Jules MASSENET (1842-1912) Ballet Suite: Le Cid (1885)

Jules MASSENET (1842-1912) Ballet Suite: Le Cid (1885)

  1. Castillane
  2. Andalouse
  3. Aragonaise
  4. Aubade
  5. Catalane
  6. Madrilene
  7. Navarraise

Jules Massenet was a prodigy who entered the Paris Conservatoire aged just 11, eventually studying opera composition under Ambroise Thomas, the Director of the Conservatoire and composer of the opera Mignon; Massenet would become a teacher himself at the Conservatoire in 1878, and still later take over from Thomas as Director, numbering amongst his pupils Gustave Charpentier, Ernest Chausson and Reynaldo Hahn.

In 1863 Massenet won the Prix de Rome, the most coveted European composition prize — which Berlioz had finally won in 1830 at his fourth attempt – with a jolly little cantata on the bloody and controversial murder in 1566 of Mary Queen of Scots’s private secretary David Rizzio, and went on to write over two dozen operas, several of which remain in the repertoire, including Manon, Werther and the Egypt-set Thais (from which comes the well-known Meditation for violin and orchestra). He was distinctly prolific in many genres, including ballet, cantata, works for orchestra and song. His opera Le Cid (The Lord), was based on the legend of the 11th century Castillian nobleman Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, who heroically rid Castile of the marauding Moors with the support of his wife Chimene (in French Rodrigue and Chimene). It is a story also immortalised in Anthony Mann’s film El Cid (1961), which starred Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren.

Massenet was inspired by a popular play by Corneille, as were both Bizet and Debussy, but Massenet was the only one of the three to complete his opera, which remained very popular throughout Europe for its first thirty-five years but then fell into disuse. Luckily Massenet was able to extract a ballet suite from the opera as a concert item in its own right, comprising seven movements, almost all characteristic Spanish regional dances.

The opening Castillane, from Castile, Rodrigue’s home province, is a mixture of elegance and full-blooded heroic Spanish dance.

The Andalouse, from Andalucia, is lazy and reflective, with cellos providing an atmospheric accompaniment to flute, then violins. The Aragonaise, from Aragon, is one of the most flamboyant dances in the set.

The Aubade, (Morning Piece) has bubbling flutes to the fore again with pizzicato strings.

The Catalane is again boldly Spanish, with triplet and duplet rhythms and the cellos to the fore in a smouldering dance which only bursts into flame at the end.

The Madrilene begins atmospherically, then becomes a rollicking dance which involves ricochet bowing in the strings.

Finally the Navarraise sets off with percussive accompaniment to a rather arrogant main theme before the Aragonaise returns to user in a bacchanalian finish.

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HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Overture: Le Corsaire (1844)

HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Overture: Le Corsaire (1844)

Following the break-up of his marriage in 1843 Berlioz busied himself with drawing together a manual for composers on how to write for the various instruments of the orchestra — intriguing in that, almost uniquely, he had become one of the first virtuoso orchestrators in musical history with no keyboard skills, and with scarcely any practical ability on any orchestral instruments either; he could apparently play the flute after a fashion and also had a little knowledge of the guitar, but he relied largely on flair, and had been known, for example, to write for clarinets notes outside their range. Nevertheless, his Treatise on Instrumentation became, with Rimsky ­Korsakov’s similar work, the seminal 19th century work on the subject.

In August 1844, still smarting from Harriet’s departure (although by now he had a new mistress), he took a recuperative holiday in Nice and, as if to reiterate his credentials, wrote while he was there one of his most virtuosic concert overtures, Le Corsaire, or The Pirate. Originally he called it La Tour de Nice, (The Tower of Nice), but then realised he needed a more flamboyant title and, feeding on his literary knowledge, named it Le Corsaire Rouge (The Red Pirate) after James Fennimore Cooper’s novel The Red Rover, but then, to Europeanise it, reduced it to Le Corsaire after a poem by Byron. The overture was premiered in January 1845 under its Nice title, and, finally as Le Corsaire, has remained a staple of orchestral repertoire together with most of his other concert-openers.

