Claude Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) was one of the greatest innovators in the history of French poetry. His works, which abound in complex symbols and images, seek to represent states of mind rather than ideas, express moods rather than tell stories. Mallarmé tried to capture that elusive line between dream and awakening that most of us who are not poets are well aware of but are unable to put into words.
Mallarmé's eclogue L'Après-midi d'un Faune ("The Afternoon of a Faun") was published in 1876.Debussy first set a poem by Mallarmé to music in 1884, at the age of 22. Three years later, the young composer joined the circle of poets and artists who met at Mallarmé's house every Tuesday night for discussions and companionship.Thus he was thoroughly familiar with the poet's style before he began work on his prelude to "The Afternoon of a Faun" in 1892.
The first-person narrator in the eclogue (the word evokes associations with the pastoral poetry of the great Latin poet Virgil) is a faun, a mythological creature who is half man and half goat. The faun lives in the woods, near a river surrounded by reedy marshes; he is daydreaming about nymphs who may be real or mere figments of his imagination.The faun's desire is filtered through the vagueness of its object as he recalls past dreams, which emerge from the shadows only to recede into the darkness again.
The faun plays a flute, which evokes the syrinx (the Greek panpipe)∗; and it is quite natural that in Debussy's music the orchestral flute is given a solo part throughout. The languid opening melody, which descends, mostly in half-steps, from C-sharp to G natural and rises back to C-sharp again (thus outlining the exotic interval of the tritone, or augmented fourth), has become famous as anexample of a melodic style independent from any traditional models. As it unfolds, the orchestral accompaniment becomes more and more intense. After a short resting point, a new section starts in which the first clarinet and the first oboe temporarily take over the lead from the flute; the tempo becomes more and more animated and finally a new melody is introduced, in sharp contrast with the chromatic flute theme that opened the piece. The new melody moves in wide intervals, and is played by all the woodwinds, plus the first horn, in unison.Finally, the first theme returns in its original tempo; following a passage that briefly brings back some of the agitation of the middle section, the music settles into a serene and peaceful idyll which prevails to the end.
In his music, Debussy admirably captured that delicious vagueness of contours which is so important in the poem. The themes do not follow any stable metric patterns, and instead of progressing in a certain direction, they remain entirely unpredictable, reflecting the unconstrained nature of the faun's meditations.
Two aspects of Debussy's style bear special mention here: his use of chromaticism and his handling of orchestral color. Chromaticism had been one of the main musical means to express sensuality at least since Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, a work that exerted a decisive influence on the young Debussy. But Debussy's use of chromaticism is more subdued and less goal-oriented than Wagner's. His instrumentation, much more restricted than Wagner's (no brass except horns, no percussion except the soft-toned antique cymbals) causes us to perceive the faun's sensuality at a certain remove. Mallarmé referred to the faun's syrinx as an "instrument des fuites" (translated as "elusive instrument"; literally, perhaps, "instrument of evasion"); with his novel rhythmic and harmonic language, Debussy managed to render that elusive/evasive quality of the faun's self-expression.
There have been attempts at showing more concrete correspondances between poetic and musical themes, but perhaps the essential link is in the general mood, which, in any case, is the real theme of the poem.
∗ Debussy was to write a piece for unaccompanied flute under the title Flûte de Pan in 1913, planned as part of an incidental music; the piece was published as Syrinx after Debussy's death.
- Peter Laki
Maurice Ravel: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in D Major for the Left Hand
Both of Maurice Ravel's piano concertos--the conventional, three-movement Concerto in G Major, and the single-movement Concerto in D Major for the left hand--were composed during 1930 and 1931. Ravel began the G Major Concerto first, and probably intended it as a display piece for his own use during a projected, but never realized, world tour. Shortly after starting work on it, though, he received an unusual commission from Paul Wittgenstein, an Austrian pianist whose promising career as a virtuoso had been tragically cut short when he suffered the loss of his right arm while fighting at the Russian front in World War I. Refusing to abandon his, concert career, Wittgenstein had commissioned several composers--Richard Strauss, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Britten, and Korngold among them--to write concert pieces specially suited for him, and he offered Ravel six thousand dollars for a similarly-tailored work.
Ravel was intrigued with the idea. Piano works written for the left hand alone were quite rare, but precedents did exist. Brahms had written a set of variations on Bach's Chaconne, and there were Saint-Saens' six Etudes pour la Hain Gauche and Leopold Godowsky's Transcriptions for the Left Hand Alone of the Chopin Etudes, but these were essentially study pieces designed primarily to develop the left hand dexterity of a two-handed pianist. Composing a piano concerto for the left hand presented a real challenge. By its very nature, its solo part would have to concentrate heavily on the weight and striking power of the left hand, and be substantially restricted to the lower ranges of the keyboard, while at the same time maintaining a strong element of virtuosity.
Although Ravel habitually worked with the most painstaking deliberation on a single composition at a time, he accepted Wittgenstein's commission, and worked on both piano concertos simultaneously, switching from one to the other whenever he hit a snag. Concerning this unorthodox creative process, he wrote to his friend M. D. Calvocoressi: "It was an interesting experience to conceive and realize the two piano concertos at the same time. The first, which I propose to play myself, is a concerto in the strict sense, written in the spirit of Mozart and Saint-Saens. . . . The concerto for the left hand alone is quite different, and has only one movement, with many jazz effects. The writing is not so simple. In a work of this sort, it is essential to avoid the impression of unsufficient weight in the sound-texture, as compared to a solo part for two hands, so I have used a style which is much more in keeping with the consciously imposing one of the traditional concerto. After an introductory section pervaded by this feeling, there comes an episode like an improvisation, which is followed by a jazz section. Only afterward is one aware that the jazz episode is actually built upon themes from the first section."
