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Program Notes: October 23, 2004

“Naive, Decadent and Barbaric”

Prelude à l'apres-midi d’un faune (Prelude to “The Afternoon of a Faun”)

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

The later years of the 19th Century and the first years of the 20th saw Paris at the center of a cultural swap-meet in which the arts strove to break all boundaries. Achille-Claude Debussy was born amidst this tide of the most forward thinkers and artists of French and other cultures, and he became a leader of French musical Impressionism.

Debussy had humble beginnings. Though his father intended that he become a sailor, fortunately his extended family sent him to the Paris Conservatoire at age 10. This was the first school that he ever attended. Once there, he shifted his focus from piano to composing. Before he won the coveted Prix de Rome for composition in 1884, he had already composed dozens of melodies, songs, piano pieces, and a symphony. But his 1887 return from Rome to Paris ushered in a new direction in his writing, a synthesis of his unique ideas and the flourishing Parisian trends of the day.

Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), André Gide, and Paul Valéry were at the core of the Symbolists, a group of Parisian poets who parted with traditional forms of meter. In fact, these poets parted with nearly everything well-established in verse, including meanings of words. Their philosophy largely began the Decadent movement (primarily in literature) in the 1890's. Mallarmé’s “A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance” was one of several works notable for his designing the words in a visual shape on the page.

Mallarmé is perhaps best remembered for the sensuousness, allusion, and eroticism of his 1865 “The Afternoon of a Faun”: “These nymphs I would perpetuate/So clear/Their light carnation, that it floats in the air/Heavy with tufted slumbers/Was it a dream I loved?/My doubt, a heap of ancient night, is finishing/In many a subtle branch, which, left the true/Wood itself, proves, alas! that all alone I gave/Myself for triumph the ideal sin of roses/ Let me reflect.…” [translation by Roger Fry]

Debussy met the outspoken Mallarmé in 1890. The composer began attending the poet’s Tuesday Night Salons, where artists talked art and, no doubt, drank. Soon after, impresario Serge Diaghilev and the famed dancer Vaslav Nijinsky asked Debussy to create a mood piece for Mallarmé's poem. Debussy wrote the piece slowly between 1891 and 1894. It instantly became one of his best-loved works. Though the original trio never realized their ballet project, Nijinsky choreographed the piece some years later. His choreography, though lurid, is highly stylized and geometricized, in an allusion to Greek pottery design.

In the “Prelude to ‘The Afternoon of a Faun,’” Debussy creates an atmosphere of sound reflecting the poem's sensuous qualities and keenly illuminates his own break with formal structure. While melody is integral to the piece, Debussy does not structure it around melodies and architectural form. Rather, he uses as his keystone the aural quality of the opening note--C#, with an evocative, shifting kaleidoscope of specific sonorities, to create movement - and a fluid structure. Allusions to the poem inform the sonorities and colors, such as the famous breeze-wafting flute theme with which the piece opens: "That here I was cutting the hollow reeds tamed/By talent, when on the dull gold of the distant/Verdures dedicating their vines to the springs,/There waves an animal whiteness at rest:/And that to the prelude where the pipes first stir/This flight of swans, no! Naiads, flies/ Or plunges..." [Roger Fry]

The music ingeniously evokes a dream state of being held captive by utter beauty and sensuality. The harmonies seem to float. Rarely does Debussy write a direct musical cadence. Instead, he molds a soundscape intuited by the senses, reacting, allowing memories and half-memories to emerge from deep inside the listener.

Debussy’s work brilliantly reflects the philosophy of Mallarmé, who felt that beyond reality existed nothing but the essence of perfect form. The poet's task: to crystallize them slowly. During an 1891 interview with Jules Hure, Mallarmé said, "In music, the same transformation has occurred [as in poetry]: the finely delineated melodies of yesteryear have made way for an infinity of shattered melodies that enrich the fabric without making us feel the cadence as strongly."

Debussy creates the effect of languishing in the senses through an exquisite array of orchestral colors. As the poem bids the reader "...Adieu...I shall see the shade you became," so does the musical Prelude—after some brilliant little glimmers from the antique cymbals—with the winds and strings breathing a cool, soft good-bye.