The overture begins with a scintillating flourish, testing the whole orchestra, before his characteristic lyrical introduction introduces a note of romantic wistfulness. The Allegro shortly reintroduces us to the opening flourish, leading to the main theme which has an irresistible swagger and later, following the development section, returns with still further brilliance. The coda brings the work to a flashing conclusion.

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JEAN SIBELIUS (1865-1957)  Tone Poem: Finlandia, Op 26 (1900)

JEAN SIBELIUS (1865-1957) Tone Poem: Finlandia, Op 26 (1900)

2017 saw the 60th anniversary of the death of one of the twentieth century’s great composers, Jean Sibelius; beginning as a major participant in the nationalist movement amongst composers such as Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Grieg and Smetana, Sibelius followed the former two in producing a symphony cycle which transcended its origins and developed into a universal utterance of huge importance in the history of music.

Sibelius was born into the family of a doctor in a small village in the south of Finland and until he went to school spoke Swedish, as it was the language of his social class. Having begun to learn Finnish he developed a huge interest in the legends and folk culture of his country, although Swedish remained his first language for some while. At this time Finland was a Grand-Duchy of Russia, the result of defeat late in the eighteenth century, and in his early years Sibelius, in common with many of his compatriots, came to resent bitterly the oppressive laws imposed by the Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, a new tranche arriving in 1898.

As with Berlioz we have reason to thank Fate for its intervention in the career of Sibelius. His early musical development centred round the violin, and he became proficient enough to audition, though unsuccessfully, for the famous Vienna Philharmonic whilst studying composition in Vienna with Robert Fuchs. Had he achieved that seat in the VPO we might never have had Sibelius’s symphony-cycle, and perhaps not even his violin concerto, safely within the half-dozen greatest violin concertos of all. Many compositions were to spring from his deep literary interest and nationalist concern, including the Karelia Suite, the symphonic poem En Saga and the Lemminkainen Suite, which comprises four Legends based on the Finnish epic poem Kalevala and including the magical Swan of Tuonela.

Strangely, however, Sibelius laid down his pen following the Seventh Symphony and the symphonic poem Tapiola in 1926 and wrote no more until his death in 1957, although he enjoyed overseeing and appraising recordings of his works by conductors such as Robert Kajanus and Sir Thomas Beecham, one of his greatest champions.

Completed in 1900 to express the determination and national integrity of his beloved Finland, Finlandia has become perhaps the epitome of nationalist compositions. Not surprisingly the work met with the displeasure of the Russian authorities, and intriguingly it was performed, it seems, under a series of alternative titles, including the wonderfully inappropriate Happy feelings at the awakening of Finnish Spring!

It begins with a defiant snarl in the brass and timpani, which is answered by reverent woodwind and then richly expressive strings. Shortly a serenely confident theme arrives in the flute and a woodwind choir, which leads into a volcanic Allegro, in which the ‘snarl’ reappears. Shortly the mood calms and a magnificently heartfelt melody ensues; this would soon be taken up as Finland’s national hymn. Finally the Allegro ends in a triumph of optimism.

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EMIL von REZNICEK (1860-1945) Overture: Donna Diana (1894)

EMIL von REZNICEK (1860-1945) Overture: Donna Diana (1894)

Reznicek was born in Austria of Czech parentage and began conducting and composing during his Music Degree in Graz before moving to Berlin and then Prague, where he was Musical Director for the Prague Infantry. Here his operawas premiered in 1894, and it became his greatest success. Eventually settling in Berlin he toured all over Europe, including several visits to Russia and to Britain.

Unlike many musicians who were ensnared against their better judgment or left Germany to go into exile, he managed to remain aloof from the rise of the Nazis, remaining a working composer and conductor through the war until his death in August 1945 right at the end of the War.

