|Masterworks II: “Spectres”|
Le Chasseur Maudit (The Accursed Huntsman)
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, his most lasting compositions from 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 doctrinaire academicians. He achieved worldwide recognition only in the last century. 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.
Franck based this symphonic poem, composed in 1883, on a ballad, Der wilde Jäger, by the German poet Gottfried August Bürger (1747-1794). It proceeds as quintessential program music, telling the story in Leitmotifs, which Franck develops with new harmonies and orchestration to enhance the tension.
In the introduction to the score Franck printed the following synopsis:
It is Sunday morning. In the distance are heard the joyous ringing of bells and the chanting of the worshippers. Sacrilege! The savage Count of the Rhine sounds his hunting horn. A couple of details Franck leaves out of his synoptic poem: The opening theme is also a hunting horn, but innocent in tone and quite distinct from the Hunter’s defiant theme; and in the final, climactic measures, the church bells can be faintly heard in the demonic chaos.
Hallo! Hallo! The hunt takes its course over grain fields, meadows and moors. "Stop, Count, I beg you. Listen to the pious singing." "No!" Hallo! Hallo! "Stop, Count. I entreat you. Take care." "No!" And the chase goes hurtling on its way like a whirlwind.
All of a sudden the Count finds himself alone; his horse cannot move, his horn will not sound. A grim, implacable voice curses him: "Sacrilegious man," it cries, "be hunted forever by hell itself!"
Flames leap up from all sides. The Count, seized by terror, flees – faster, ever faster – pursued by a pack of demons, by day across abysses, at midnight through the air.
Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 33
It is said that at his first public concert in May 1846 the ten-year-old Camille Saint-SaŽns, after playing Mozart and Beethoven piano concertos as well as some solo works by Bach and Handel, offered to play any one of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas as an encore – from memory. A child prodigy who grew to become a phenomenal polymath, Saint-SaŽns wrote articles and books on many scientific topics, including astronomy, biology and archaeology in addition to his composing and musicological studies.
In his youth Saint-SaŽns was considered an innovator, but by the time he reached maturity he had become a pillar of the establishment, trying to maintain the classical musical tradition in France. As an accomplished organist and pianist – he premiered his five piano concertos – he sported an elegant, effortless technique. But neither his compositions nor his pianism were ever pinnacles of passion or emotion. Berlioz noted that Saint-SaŽns “...knows everything but lacks inexperience.” Saint-SaŽns was supportive of some younger composers, but his visceral dislike of Debussy actually engendered endless headlines in the tabloid press.
The defeat of France at the hands of Prussia in 1871 shocked the country’s pride and spurred a revival of French arts and letters. One of the results was the founding by Saint-SaŽns and his colleagues of the Société Nationale de Musique, whose motto and purpose was “Ars gallica” (French art). One of its results was the establishment of three newly energized competing symphony orchestras in Paris by three great conductors - …douard Colonne, Jules-…tienne Pasdeloup and Charles Lamoureux - who urgently looked for new works by French composers.
Saint-SaŽns composed the Cello Concerto in a minor in 1872 in response to this demand. It is in three continuous movements with no pauses, similar to the Cello Concerto by Robert Schumann. Unlike the standard classical concerto, Saint-SaŽns's Concerto opens with only a single orchestral chord, after which the soloist introducing the principal themes. The first one is an assertive and virtuosic melody that will be revisited throughout the Concerto as a unifying device. The cello also introduces the standard contrasting second theme in the relative major mode. (Note how the flute sneaks in with the Concerto's motto.) The exposition concludes with an energetic closing motive. There is virtually no development section in this movement, merely a varied restatement of the themes in order. The second theme gradually softens the mood and the music glides into the second movement, an understated minuet in the orchestra. † When the cello enters, it plays a counter-melody over the minuet and then a little waltz on its own. Again, the end of the Minuet blends without pause into the Finale.
