for piano duet, five of which he orchestrated and published as the orchestral Petite suite. Juggling the order of the original in order to get a satisfactory flow and contrast of moods and textures, he chose numbers 6, 3, 2, 11 and 12—thus beginning in the middle of the original Jeux d’enfants sequence, then going back nearly to the beginning, and closing with the same two pieces as in the piano series. The opening piece of the piano sequence never does appear in the orchestral version.

The composer gave each movement a new title in the Petite suite. The original titles from Jeux become subtitles in the Suite, providing an extra descriptive element for each of the five miniature scenes: I. Marche (Trompette et tambour–Trumpet and Drum); II. Berceuse–Lullaby (La poupée–The Doll); III. Impromptu (La toupie–The Top); IV. Duo (Petit mari, petite femme–Little Husband, Little Wife); and V. Galop (Le bal–The Ball).

Bizet shows the same mastery of orchestration that he later employed in Carmen. In the opening Marche, four horns and two trumpets are initially pitched in six different keys, allowing the composer to write horn chords and trumpet fanfares in an inventive fashion. The Duo, for strings alone, presents the cello section and the first violins as the “little husband” and “little wife.” Are they having a tender discussion, or does the rhythm of the accompaniment betray a hint of quiet disagreement? All seems well in the Galop, as trumpet, drum, doll, top, little husband and little wife surely dance the suite to its conclusion.


Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten

Les illuminations, op. 18 (1939)
Benjamin Britten (Lowestoft, 1913; d. Aldeburgh, 1976)

Shortly after Benjamin Britten’s death, the New Grove Dictionary of Music proclaimed him “the outstanding figure of the British generation that came to prominence just before World War II” and “the most gifted music dramatist England has produced since Purcell.” It might seem surprising, then, that he composed two of his most successful early vocal works to texts in Italian (Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, 1940) and French (Les illuminations, 1939) while he was in the U.S., considering emigration. It has been argued that this combination of circumstances eventually allowed Britten to return to England and to English with a fresh perspective, as he began a series of seventeen important stage works in his native language.

For Les illuminations, Britten selected French prose-poem texts from Arthur Rimbaud’s 1886 collection and distributed them in nine movements: “Fanfare,” “Villes,” “Phrase/Antique,” “Royauté,” “Marine,” “Interlude,” “Being Beauteous,” “Parade” and “Départ.” Britten’s opening movement introduces a vigorously declaimed refrain line that reappears delicately in “Interlude” and boisterously in “Départ”: “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage”/ “I alone have the key to this savage parade.”

This journey of illumination calls at towns where “Suburban bacchantes sob,” visits a couple who are “royal one whole morning…and all afternoon,” envisions a seascape, sees “a Being Beauteous, tall of stature” and a closes with an epiphany: “Seen enough…had enough…known enough.” Britten’s scoring for string orchestra ranges from boldness to delicacy, as does the solo voice part. A particularly memorable moment occurs in “Phrase,” where the soprano soloist sings an extremely soft high note followed by a downward octave slide on the text “et je danse/ and I dance.”

A short note in the score sheds some light on Britten’s view of the relationship between composer and performer. Often, the amount of time that elapses between movements of a composition depends on the immediate needs of individual performers (emptying, swabbing or retuning). Here, the composer retained control to an unusual degree by indicating that “the pauses between movements should be as short as possible.”

Britten composed Les illuminations for Sophie Wyss, the soprano who gave the first performance; he dedicated the song “Being Beauteous” to the tenor Peter Pears, his life partner, who made an early recording of the work with the composer conducting. When Britten published the song cycle, he allowed both voice ranges.