He moved in exalted circles, counting himself a friend and colleague of Richard Strauss in the 1910s, although he did make fun musically of what he saw as Strauss’s overblown ego; apparently his symphonic poem Schlemihl (1912) can be seen as a direct parody of Strauss’s autobiographical Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).

Donna Diana overture. The opera as a whole is an adaptation of a comic play by the 17th century Spanish dramatist Agustin Moreto y Cavana, El Desden con el Desden, (Distain with Disdain), and the plot centres round Donna Diana, proud and haughty daughter of the Count Sovereign of Barcelona. She has several sincere suitors, including Don Cesar, but she rejects him with disdain time and time again; eventually he plays her at her own game and stands on his own dignity, whereupon she realises her mistake and succumbs.

The opera has fallen out of use, but the gloriously effervescent overture remains popular. It begins with a witty false start both rhythmically and in terms of key, but the first violins take charge and set off the bubbly first theme, which is quickly taken up by the full orchestra. Shortly the bubbly theme in the wind becomes a counterpoint to the serenely lyrical second theme in the upper strings. Both themes are also involved in the development, which features the woodwind while the violas draw the short straw and chatter away underneath. Soon the main themes return and the piece works itself towards a humorous conclusion.

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HAMISH MacCUNN (1868-1916) The Land of the Mountain and the Flood (1886)

HAMISH MacCUNN (1868-1916) The Land of the Mountain and the Flood (1886)

Hamish MacCunn was one of Scotland’s most distinguished musicians. As one of the first students to gain a scholarship to the Royal College of Music he studied in London with the twin pillars of the British musical establishment, Parry and Stanford, and later taught at the Royal Academy and the Guildhall School of Music.

Like a number of other similar RCM students, such as Vaughan Williams, his instinct moved him away from the somewhat Brahms-influenced teaching he had received and he developed his own voice, becoming a respected composer of operas which drew on his Scottish literary heritage, his masterpiece being Jeanie Deans, based on the central character of Sir Walter Scott’s Heart of Midlothian.

He also became a distinguished conductor, working for many years with the famous Carl Rosa Opera Company, whose mission was to present opera in English, and thus it came about that he was entrusted with conducting the first English-language performances of Wagner’s Tristan and lsolde. Sadly MacCunn died at the early age of 48 having ruined his health through overwork.

The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, written in 1887 while he was still a teenager, is a concert overture which expresses the spirit of Scotland as Finlandia had done for Finland, but without the same defiant agenda. The title also comes from Scott — The Lay (Song) of the Last Minstrel.

0 Caledonia! Stern and wild,

Meet nurse for a poetic child!

Land of the heath and the shaggy wood,

Land of the mountain and the flood…..

It begins with a typically Scottish melody incorporating ‘Scotch snaps’ and rapidly develops into a more symphonic style. Its chief lyric melody may well be familiar to those who recall the 1970s Scottish TV series Sutherland’s Law, starring Ian Cuthbertson. The development begins with galloping strings over which the brass provide a more rollicking version of the opening theme. The work ends in a blaze of Scottishness!

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HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Overture: Roman Carnival (1844)

HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Overture: Roman Carnival (1844)

