THE IMPRESSIONISM OF DEBUSSY & RAVEL
Maison symphonique de Montréal
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal
Juanjo Mena, conductor
Veronika Eberle, violin
Jean Papineau-Couture, Trois pièces (approx. 11 min.)
Brahms, Violin Concerto in D major, op. 77 (approx. 38 min.)
Debussy, Images (excerpt): “Iberia” (approx. 20 min.)
Ravel, Daphnis et Chloé, Suite no 2 (approx. 47 min.)
Stunning orchestral colours, rich harmonies, and sensual melodies are hallmarks of Claude Debussy’s and Maurice Ravel’s style in creating their respective musical impressions of Spain and Ancient Greece. Their bright Mediterranean colours are heard alongside the deeper tones of Johannes Brahms’s Violin Concerto, where the composer’s more austere language is alleviated by his own genius for lyricism tinged with sweetness. A work by Jean Papineau-Couture, one of the most admired representatives of Quebec’s musical life, opens the concert with deft combinations of contrasting hues and accents.
Born in Montreal on November 12, 1916- Died in Montreal on August 11, 2000
A towering figure of music in Quebec, Jean Papineau-Couture studied piano with Léo-Pol Morin and counterpoint with Gabriel Cusson before pursuing his musical training in composition, conducting, and piano at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. It was also in the United States that he came to study with Nadia Boulanger, with whom he deepened his knowledge of works by Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky. Whilst in America, he also had the opportunity to meet Stravinsky on several occasions. Papineau-Couture taught at Montreal’s Conservatoire de musique and served on the Faculty of Music of Université de Montréal, where he was elected Dean in 1968. He exerted a strong and decisive influence on the development and advancement of Canadian contemporary music, and was a founding member of the Canadian Music Center and the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec.
Papineau-Couture’s creative output is diverse, comprising works for orchestra, choir, voice, keyboard, chamber music, as well as incidental music for the theatre. His art is based on the effective organization of various musical discourses and the continual development of form and timbre, the latter being a notable feature in the works of Debussy and Ravel. His music has sometimes been assessed as “intellectual”, but it never lacks in subtle, nuanced sensitivity.
Papineau-Couture’s Trois pièces were composed for the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra, in 1961. The composer himself conducted the premiere on November 25, 1962.
Born in Hamburg on May 7, 1822- Died in Vienna on April 3, 1897
Violin Concerto in D major, op. 77
The process of writing the Violin Concerto entailed a series of highly spirited exchanges between Brahms and the violinist Josef Joachim, to whom the work is dedicated. At the time, Brahms knew little about violin technique but wished to fully exploit the instrument’s potential, the reason for seeking Joachim’s advice. Brahms produced a score so technically difficult for the violin and so filled with virtuoso passages that Joachim declared it “unplayable”. An animated discussion ensued, with each standing firm on his position, until Brahms relented somewhat by changing his approach to better suit the requirements of contemporary violin playing.
In spite of what amounted to a heated exchange between composer and violinist, the long-time friendship between Brahms and Joachim, dating back some twenty years, remained unaffected. The Violin Concerto was heard in Leipzig for the first time on January 1, 1879, with the dedicatee performing the solo part and Brahms conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Its inherent technical challenges made it all but unapproachable for most violinists of the time, and it took some years before the work assumed its rightful place in the repertoire of violinists.
The concerto’s lengthy orchestral introduction, the prominence of wind writing at the beginning of the second movement, and the principal theme of the Adagio played by the oboe before the violin performs an ornamented version, are evidence of Brahms’s preference for giving the orchestra pride of place. Thus, rather than being relegated to an accompaniment role, the orchestra engages with the soloist in a dialogue among equals, to the point where some musicologists have qualified the work as a “symphony with principal violin”.
Born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye on August 22, 1862- Died in Paris on March 25, 1918
Images: no 2 « Ibéria »
When Debussy spoke of his orchestral set Images, he mentioned that it was not reality that he wished to represent, but rather to express reality’s effect. Contemporary music critic Émile Vuillermoz wrote about Debussy’s compositional process: “He cares little for portraying the real thing, or to copy its ‘motif ’. [Debussy] seeks only to capture the reflection, scent, radiance, and the essence that emanates from objects. He avoids appropriating them, barely touching them, if only with a light caress that suffices to convey their shape.”
Having spent only one short day in Spain, Debussy’s first-hand knowledge of that country came to him through reading, painting, and the music of Isaac Albéniz and Manuel de Falla. The accuracy of his perception and the fertility of his imagination lend authentic character and flavour to the three sections of “Ibéria”. Here, Debussy avoids all picturesque citations, mixing and adjusting orchestral colours so that the listener has the impression of gazing at musically embodied images. The importance given to wind instruments increases the work’s brilliance and polish. Debussy had attended a bull fight during that single day spent in San Sebastián, and he was, no doubt, particularly taken by the accents and the iridescent sounds of the banda de música.
The castanets, tambourines and string pizzicati that support dance motifs in the first section of “Ibéria” give way to the languorous melody of “Parfums de la nuit”, which is set to the rhythms of a habanera. The third tableau magnifies the vibrancy of Spanish festivities with flamboyant orchestral colours whose intensity increases until the final measures, which elicited jeers from the audience at the work’s premiere in 1910.
Born in Ciboure on March 7, 1875- Died in Paris on December 28, 1937
Daphnis et Chloé, Suite no 2
The premiere of Daphnis et Chloé, performed by the Ballets russes at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 1912, caused neither great enthusiasm nor bitter conflict in the concert hall. Rather, it was during the work’s development and in rehearsals that disagreements arose between the different protagonists involved in bringing the project to fruition.
Ravel conceived of Daphnis et Chloé as a “choreographic symphony”, causing certain tensions between him and Sergei Diaghilev, the director of the Ballets russes. Diaghilev considered the work to be more symphonic than choreographic. In addition, the ballet’s libretto was inspired by the Greek poet Longus, prompting Léon Bakst, the set designer, and Mikhail Fokine, the choreographer, to want to represent Ancient Greece. But Ravel was less preoccupied with any “archaic representations than loyalty to his ideals of Ancient Greece”, those ideals being closer to the “imagination and depictions of French artists of the end of the eighteenth century”. This approach gave rise to incompatibly between the project creators and consequently, Ravel fashioned two suites from Daphnis et Chloé, to be performed independently of the ballet.
Suite no. 2, likely premiered in Paris in 1914, corresponds to the third and last part of the original ballet and unfolds in three episodes without a break. It begins with a lengthy symphonic prelude that depicts, in stages, the breaking of dawn, the awakening of animals, and the arousal from sleep of Daphnis and Chloe, who proceed to mime the lovemaking of the nymph Syrinx and the god Pan. In the more lyric second episode Daphnis is entrusted with a flute – symbolic of Pan’s flute – on which a melody that is in turn enticing, pleading, and mischievous entreats Chloe to the dance. To the irregular rhythm on 5/4 “Danse générale” concludes the work in an atmosphere entirely at odds with the poetic serenity of the opening. The music gradually intensifies until the arrival on the scene of shepherds for the final Dionysian bacchanalia, which culminates in a “joyous tumult”, transporting the listener in an irresistible whirlwind of sound.
© Florence Leyssieux
Translated from French by Rachelle Taylor Le Trait juste
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