— Max Derrickson

Knoxville: Summer of 1915

Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

“We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child” (italics mine)—the opening of James Agee’s essay Knoxville and Samuel Barber’s 1950 composition for soprano and orchestra, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.”

The American Civil War was the bloodiest war that the world had known up to that time. This war has often been considered the precursor to modern warfare, with its trenches and tremendous death tolls. The Civil War was a harbinger of modern war in other disturbing ways as well. It was fought over attempted cultural hegemony and blatant nationalism, bound up with racial oppression. The civilian population of the South was brutalized in the Union’s vindictive march to the Atlantic Ocean on the Georgian coast. The year 1915—the year that James Agee chose for his essay—was only 50 years after that war, less, in fact, than our distance now from the Second World War.

Of course, 1915 has other implications. That year Americans were determined to avoid the war in Europe, both in spite of and because of the knowledge of the terrible human cost. “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” is poised precariously in the early evening, before the dark horrors of the night of the 20th Century. The family in the Agee/Barber work is a portrait of Southern stoicism and reserve; their quiet small talk skirts the fears of tomorrow as well as the sadnesses of yesterday, and focuses on life at the moment.

The voice of this text seems to vacillate between that of the child-narrator and the adult-narrator remembering his childhood thoughts. We are not sure where one voice ends and the other begins. The beginning of the piece quotes the music of the impassioned prayer sung later, at the climax. Gradually, the strident leaps in the strings dissolve into a gentle rocking motion against which the text unfolds. While this rocking motive is indeed less vehement, it still contains the same musical element of the fervent prayer, only softened. In this way, the music seems to guide us to that state of being “successfully disguised to [one’s self] as a child.” The pathos is apparent but contained.

In fact, the child’s sense of security is in continual conflict with his sense of existential terror. Most obviously, the streetcar passing by obliterates the previous Edenesque depiction of evening. In its wake remains the rough wet fear of mortality and the loneliness of the night. The night scene is described: “On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts.” The sustaining comfort of quilts, on which the family rests, is only an inch thick; underneath lie uncertainty and mortality in its biblical metaphor of grass.

Childlike simplicity and dark emotion alternate with increasing duress, culminating in the speaker’s desperate prayer for the well-being of his people: “By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night. May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away.”

The rocking music returns, all the more comforting, if ultimately less reassuring. As the voice of the adult and child fuse, the speaker realizes that with all their regard and love, his family will not—in fact, could not, even when they were still alive—tell him who he is, who he should be. In this tragedy of universal loneliness, however, lies also the hope that one’s spirit, since it must be cultivated alone, will develop on its own terms and flourish.

Barber dedicated the piece to the memory of his father.

— Jed Gaylin

Text, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915”

— from James Agee’s essay "Knoxville" and the introduction to his Pulitzer Prize-winning posthumous novel, A Death in the Family

We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.

...It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds' hung havens, hangars. People go by; things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy, breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt: a loud auto: a quiet auto: people in pairs, not in a hurry, scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, talking casually, the taste hovering over them of vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard, and starched milk, the image upon them of lovers and horsemen, squaring with clowns in hueless amber. A streetcar raising its iron moan; stopping; belling and starting, stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks; the iron whine rises on rising speed; still risen, faints; halts; the faint stinging bell; rises again, still fainter; fainting, lifting, lifts, faints foregone: forgotten. Now is the night one blue dew.

Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he has coiled the hose.

Low in the length of lawns, a frailing of fire who breathes...
Parents on porches: rock and rock.  From damp strings morning glories hang their ancient faces.

The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums.

On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there.…They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine,...with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night. May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away.

After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.

© 1949 (renewed) by G. Schirmer, Inc. (ASCAP). International copyright secured. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.