Ravel completed the D Major Concerto in the autumn of 1931. Wittgenstein was not particularly impressed with the work when Ravel first played it for him, using both bands. After spending several weeks learning the concerto, however, his opinion of it changed, and he insisted upon being its first performer. --Ravel acceded to Wittgenstein's wishes, although he later withdrew his offer to conduct the premiere because he could not reconcile himself with the pianist's way of playing the piece. The first performance of the concerto took place in Vienna on November 27, 1931, with Wittgenstein as soloist.
Ravel's Piano Concerto in D Major for the Left Hand is a single, extended movement divided into four principal sections: Lento, Andante, Allegro, and Tempo primo. The introduction, with its nebulous theme which begins softly and rises from the depths of the orchestra, brings to mind the misty darkness with which Ravel's La Valse begins. The introduction progresses to a sonorous climax, after which the piano enters, playing a thunderous cadenza. An improvisatory episode leads to a more lyrical section pervaded by the stately, measured rhythm of the courtly sarabande. The jaunty and animated section which follows shows strong influences of the jazz rhythms and idioms that had so fascinated and delighted Ravel when he visited the Harlem nightclubs during his United States tour in 1928. After a return to the subdued atmosphere of the introduction, the concerto ends vigorously, with a five-bar allegro flourish.
-Kenneth C. Viant
Igor Stravinsky: The Firebid (1919)
Igor Stravinsky was twenty-seven years old and virtually unknown outside of Russia when the celebrated impresario Serge Diaghilev asked him to write the music for a spectacular new ballet based upon the Russian legend of the Zhar-Ptitsa, the magical bird with wings of fire, which was to be staged during the 1910 Paris season of his Ballets Russes. A recent student of Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky showed considerable promise, but all he really had to his credit were two brief orchestral works and some orchestrations of Chopin piano pieces. Fortunately for the young composer, one of Diaghilev’s greatest strengths was his ability to recognize potential genius in others.
Stravinsky approached the project with some initial trepidation, but some became totally immersed in it. He completed the forty-five minute work, which was scored for an enormous orchestra, on May 18, 1910. The premiere took place on June 25 of that same year at the Paris Opéra. The work was an unqualified success. “Mark him well,” Diaghilev said to his prima ballerina Tamara Karsavina as he pointed to Stravinsky. “He is a man on the eve of celebrity.” Almost overnight, Stravinsky was catapulted to international fame.
The story for The Firebird had been complied from several Russian folk legends. During a hunting expedition, Prince Ivan, the Tsarevich, while wandering through a forest at night, spies a beautiful bird with dazzling plumage picking golden apples from a silver tree. He captures the bird, but yields to its entreaties to be set free. In gratitude, the Firebird gives Ivan one of its magic feathers. The next morning, Ivan finds himself in an enchanted garden surrounding an ancient castle. As the sun rises, thirteen beautiful princesses emerge from the castle and dance in the garden. After Ivan discloses himself, the princesses tell him that they are captives of the evil magician Kastchei, who turns into stone all who trespass upon his domain. Ivan immediately falls in love with one of the princesses and vows to enter the castle. As he approaches the gate, Kastchei and his retinue of demons, ogres, and monsters march out. Kastchei tries to bewitch Ivan, but the Prince is protected by the Firebird’s magic feather. Suddenly, the Firebird appears and forces Kastchei and his horde into a wild dance that leaves them exhausted and in a deep sleep. The Firebird then reveals to Ivan the location of the casket in which there rests a huge egg that contains the evil soul of Kastchei. Ivan finds the egg and smashes it on the ground, and Kastchei dies. With his death, his victims are returned to their human form and the princesses are liberated. The ballet ends jubilantly with all celebrating the wedding of Prince Ivan and his chosen princess.
In 1911, Stravinsky extracted the first of three concert suites from his score for The Firebird. This first suite, which consists of five sections, uses the enormous orchestra and lush instrumental colors of the original score. The second suite—the one being performed at these concerts—was published in 1919 and consists of four sections. For this suite, Stravinsky re-orchestrated sections of the score so that they could be performed by a smaller, more conventional ensemble. This also enabled him to place the score under international copyright protection and collect the performance royalties that had hitherto been denied him. The last suite, which Stravinsky published in 1946, uses the same reduced orchestration as the 1919 suite, but includes five additional numbers from the ballet.
The 1919 Suite opens with the Introduction to the ballet. Deep rumblings from the very bottom of the orchestra depict the forest at night. The music progresses upward and ends on a discordant trill that ushers in the “Dance of the Firebird.” The second section, “The Princesses’ Round,” is a gentle and lyrical khorovod or round dance. The haunting melody that is first stated by the oboe is an actual folksong from the Russian city of Novgorod. An unexpected crash from the full orchestra begins the violent and sharply rhythmic third section, the “Infernal Dance of Kastchei.” In the final section, a beguiling “Berceuse” (lullaby) leads almost imperceptibly into the Finale. The suite concludes with the solo horn softly intoning another Novgorod folksong theme that grows in power until it is taken up by the whole orchestra and transformed into a glorious hymn of triumph and thanksgiving.
-Kenneth C. Viant