Berlioz’s father, a doctor, who had a clear idea of the path he expected his son to take, discouraged him vehemently from learning the piano, a decision which Berlioz later described as both an advantage and a curse. In 1821 his father pressed home his agenda and packed him off to Medical School in Paris, but he spent most of his time either watching opera or in the library of the Paris Conservatoire copying out parts from Gluck operas. He abandoned his medical studies in 1824 and within a couple of years had gained entry to the Paris Conservatoire.
Always deeply inspired by classic poets and dramatists including Shakespeare and Byron, in 1829 he attended a performance in Paris of Hamlet and immediately fell head-over-heels for English actress Harriet Smithson as Ophelia. Her initial failure to reciprocate led him to produce one of his great masterpieces, the feverishly romantic and trailblazing Symphonie Fantastique in 1830. In 1833 Smithson succumbed and they were married, but the marriage was always doomed and in 1843 they separated, although Berlioz continued to provide for her until her death in 1854.
His unique imagination led him into a huge range of acclaimed works, such as Harold en Italie for viola and orchestra, (based on Byron and written for the violin virtuoso Nicolo Paganini), operas including Romeo et Juliette, Beatrice et Benedict (based on Much Ado About Nothing), La Damnation de Faust and the immense, Wagnerian-scale, Les Troyens (The Trojans), together with the flamboyant Grande Messe des Morts and the exquisite L’Enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ).
We can be grateful, however that he didn’t possess the ‘Midas touch’ all the time; his opera Benvenuto Cellini, inspired by the sixteenth century sculptor and adventurer, proved to be so difficult to perform and uninspiring for audiences that it has failed to find regular performance to this day. Indeed, he wrote engagingly of his failure in his memoirs in 1834: ‘1 had been greatly struck by certain episodes in the life of Benvenuto Cellini and had the misfortune to believe they would make an interesting and dramatic subject for an opera.’ Nevertheless his overture Benvenuto Cellini passed into concert use, and in 1844, in order to make sure at least a little more of his opera would remain in regular hearing, he crystallised some of its material into the concert overture Roman Carnival. It is written for large orchestra and uses several themes from the opera, the main Allegro representing its carnival scene. The slow introduction includes one of the most famous of all solos for the cor anglais, which is taken up by the violas and then all strings in canon before the carnival arrives. There are few more flamboyant works in the whole of orchestral music!

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DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-75)  Festive Overture, Op 96 (1954)

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-75) Festive Overture, Op 96 (1954)

Shostakovich was one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, but the legacy he left was hard-won in the face of hard-faced political sanction which not only nearly ended his composing career but also became a threat to his life.

His early works showed a new and original talent and, as a virtuoso pianist and able conductor too, he developed a three-pronged career. Composing was always his first love, however, and by the time of his death aged 68 in 1975 he had made hugely sign1ficant contributions to a number of genres including orchestral music (fifteen symphonies and six concertos), chamber music (fifteen string quartets), piano music (in particular the 24 Preludes and Fugues), the theatre (operas and ballets) and even film music.

In 1936 his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was produced in Moscow and attended by Stal.in, who apparently reacted with horror to its uncompromising idiom, and a campaign was set up by Pravda to vilify his work, describing dissonances and lack of recognisable structure, and many of Shostakovich’s friends and colleagues were pressurised into denouncing him. Shostakovich was ordered to ‘reject formalist errors and in his art attain something that could be understood by the broad masses’. his income from new commissions was cut drastically and he actually feared for his life as he was made to withdraw his Fourth Symphony.

His reply was the Fifth Symphony, which he subtitled A Soviet Artist ‘s reply to just cnt1c1sm; it met with the approval of Ministry of Culture, and, by extension Stalin but it is fair to say that the work is full of sardonic humour, including a delicious nose-thumbing violin solo in the Allegretto second movement and the authorities w re just too blinkered to notice.

Certainly his cycle of fifteen symphonies ranks as one of the finest of the twentieth century; apart from the Fifth, No 7 harrowingly describes the appalling conditions suffered by the people of Leningrad during the Siege of 1941, and the Tenth is a trenchant assertion of his spirit written in the months after Stalin’s death in March 1953 and includes a vitriolic portrait of the dictator in the second movement.

The Festive Overture was written in 1954 for the 37th anniversary of the Revolution and premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre under Vassili Nebolsin. It was written rapidly at Nebolsin’s request for a work to begin his celebratory concert – the conductor thoughtfully gave Shostakovich a whole three days’ notice! It begins with a fanfare before launching into an energetic Allegro which the composer said was based on Glinka’s scintillating overture Ruslan and Ludmilla. The overture is free from any acerbic comment, demonstrating instead Shostakovich’s infectious high-spirits.

