We open our “One Thousand and One Nights” season with a program of French music, with classic works by Debussy and Ravel, and a little-known work by Lili Boulanger, a talented young composer who died too soon.
Marie-Juliette Olga “Lili” Boulanger
(August 21, 1893-March 15, 1918)
D’un matin de printemps (Of a Spring Morning)
Born into a family of active composers and performers, Lili Boulanger’s talent was recognized quite early. Her father, Ernest (1815–1900), was a teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, and a composer who won the Prix de Rome composition prize in 1835. Her older sister was the noted composer and composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. Lili also distinguished herself as a composer, in particular as the first female winner of the Prix de Rome for her cantata Faust et Hélène (1913). Prone to illness, she died at age 24, leaving behind a few important works and much wonder of what could have been.
In ten years as a composer, Lili produced over fifty works. D’un matin de printemps was one of the last pieces she was healthy enough to complete before she passed away. This short symphonic poem shows definite influences of Debussy, but her colorful harmony and varied instrumentation also show a unique voice and a freshness that deepens the sadness surrounding a promising life cut short.
(August 22, 1862-March 25, 1918)
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, L.86 (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun)
In the mid-1880s, the vagueness and ambiguity of Symbolist poetry and Impressionist art inspired Debussy to pursue music of a similar vein. A musical representation of Stephane Mallarmé’s famous Symbolist poem The Afternoon of a Faun began as early as 1890 with Mallarmé himself suggesting a theatrical collaboration that never materialized. Two years later, Debussy tried to revive the project, but managed only to produce the Prelude, which was first performed in Paris on December 22, 1894. Debussy wrote:
The music of this prelude is a very free illustration of Mallarmé’s beautiful poem. By no means does it claim to be a synthesis of it. Rather it is a succession of desires and dreams of the faun in the afternoon heat. Then, tired of pursuing the timorous flight of nymphs and naiads, he succumbs to intoxicating sleep, in which he finally realizes his dreams in Nature.
Debussy’s ambiguous harmonies with surprising yet subtle dissonances, soft colors that gradually fade in and out with each other, short motives that bubble up to the surface and then disappear, and rhythms that appear and disappear throughout, create a musical equivalent of Impressionist pastel colors and blurry images. Since its premiere, the appeal of this music has been undeniable, and the piece has been quoted in a variety of films and television shows.
(March 7, 1875-December 28, 1937)
Piano Concerto in G major, M. 83
Ravel’s eclectic compositional output marks a transitional period in French music from Debussy’s fin de siècle “Impressionist” aesthetic to the neoclassical trends and jazz influences of the 1930s and 1940s. In 1928, Ravel took a four-month trip to the United States and Canada. Though jazz styles were already known in Paris by that time, he became intrigued at the possibility of combining jazz styles with classical forms. When he returned home, he wrote a concerto for himself inspired by the American artform. The work was premiered on January 14, 1932, with Marguerite Long as soloist and Ravel conducting the Orchestre Lamoureux in Paris.
With a crack of a whip, the first movement begins urgently. A sprightly flute melody gives way to a sultry mix of Spanish and jazzy styles. Blue notes and jazz inflections reminiscent of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue are everywhere. The movement proceeds with virtuosic passages for the soloist that sound like improvisations, occasional orchestral interjections, and almost schizophrenic mood swings between slow ballad-like sections and peppy dance rhythms.
The second movement is an amazing contrast, with the soloist playing an extended tender melody accompanied by a waltz rhythm. The effect is serene and heartfelt, especially as the soloist plays a variety of duets with various instruments. The music intensifies and peaks, and the melody is taken by the English horn, accompanied by running passages in the piano over a warm bedding of strings, finally coming to a quiet close. Though not quite as “jazzy,” the third movement sparkles with constant rhythmic energy and ever-changing timbres. This concerto is a testament to a composer and pianist at the height of his powers and has been an audience favorite since its first performance.
(August 22, 1862-March 25, 1918)
La mer, trois esquisses symphoniques pour orchestra, L.109 (The Sea, Three Symphonic Sketches for Orchestra)
The sea, with its constant motion and changing shapes, colors, and textures, was a perfect subject for “Impressionist” music. Initially, Debussy’s La mer was not well received, but it soon became one of his most admired and frequently performed orchestral works. Throughout the piece, one senses the constant shifting of the sea, with flashes of reflected light, the deep power of rolling ocean waves, even the occasional fish jumping or swimming by. The first movement, “From Dawn to Midday on the Sea,” begins softly—sometimes gentle, other times ominous, the deceptive calm of the sea at dawn is enjoyed but respected. Eventually, the sun rises, the colors brighten, and the sea becomes more active. By the time we reach midday, the sea has gone through a number of mood swings. Then the full glory and power of the sea is heard as the music explodes with a powerful arrival to end the movement. The second movement, “Play of the Waves,” is much more mysterious, with swirls, splashes and glints of sunlight off the water that create excitement and curiosity. The third movement, “Dialogue of Wind and Sea,” also begins on the darker side, with more emphasis on power than beauty. Both wind and sea have strong gestures and stormy moments that repeatedly peak and subside. Finally, the entire piece climaxes in an explosion of color and gesture.
The goal of Impressionist music is much the same as visual art: to evoke imagery that has common generalities but enough ambiguity to require active participation by the viewer or listener. Thus, while Debussy’s titles clearly guide our understanding, the details of the images themselves are left to our individual imaginations.
(March 7, 1875-December 28, 1937)
Like the piano concerto, Bolero belongs to a later period in Ravel’s compositional life, one that is most often called “neoclassical.” It was also not the first musical impression of Spain that Ravel wrote (e.g., Rapsodie espagnole of 1908). Composed for dancer Ida Rubenstein, this one-act ballet is set at an Andalusian inn and Rubenstein’s character is a gypsy whose dance becomes more impassioned as the piece unfolds. The premiere was choreographed by Njinsky, and reports say the effect was “seismic.” Today, however, it is best known for its appearance in late-20th-century commercials and movies, most notably 10, starring Dudley Moore and Bo Derek. The piece features a haunting, serpentine melody that is passed from one solo instrument to another. This melody can be quite treacherous for many of the instruments, and these solos are asked for quite frequently on orchestral auditions. As the music proceeds, it becomes increasingly intense, arriving at a major climax at the end of the piece. Surprisingly, composers rarely use this type of construction, perhaps because it is so difficult to sustain such a long build-up of energy that rises to the inherent challenge of making the climax worth waiting for. All this, however, is accomplished in Bolero with an intriguing sense of suspense and inevitability.
© Yakima Symphony Orchestra 2019