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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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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