In case you’re wondering why the fanfare sounds familiar, it was used several decades ago as the theme music for the BBC’s occasional five -minute filler slot ‘Great Moments in Sport’.

Notes by HDJ 12th May 2018

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PETER ILICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)  Fantasy Overture: Romeo and Juliet (1880)

PETER ILICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Fantasy Overture: Romeo and Juliet (1880)

It is fair to say that no Shakespeare play has inspired a greater number of composers than Romeo and Juliet; indeed it is also arguable that, of all musical adaptations from the Bard, few surpass in quality those based on the timeless story of the two ‘star­cross’d’ young lovers, whose youthful passion is destroyed by their families’ hatred of each other.

At least twenty four operas, including those by Gounod, Bellini and Delius (A Village Romeo and Juliet, from which comes the wonderful Walk to the Paradise Garden), have been based on the story, with varying degrees of faithfulness to the play, together with numerous orchestral representations, including Berlioz’s Symphonie Dramatique; one of the very finest of all adaptations is Prokofiev’s superb ballet, whilst of many attempts to distil the play’s modern resonances surely the greatest is Bernstein’s West Side Story, with libretto by Stephen Sondheim, arguably the finest of all stage musicals.

Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture joined the list of masterpieces inspired by the play with the premiere of the original version in early 1870; the idea had been suggested to him in 1869 by the composer Balakirev, who knew of Tchaikovsky’s passionate response to a huge range of literary works, the plays of Shakespeare in particular; Tchaikovsky was also to write symphonic poems based on Hamlet and The Tempest. In addition he had a lifelong predilection for stories of Love blighted by Fate – Francesca do Rimini and the Manfred Symphony follow a similar theme – mirroring his own life, which followed a disastrous progress through initial conventional relationships towards his abortive attempt at marriage despite his own undeniable homosexuality. His own inescapable conclusion was that Fate is an even more potent force than Love, which gave him a special affinity with the story of Romeo and Juliet. The premiere of the original version was, however, unsatisfactory, and Tchaikovsky immediately set about a major revision of the work, postponing its publication for a while. His mentor Balakirev remained sceptical about the work following the revision, and Tchaikovsky too was still dissatisfied, so in 1880 the maturer composer, now at ease in the sponsorship of his benefactor Nadezhda van Meck, came back to the work and made a second, smaller revision which at last satisfied him and met with Balakirev’s approval. The final version distils the essence of the play completely; it is only partially chronological in terms of the events of the play but crystallises the main elements into a magnificently taut structure. The work is dedicated to Balakirev, but the premiere of the accepted version did not take place until 1886. Since then it has achieved a vast popularity and has become virtually the epitome of romanticism in music.

Reverent clarinets and bassoons begin the work with a portrait of Friar Laurence; his role in the play is pivotal – he secretly marries the young lovers, believing in the maturity of their love, and then vainly attempts to make good after Romeo has killed

Juliet’s cousin Tybalt in revenge for the death of Mercutio.

The strings enter ominously, their harmonic tensions the first stirrings of the tragic conflict, which soon breaks into open battle between the Montagues and Capulets. The initial skirmish subsides into the first flowering of the love-at-first-sight between Romeo and Juliet which crosses the divide between the families, the famous theme introduced by cor anglais and violas. This in turn leads to a rocking, lullaby-like motif in muted strings which suggests the extreme youth of Juliet – in the play she is a mere fourteen years old. The love theme returns, but the conflict bubbles again with still greater venom; at its height the trumpets sear through the conflict with Friar Laurence’s theme, now in anguish that the marriage of the lovers is being destroyed by the feud. A final burst of passion – perhaps as they celebrate their wedding night against the backdrop of Romeo’s inevitable exile – is rudely shattered by the bitter culmination of the feud.

