Program Notes for July 9th, 2011

Program Notes By Ed Rutschman


Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune — “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” (1892-94)
Claude Debussy (b. St. Germain-en-Laye, 1862; d. Paris, 1918)

Debussy signed himself “Claude Debussy, musicien français.” For him, the term “French musician” really meant “looking for ways to escape the hyper-Romantic influence of Richard Wagner.” Debussy came by this dilemma honestly. Entering the Paris Conservatory at the age of eleven, he soon felt straightjacketed by the repertoire he was expected to study and by the pedagogical methods of the institution. When he won the Prix de Rome in 1884, he chafed under the strict conditions attached to the prize. In 1888 and 1889 he made pilgrimages to Bayreuth, Wagner’s own custom-built musical shrine, but he soon came to believe that he would need to turn away from Wagner in order to find his own musical voice. In so doing, he eventually became a true artistic revolutionary. An early milestone in this journey was the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

In the 1890s Debussy became friendly with Stéphane Mallarmé, whose symbolist poetry often contained allusions rather than direct descriptions. Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is the composer’s response to a poem of Mallarmé, in which the poet evoked the yearnings of a mythical creature, half man and half goat, who spends his afternoon unsuccessfully chasing—or perhaps only dreaming of chasing—the nymphs of the forest. Mallarmé painted his impression by using the sounds and symbolic associations of his chosen words in a way that goes beyond their literal meanings. While Mallarmé titled his poem L’après-midi d’un faune, Debussy attached a further layer of ambiguity to the faun’s afternoon by using the words “Prelude to…” in his own title, hinting that the music did not really aim to depict the faun’s afternoon, but rather to suggest, deliciously, the possibility of such an afternoon.

Some early listeners were not charmed by the image. “The faun must have had a terrible afternoon,” said a critic in Boston, “for the poor beast brayed on muted horns and whinnied on flutes.” In London a reviewer said, “the subject certainly affords opportunity for the exercise of the composer’s imagination, but he seems to have come to the conclusion that the fortunate faun was not thinking of anything at all.” In New York it was noted, “there was a large and unimproved opportunity for some beautiful pastoral melodies.” What was really taking place was a revolution in the syntax of musical language. When the implications began to be understood by other composers, several successive generations acknowledged their indebtedness. At the end of Mallarmé’s poem the faun addresses his nymphs with lines that could serve as a symbolic prelude to Debussy’s musical revolution:

No more, I must sleep, forgetting the outrage,
On the thirsty sand lying, and as I delight
Open my mouth to wine’s potent star!
Adieu, both! I shall see the shade you became.
More succinctly put (also by the faun): Was it a dream I loved?

Concerto in D Minor for Violin and Orchestra, op. 47 (1904; rev. 1905)
Jean Sibelius (b. Hämeenlinna, Finland, 1865; d. Järvenpää, 1957)

Sibelius’ Violin Concerto is widely recognized as one the handful of truly great violin concertos. Indeed, much of Sibelius’ reputation rests on this concerto and a few other frequently performed works. Sibelius grappled frequently with the question of how (or whether) nationalism mixes with the main stream of international composition. Since Sibelius’ native Finland was part of the Russian Empire during much of his active composing career, the political background is of interest in this respect. As a Finnish independence movement became progressively stronger, and Russian control tightened, Sibelius composed much of his early work against this tense background. He was driven by nationalistic themes, for which he found a rich source in the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic.

In his Violin Concerto and his symphonies, however, Sibelius forged a style of instrumental writing that is less overtly dependent on nationalistic stories and more concerned with organic growth. One idea transforms into the next, and the progress of the composition is entirely logical—though not always foreseeable. With his nationalistic works, Sibelius established himself as the pre-eminent Finnish composer; with his concerto and symphonies he became a major international orchestral composer.

Sibelius saw the dream of an independent Finland realized after World War I. By this time, however, the musical landscape had changed, leaving the composer, who was unsympathetic to most forms of musical modernism, feeling isolated. After 1931 he never left Finland. According to his own account, he completed his swan song, the Symphony #8, by the early 1930’s, but it was never performed. In a fit of depression, Sibelius burned the score in his stove, and no copy has been discovered. Although Sibelius lived until 1957, he composed no further major works.

At one time Sibelius had considered pursuing a career as a violinist, and it is no coincidence that his only concerto is for this instrument—even though the solo part, especially in its first, extremely virtuosic version, was beyond his capability as a violinist. Sibelius conducted the first performance of his Violin Concerto in 1904, but it was not well received. After the composer produced a revised version in 1905, Richard Strauss conducted it in Berlin, and the international musical world began to award the work its place in the pantheon of concerti. In the first of the concerto’s three movements, the violin takes over immediately, without any extended orchestral introduction. As the movement unfolds, the music is quixotic in its moods, flashing from introspective to manic, from carefully crafted melodies to virtuosic passagework. For many listeners the concerto’s crown jewel is the slow movement, spinning out its melody of ever-increasing intensity, with the solo violin providing frequent commentary and embellishment. The final movement immediately commands the listener’s attention, and it marches inexorably to a stunning conclusion, justifying Sibelius’ own epithet: He once called it his “Danse Macabre.”

Symphony #1 in C Major, op. 21 (1800)
Ludwig van Beethoven (b. Bonn, 1770; d. Vienna, 1827)

On April 2, 1800, Beethoven presented a musical calling card to Vienna in the form of a public concert designed to benefit him both professionally and financially. It was his first such opportunity, and he took advantage of the occasion to provide a very long program. He presented two new works, the Symphony #1 and the Septet. He played a piano concerto (either the first or the second, since his envisioned new concerto, eventually published as his third, was not yet ready), included excerpts from the recent oratorio, The Creation, by his teacher, Haydn, and conducted as well a symphony by his idol, Mozart. The concert served the composer well: It catapulted the Septet to long-sustained popularity, and the audience was also quite enthusiastic about Beethoven’s extended piano improvisation. The symphony stood out as something more adventuresome than the Septet; though it met with a positive reception, it could not compete with the chamber work. Commentators noted that Beethoven was following in the footsteps of Haydn and Mozart, but also found his use of wind instruments and his sense of form to be idiosyncratic. Indeed, #1 shows early signs of the revolution in orchestral writing that Beethoven was to bring about through his nine symphonic output.

The beginning of the symphony immediately poses a paradox, when the first two chords sound as if they should conclude the piece rather than begin it. During the entire slow introduction, the music hovers over the symphony’s advertised key of C major, but it firmly lands there only at the beginning of the fast section. Haydn might well have lauded this passage, since it uses the Haydnesque trick of using an impressive, slow introduction to introduce a lighter, fast main theme that might not be a convincing beginning by itself. As the movement continues, the music is nimble and poignant by turns.

In the 18th-century composers’ system of coded communication with their audience, the key of F Major often suggests a pastoral mood, as it does in the second movement of the Symphony #1 and again in the overall scheme of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony (Symphony #6). The third movement of Symphony #1, although labeled Minuetto, is really Beethoven’s first orchestral essay in a genre that would become his trademark, the Scherzo. Here the composer keeps the form but transforms the spirit of the traditional dance movement of a symphony. While the minuet could be stately or rustic, this Scherzo would make the dancers breathless. The final movement begins with another clever ploy. The orchestra assembles the main theme by starting with three notes and adding one note at a time. Before long the Finale bubbles exuberantly, eventually concluding in a splash of orchestral brilliance. Beethoven dedicated his symphony to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, a diplomat and patron who supported Haydn and Mozart as well as Beethoven.

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.