Flower Clock for Oboe and Orchestra (1959)
Jean Françaix (b. Le Mans, 1912; d. Paris, 1997)

Françaix was aware that the word game of replacing the “x” in his family name with an “s” carried both potential humor and great responsibility. In his compositions he exploited the humor and took the responsibility seriously. A child of musical parents (his father was the director of the Le Mans Conservatory and his mother a singer), he began composing at the age of six and continued until his death. He became a student of Nadia Boulanger and soon earned Ravel’s blessing. At the Paris Conservatory, he took a premier prix in piano. The Larousse Encyclopedia of Music declared that he “seems predestined by his very name to carry French music beyond the frontiers of his native country…exactly with what foreigners expect of French music–elegance, brilliance and a variety of styles.”

Flower Clock (L’horloge de flore) takes its conceptual title from an idea of the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-78), who is best known today for the modern taxonomic system of phyla. Linnaeus also proposed a clock-style classification of flowers based on the time of day when each blooms. The English poet Andrew Marvell had anticipated such an idea in his poem “The Garden” (1678): “How well the skilful gardener drew/ Of flow’rs and herbs this dial new/…And, as it works, th’ industrious bee/ Computes its time as well as we./ How could such sweet and wholesome hours/ Be reckoned but with herbs and flow’rs!” Françaix collected seven of these blooms and composed a descriptive piece, with each section bearing a time of day and the name of a flower. Thus the poison berry appears at 3 a.m., the Malabar jasmine at noon and the night-flowering catchfly at 9 p.m. Françaix composed the Flower Clock for John de Lancie, principal oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra.


Francis Poulenc

Francis Poulenc

Gloria (1960)
Francis Poulenc (b. Paris, 1899; d. Paris, 1963)

When the Koussevitzky Foundation offered Poulenc an important commission to compose a major work for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the composer initially turned it down. His personal life was a shambles, and he had virtually lost the will to compose. Finally accepting the offer, Poulenc drew upon his Catholic heritage and set the Gloria portion of the Mass to music. In the Gloria one discovers that Poulenc the Catholic and Poulenc the composer of sophisticated songs are one and the same.

The Gloria text, liturgically recited or sung in all seasons except the penitential times of Advent and Lent (and also omitted from the Requiem Mass), begins with St. Luke’s account of the angels’ appearance to the shepherds at the Nativity, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to men of good will.” Poulenc set this initial section to music that recalls the fanfares of an earlier age, in the rhythms of a Baroque French overture. The movement also contains echoes of Stravinsky, both in its harmonies and in its deliberate re-accentuation of Latin words, perhaps as a reminder that Koussevitzky had also commissioned Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms for the Boston Symphony, three decades earlier. Short statements of praise pervade the “Laudamus te” movement, (“we praise You, we bless You…”). Poulenc and other commentators have suggested various analogies for the movement’s short-breathed musical phrases: a musical picture of monks playing soccer; a Renaissance painting of angels sticking out their tongues; a response to the quality of repartée in the text itself; or, more critically, intimations of the composer’s lack of engagement with his subject.

With the entrance of the soprano soloist in the “Domine Deus” movement (“O Lord God, Heavenly King”), a new mood emerges–serene, slow and understated, but also suggesting powerful reserves. Poulenc set the “Christological” section of the Gloria as a series of contrasts. These encompass the motoric rhythms of “Domine fili unigenite” (“O Lord…the only-begotten Son”); the heart-felt yearning of “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei” (“O Lord God, Lamb of God”); and the majesty of “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris” (“who sittest at the right hand of the Father”). Though the Holy Spirit gets only a single mention in the text, the very end of the Gloria suggests a unified/diversified Trinitarian element by presenting the final word, “Amen,” in various ways — accompanied by an orchestral fanfare reminiscent of the work’s opening; sung by the soprano soloist without accompaniment; and, finally, in a quiet whisper.


Ed Rutschman’s musicological articles have been published in the U.S. and Europe, and his compositions have been performed on four continents. A member of the Music Department faculty at Western Washington University, he is a recipient of the Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award and of WWU’s Excellence in Teaching Award. He holds academic degrees in musicology, composition and piano performance.