After an eloquent pause the epilogue begins with the timpani quietly articulating a funeral march, above which the cellos’ and first violins’ sadly contorted fragments of the love theme express the torment of the families as they realise the devastating consequences of their actions. Friar Laurence, having finally proved powerless to prevent the tragedy, offers a benediction, before upper strings sing a melancholy version of Romeo and Juliet’s theme, ascending harp chords counteracting the bassoons’ dark descent. Crashing, unpredictable chords bring to a cataclysmic end one of the greatest of all compositions inspired by the universal genius of Shakespeare.

Notes by HDJ 12th May 2018

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OTTO NICOLAI (1810-1849)  Overture: The Merry Wives of Windsor (1849)

OTTO NICOLAI (1810-1849) Overture: The Merry Wives of Windsor (1849)

Otto Nicolai was an almost exact contemporary of Frederic Chopin, and their dates ar almost identical. Both died far too young, destroying immense potential for future development, Nicolai from a stroke only two months after the first performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor (Die Lustigen Weiber van Windsor) at the age of only thirty eight .

Nicolai had been a child prodigy, who, having run away from home aged sixteen when his divorced parents’ estrangement began to affect him deeply, found greater support with his adopted family, who sent him to Berlin for his musical training with Mendelssohn’s teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter. By twenty-one he had had the first of his two symphonies performed, and begun working in the Prussian embassy in Rome. He began to have opera librettos offered him and vied with Verdi in popularity; indeed, he turned down the libretto which became Verdi’s first major success, Nabucco. He wrote a number of operas in Italian, including Rosmonda d’Jnghiltera (‘Rosamond of England’) and JI Proscritti (The Banished or The Exiled), which Verdi turned down. Many of his operas were melodramas or tragedies, and The Merry Wives, his only opera in German, was also his first and last comedy, based, of course, on Shakespeare ‘s play of the same name.

By 1841 he had become Court Composer in Vienna and a major figure on the Viennese musical scene. In 1842 Nicolai and some musical friends who met regularly at the local hostelry discussed the prospect of beginning a professional symphony orchestra in Vienna and the result was the Vienna Philharmonic, today known as Die Wiener Philharmoniker, which was to be, and remains, based in the Golden Salle of the Musikverein in Vienna. Reluctantly Nicolai accepted the post of conductor, and so today is known as the founder of one of the great orchestras of the world. Its annual New Year’s Day Concert, offering unequalled performances of music by the Strauss Family, is broadcast from the Musikverein live round the world . Incidentally, it has one of the most rigorous of all orchestral recruitment procedures; each new member serves an apprenticeship of three years in the orchestra, and only when that has been passed can an application for a permanent place be submitted! The 150th Anniversary of the orchestra in 1992 saw a wonderful performance on New Year’s Day of the Merry Wives overture conducted by the great Carlos Kleiber, and in 2017 the 175th included magical choruses from the opera. Apart from Nicolai’s masterpiece, however, many of his works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, piano and voice have disappeared virtually without trace.

The libretto follows Shakespeare’s comedy in chronicling Sir John Falstaff’s shameless mistreatment of the ladies in his life, and their subsequent revenge.

The overture begins with an atmospheric introduction, which leads into a scherzo-like Allegro not dissimilar to the magic conjured by Mendelssohn in his overture A Midsummer Night’s Dream, including, as that work does also, a theme which for a short while brings everything down to earth, although the donkey-braying is not quite so overt!

Notes by HDJ 12th May 2018

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MAURICE RAVEL (1875-1937) Suite: Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17, orch. 1919)

MAURICE RAVEL (1875-1937) Suite: Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17, orch. 1919)

Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1, Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp minor, Ravel’s Bolero – three examples of works whose popularity became a source of some regret to their composers, who became tired of being asked to repeat the work over and over again . Indeed Ravel, whose Bolero itself repeats its material many times in perhaps the longest crescendo in music, said of it: ‘I’ve written only one masterpiece – Bolero. Unfortunately there’s no music in it.’