The Rite of Spring: Pictures of Pagan Russia (Le Sacre du Printemps)

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Igor Fyoderovich Stravinsky was one of a rare breed of composers who created a piece of music that stopped the musical world and turned it on its ear. Beethoven and Wagner are among the others who also hold this claim. But there is something so singularly disarming, new, and different about “The Rite of Spring” that it twisted the arm of Western music into vastly new directions.

Stravinsky, born in St. Petersburg, came into a musical heritage from both his parents. Though sent to law school, he pursued a career as a pianist and composer. As Fate had it, one of Stravinsky's school chums was the son of the celebrated Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. When Stravinsky's father died in 1902, the elder Rimsky-Korsakov became something of a mentor to him, both musically and personally.

Even with a tutelage as impressive as Rimsky-Korsakov’s, Stravinsky had his own genius to offer. After hearing some of his early works, the mighty Serge Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes in Paris, sought out the young Stravinsky for commissions—and the profits that they might procure. For the Ballets Russes, Stravinsky first wrote the immensely successful “The Firebird” in 1910. It was followed in 1911 by “Petrouchka,” another landmark in both music and ballet.

The premiere of “The Rite of Spring” at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées on the night of May 29, 1913 sent shock waves around the world. Many conflicting accounts of that evening made their way through the newswires. In 1913, Parisian listeners were still adjusting to the music of the Impressionists, like Debussy's “Prelude to ‘The Afternoon of a Faun,’” when upon their ears was thrust Stravinsky’s attack of modernity. Riots erupted in the theater; audience members, enraptured or enraged, bludgeoned each other on the head; rotted fruits were hurled upon the stage. The uproar was so deafening that the dancers could not hear the music. This was awful, barbaric music, a bold new creation that had burst forth upon the Shining Shore, a terrible mistake, a fiasco, sure to ruin the Ballets Russes.…Ah, but for the beauty of a moment like this in French history! Stravinsky, Diaghilev, and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky must have treasured every moment of it.

Differing accounts and misrepresentations aside, “The Rite of Spring” was a piece of music with which to be reckoned. The first few times I heard it, it created an amazing anxiety in me. One source of anxiety is repetition. Repetition plays an integral part in describing a pagan Russian ritual of sacrifice. In the curious introduction, the bassoon is played an octave above its normal range, a sound that is hardly recognizable as being from a bassoon. What follows is not a development of themes, but crashing, repetitive clusters of chords with syncopated accents. The listener is assaulted by ferocity—the gross distortion of tonality, the massive orchestration, and, most prominently, the unabating syncopation.

How could this be a ballet? Who could possibly dance it? Jean Cocteau, who wrote about the premiere, recounted that the audience was as stunned by what it saw as by what it heard. In fact, Stravinsky intended the music to be independent of the dance onstage, and the dance was to be thoroughly modern—with stomping—and far from beautiful. Today the ballet is performed infrequently, but the music remains a pinnacle, or at least a landmark, of Western music.

In creating their story of pagan ritual and sacrifice in ancient Russia, Stravinsky and the Russian Primitivist archeologist and artist Nicolas Roerich crafted what they considered the first "modern" ballet. The sections are:

  1. The Adoration of the Earth
    Introduction, The Augurs of Spring (Dances of the Adolescents), Ritual of Abduction, Spring Rounds, Ritual of the Rival Tribe, Procession of the Sage, The Kiss of the Earth (the Sage), The Dance of the Earth,
  2. The Sacrifice
    Introduction, Mystic Circles of the Adolescents, Glorification of the Chosen One, Evocation of the Ancestors, Ritual Action of the Ancestors, Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One)

The dance depicts stomping to the rhythm of the earth, the trance-like evocation of spirits, and thought giving way to primal body and rhythm. The listener is assaulted with a music that bludgeons any social construct down to base instinct, then near-trance. Before Stravinsky, emotion was expressed by musical means—structure, meter, and tonality, or lack of it. Stravinsky dealt with the raw affect of coarse sound. All of the odd timbres, the jagged melodies that stack upon each other, the constantly changing meter, the seeming orchestral chaos, made primitive urge dominate. Only Stravinsky could make us want to abandon our “civilized” selves to such primitive instinct.

— Max Derrickson