While many nineteenth century works bring back the opening theme at the very end as a way of providing closure and an arch-like structure, Saint-SaŽns expands greatly on this architectural concept. The Finale, the longest of the movements, continues the development of the opening theme of the concerto but also includes a new more expansive second theme, as well as a burst of new thematic material, including a little orchestral refrain, and, of course, rapid scales, arpeggios and high harmonics that permit the soloist to indulge in virtuoso brilliance. The Concerto concludes with a restatement of the opening theme and the closing motive from the first movement plus a coda that accelerates the tempo for a dramatic finish.
Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14
Being a rebel without independent means makes life difficult for an artist. Hector Berlioz, the son of a physician, was sent by his family to Paris to study medicine, but at 21 gave it up to become a musician. To make ends meet as a composer, he became a prolific writer on music, musicians, conducting and orchestration, as well as a sharp-tongued music critic for Paris newspapers.
Berlioz was a master of orchestration. He freed the brass, making it the equal of the other orchestral sections. He experimented with new instruments, including the bass clarinet and valve trumpet, and pioneered the use of the English horn as one of the orchestra’s most expressive solo instruments. He paid only lip service to conventional musical form and was the foremost advocate of program music. Every one of his compositions is narrative, related in some way to a story or literary text. This approach to art was the natural outcome of his belief in the inseparability of music and ideas. For Berlioz, music and literature were inextricably connected as the quintessential expression of human imagination and emotion.
As if Romantic literature didn’t present enough Sturm ind Drang, Berlioz’s personal life added a subsequent entanglement. Around 1827, he attended productions in Paris of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, performed by the great British actor, David Garrick, and the apparently somewhat less talented actress, Harriet Smithson. Despite the fact that the young composer didn’t know English, he fell madly in love with Smithson, developed an obsessive fixation on her that inspired the Symphonie fantastique, and married her six years later, ultimately making both of them miserable.
The Symphonie fantastique is the first example of a narrative symphony. Berlioz composed it in 1830 as a musical testament to his infatuation. The symphony is united by an Idée fixe, a theme meant to depict the obsession with the beloved, which is introduced in the first movement and recurs in all the others. The accompaniment on the strings of this first appearance of the Idée fixe gives the effect of a gradually increasing, and even irregular, heartbeat. The movement describes a young musician seeing his ideal woman for the first time. His fervor is so great that by the end of the movement the theme turns religious.
In the second movement, a lilting waltz, the artist attends a ball, where his beloved is dancing and frolicking. Amidst the hubbub, he becomes conscious of her presence, with the sudden reappearance of the Idée fixe in a completely incongruous key.
In the third movement the artist goes for an outing in the pastoral countryside, in the midst of which he suddenly remembers his beloved. There is a violent storm, with the thunder symbolizing and foreshadowing the disastrous denouement of the affair. Is it an inner or real storm? This movement provides the first orchestral solo opportunity for the English horn, an instrument that Berlioz championed and which, through his direct and indirect influence, became the quintessential expression of languid melancholy. In this passage, the English horn is echoed by its sister double reed, the oboe.
By the fourth movement the artist's desperation grows, as does his irrationality. In an opium fantasy, he kills his beloved and is condemned to the guillotine, whence he is quick-marched in a parody of the solemnity of the occasion. Before the knife falls, the Idée fixe is imprinted on his memory.
The finale describes an after-death experience, the Witches’ Sabbath, the spirits portayed by the upper woodwinds. The Idée fixe comes in grotesquely, the beloved becoming an object of scorn. At this point the Dies irae, the Catholic chant for the dead, makes its appearance in the low brass. Following a fugue on the witches' theme – at one point in which the string players beat the wood of their bows above the bridge of their instruments – Berlioz's lets loose with one of his favorite contrapuntal tricks, the outcome of his literal combination of music with program or text. He called it “The reunion of two themes,” where two themes are heard first separately and then combined, no matter how musically incompatible they may be. In the last movement the witches’ dance is combined with the Dies irae and the work ends in a wild orchestral extravaganza.
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2019|