|The Passion of Chopin|
Orchestrated By Henri Büsser
French piano music with titles represents a long tradition of French character pieces for keyboard, often with arcane names and personal allusions that may have meant something to the composers and their contemporaries, but which have lost their significance for us. Most of Claude Debussy’s works, both for piano and orchestra, capture visual images in music that remain pertinent to any audience.
Women inspired much of Debussy’s music. The singer Marie-Blanche Vasnier was first his patron, then his mistress. In both roles she inspired some of his most original early songs and piano music, including the Petite Suite for piano four-hands, composed in 1888-89. The style of the four movements is closer to that of Bizet than to Debussy’s later works. In this piece, his phrases are regular and singable, his rhythm and meter precise. His mature works with their excursions beyond conventional tonality, yet without a complete rupture, support the comparison with impressionist painters.
In 1907, in order to appease the “editorial appetite” of his publisher, Debussy engaged his colleague, composer and conductor Henri Büsser (1872-1973), to orchestrate the work. Büsser’s orchestration of the Suite’s four movements gives prominent roles to the woodwinds:
1. En Bateau: A barcarole, with a drawn out melody, dances playfully on the waves.
2. Cortège: More of a dance than parade, introduced by the flute, with its rhythm accentuated by the triangle.
3. Menuet: A gentle and dreamy dance. The main theme is introduced by the bassoon, then repeated by the oboe.
4. Ballet: A surprisingly festive and bouncy movement, uncharacteristic of Debussy’s understated style at the time. Debussy was apparently using the music of Emmanuel Chabrier as a model.
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21
The son of a French father and Polish mother, Frédéric Chopin was born and grew up in Poland; but after the collapse of the Polish revolution against Russia in 1831, he went into exile to France. He settled in Paris, which was then the center of Polish émigrés.
Chopin's chosen medium was the piano as a solo instrument. Although in his late teens he tried to combine the piano with the orchestra, creating the two piano concertos, the Variations Op. 2, Fantasia Op. 13, Concert Rondo Op. 14 and the Grand Polonaise Op. 22, he was uncomfortable with the medium and after age 20 never again wrote for a large ensemble. In all these works, the orchestral scoring is so light that during the nineteenth century it was fashionable to re-orchestrate and "improve" it. Be that as it may, Chopin probably intended the orchestra to serve as a delicate background for the soloist, especially since he himself was known to have had a rather light touch on the piano; heavy orchestration would have drowned him out.
The f minor Concerto, although listed as No. 2, was the first composed (1829-30) but was the second published. It was premiered in March 1830 in Warsaw with the composer at the piano. As was so often the case with composers in the Romantic Era, the inspiration for the Concerto came to Chopin as the result of unrequited love. The object of his ardor was a voice student at the Warsaw Conservatory. But by the time the Concerto was published six years later, he had long forgotten her and dedicated it instead to his pupil, Countess Delphine Potocka, a gifted singer and close friend.
Although Chopin has the reputation for musically "wearing his heart on his sleeve," he was also gifted and innovative in his use of harmony and phrase structure. The Concerto capitalizes on all the pianistic qualities that were to catapult him to fame in Paris. It opens in a gruff mood, followed by a more lyrical second theme introoduced by the solo oboe. When the piano enters in a standard double exposition, it inserts its own second theme before taking up the oboe theme. The development section of the first movement is a major departure from true development as understood by Beethoven. Chopin's music never argues; rather, his development could be described as a commentary on the themes and on what had gone on before, his customary tendency is to embellish and decorate the pianistic line. This long section is almost serpentine in the way it slides in and out of new keys and deftly manipulates phrasing and the themes themselves. In this regard, the Concerto foreshadows the composer's future, even more adventurous harmonic writing.
The slow movement is intense and still lyrical, with the ornamentation of the main theme gradually becoming an integral part of it. With its seemingly endless, fluid lines, elaborate ornamentation and recitative-type passages, this movement has led scholars to compare Chopin with the contemporaneous Italian bel canto style of opera composer Vincenzo Bellini, whom Chopin greatly admired. Chopin provides a brief orchestral introduction where embellishment now becomes an integral part of the first theme with the entrance of the piano. After all the trills and decorations, however, Chopin gets down to the real meat of the movement in what has become one of the most quoted of his melodies.