Whilst Bolero is indeed something of a ‘Marmite piece’, Ravel’s modesty in terms of masterpieces is unequivocally misplaced – few, if any, twentieth century composers created more magic than Ravel, who, with Debussy, led the cause of musical Impressionism in the same way that artists such as Monet and Renoir inspired Impressionism with the paintbrush.

Ravel was born in the Basque region of southern France, which accounts for his affinity with Spain and the Spanish flavour of a number of his works. He began learning the piano aged seven and showed a natural but not outstanding ability, giving his first recital aged fourteen alongside another young pianist destined for a glittering career, Alfred Cortot. Ravel’s competent piano-playing enabled him to begin composing for the instrument at the Paris Conservatoire but although he won a prize or two he was merely an average student, and was even expelled in 1895. During this time, however, he was collecting influences, amongst which was the music of Wagner, and he was also much taken with the virtuoso orchestrating skills of Rimsky­ Korsakov. In 1897 he was readmitted to the Conservatoire and began composition lessons with the great Gabriel Faure.

His first guarded success as a composer came in 1899 with the composition Pavane for a Dead Infanta for piano, which he would orchestrate in 1910, but generally his initial compositions were not well received . He gravitated towards other composers who were also struggling for understanding, including Debussy (twelve years his elder), Stravinsky and Erik Satie, each full of admiration for the others. Although he worked painstakingly slowly, his list of compositions grew, including a superb string quartet and more piano works, a number of which he began orchestrating; these included Mother Goose (Ma Mere l’Oye, 1908-10, orchestrated 1911) and, in Spanish style, Rapsodie espagnole, based on Habanera (two pianos, 1895 and orchestrated in 1907-8) and Albarado def Gracioso (1905, orchestrated 1918).

He began gaining international respect as an orchestrator, and although he didn’t teach a great deal he did enjoy working with Ralph Vaughan Williams, who visited him in 1907-8 for ‘a bit of French polish’. He was also to be asked for lessons in the 1920s by George Gershwin, but Ravel refused, saying: ‘Why do you want to be a second-rate Ravel when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin?’ Ravel would, however, begin to infuse his music with jazz influences.

Among his great masterpieces were the magical ballet Daphnis and Chloe (1912), La Valse, a ‘choreographic poem’ (1920), his bitter evocation of fin-de-siecle, which gradually disintegrates from a ghostly memory of the Waltz Age into the chaos brought by War, and two piano concertos, the G major jazz-influenced and the other for the Left Hand alone – written for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, brother of the philosopher, who had lost an arm during the War. His work as an orchestrator is also known in the most-played of the many orchestrations of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Le Tombeau de Couperin – in other words, a work written as a memorial in the style of the composer Francois Couperin (1668-1733) – began life as a suite of six piano pieces written between 1914 and 1917, each also dedicated to a friend who had fallen in World War 1. In 1919 he chose four, each with Couperin-style titles, to orchestrate in his own unique style, which magically find a contemporary slant on Couperin’s baroque figurations. Despite its apparent simplicity, the suite presents each section of the orchestra with extreme technical challenges, with a virtuosic role for first oboe, noticeable right from the start in the Prelude. The work was premiered in February 1920.

The Prelude is dedicated to First Lt Jacques Charlot, and begins with delicate tracery first for solo oboe, then for upper strings in partnership with each other, which continues with only hints of a more strident nature.

The For/one, based on a somewhat quirky Italian dance, is in memory of Second Lt Jean Cruppi, and begins and ends with quietly angular dotted figures with slanting harmonies. The middle section is more lyrical.

The Menuet, fifth in the original piano suite, is in memory of Jean Dreyfus, a close friend of Ravel. Its atmosphere is wistful but suave, once again the oboe leading the way.

Finally the Rigaudon (somewhat similar in style to a sailors’ hornpipe), and originally fourth in the piano suite, although outwardly light-hearted in its outer sections, is dedicated to two brothers, Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, who were childhood friends of Ravel, but tragically both killed in November 1914 by the same shell. The middle section is pastoral and reflective.

Notes by HDJ 12th May 2018

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