The finale is a rondo, although unusual in that it is a waltz. Not surprisingly, it provides the pianist with glittering runs and pyrotechnics to show off against a largely superfluous orchestra. The rondo is never played quite the same way twice. The third episode is in mazurka rhythm. The mazurka became one of Chopin's signature rhythms, an expression of his nationalistic feeling. It originated as a Polish folk dance in triple meter from the Mazovia district near Warsaw. But mazurka became an umbrella name for a number of related dances: the fiery mazurek, the lively oberek or the slower and more sentimental kujawiak. All three dances originated from the older polska, a dance in which a strong accent falls on the second or third beat of the measure, accompanied by a tap of the heel. Chopin composed nearly 60 mazurkas for piano solo, as well as several that have been lost. A horn fanfare heralds a spectacular coda. Oddly, there is not a single cadenza in this piece.
The Concerto was received enthusiastically at the premiere, but Chopin had his doubts as to whether the audience actually understood it: "The first allegro...received, indeed, the reward of a 'Bravo,' but I believe this was given because the public wished to show that it understands and knows how to appreciate serious music. There are people enough in all countries who like to assume the air of connoisseurs!"
Symphony in D minor
A Belgian by birth who lived and taught most of his life in France, César Franck was one of the most influential music teachers of the period and a famous organist. Although he enrolled in the Paris Conservatoire at age 15, his maturation as a composer came late in life – he composed his most lasting compositions while in his 50s and 60s. Franck was an easy-going, unassuming person, who never knew how to promote his works. As a result, much of his music was either ignored during his lifetime or derided by the doctrinaire academicians. He achieved worldwide recognition only in the twentieth century. But his students adored him, calling him “Pater seraphicus,” and his influence on the future of French music was enormous. He was appointed in 1871 as professor of organ at the Conservatoire, but his classes evolved into de facto composition classes for the succeeding generation of major French composers, including Vincent d’Indy, Henri Duparc, Ernest Chausson and Paul Dukas.
The Symphony in D minor was a late work. Franck was reluctant to try his hand at a symphony and, ironically, it was the success of his pupil Vincent d’Indy’s Symphony on a French Mountain Air in 1887 that encouraged him to try his hand at one as well. He finished it in 1888 and it premiered in the following year. The Symphony was a dismal failure. Critics, music professors and in particular composer Charles Gounod lambasted it as: “...the affirmation of impotence carried to the point of dogma.” A pedantic teacher at the conservatory decided that the work could not be called a symphony at all because of the English horn solo in the second movement. “Who ever heard of writing for an English horn in a symphony?” he asserted (Wrongly, by the way; Haydn had two in his Symphony No. 22 and Hector Berlioz, another Frenchman no less, opens the slow movement of the Symphonie fantastique with one of the most famous English horn solos in the repertory (FYI, Dvorák composed the Symphony No. 9 in 1893, after Franck’s.)
The Symphony digresses from the classical form in other ways as well. It has only three movements and its structure is cyclical – all the themes recur towards the end, a method widely used by Franz Liszt, one of Franck’s models, and a feature of some of his other works, particularly the Violin Sonata. The opening three-note phrase of the slow introduction is a variant of the famous opening of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s last quartet (Op. 135) where he wrote Muss es sein? (Must it be?) above the notes. Liszt had also used the phrase in the opening of the tone poem Les Preludes.
Franck opens the Symphony with slow, foreboding statements of the motive, later expanding it into a full-fledged theme in an aggressive, even threatening transformation in the Allegro. The movement vacillates between the two tempi. There are only two themes in this movement, the second a contrasting, but equally strong-willed, lyrical melody. The movement is something of a pitched battle between the two themes; the fact that they resemble each other in rhythm and in their constituent motives makes it easier to make them compete head to head. In the end, the first one wins out, although resolving in D major.
The second movement opens with a haunting theme on the harp and pizzicato strings playing pianissimo. The “notorious” English horn takes up the melody, which is completed by the horn. Franck uses the theme as a refrain between a series of new melodies, & which he combines melodically and contrapuntally into the original theme at the end of the movement.
The final movement opens with a melody in D major and a contrasting secondary one. Soon, however, the “English horn” theme from the previous movement recurs. This is no example of cyclical tokenism. Rather, Franck incorporates all three themes together, contrasting them in the kind of dappled effect of sunlight and shade one gets on a partly cloudy day. The climax of the movement occurs with the full orchestra playing the “English horn theme” against a counterpoint of violins. Franck then brings in a repeat of the second theme from the first movement. The Symphony concludes with a restatement of the opening three-note motive from the first movement, setting up the triumphant conclusion.
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2016|