Program Notes: March 5, 2006
Pavane for a Dead Princess (Pavane pour une Infante défunte)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
At the beginning of the 20th Century, the two most successful French Impressionist composers were Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Ravel was born in 1875 in Ciboure, France. Like most of his French contemporaries, he studied at the Paris Conservatoire. Unlike most great composers, he wrote little. However, nearly all of these few works are considered masterpieces, staying in the active repertory since their premieres. From early on, Ravel's compositional style was distinctively his own—meticulous yet full of lush beauty, a brilliant combination of precision, balance, and melting sensuality.
Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess) was commissioned of the 24-year-old Ravel in 1899 as a somewhat whimsical salon piece for piano. Ricardo Vines premiered the work to much acclaim in 1902. The composer was a bit bewildered by the work's popularity, but nonetheless orchestrated it in 1910, to even greater success. Like another of his great works, Bolero (1928), the Pavane shows Ravel's lifelong interest in formal structure for its own sake, as well as his adoration of Spanish music, a love inspired in him by his Basque mother. With Bolero, Ravel repeated one theme over and over while experimenting with its orchestration. By contrast, in the Pavane Ravel borrows a moderately paced dance form from the Renaissance.
The Pavane was not meant to be a funeral lament for a child. Ravel chose the title because he liked the sonority of the French words “infante défunte.” He hoped to evoke the scene of a young Spanish princess delighting in this stately dance in quiet reverie, as Velazquez would have painted in the Spanish court.
The Pavane shows us Ravel's gift for exquisite melody and his mastery of orchestration. The perfect balance among strings, woodwinds, and golden glowing horn creates a quiescent, inner splendor, dance-like but meditative. Ravel's cleverness with pizzicato propels the dance with graceful but slightly shuffling feet; the harp glissandos swoop with the young dancer's lifting arms. The Pavane also illustrates Ravel's bewitching harmonies, bringing the exotic and the ancient into play, with modal tonalities of Spanish folk music woven together with parallel harmonies of the Renaissance, all bathed in an Impressionist's glow. It is a beautifully rendered muse into a child's fantasy moment, expressed in a tender and wistful dance.
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Opus 22
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
The prolific Camille Saint-Saëns might well be considered the professor emeritus of French music. Over a span of 85 years, he composed over 300 works in a huge range of genres, performed in hundreds of concerts as pianist and organist, taught countless pupils, championed new composers, helped revive the works of his adored Bach and Handel, and was known in every corner of the music world. From his earliest childhood, music poured forth from the young Camille. He learned the piano at age 2, was composing at 3, and became a concert pianist at 10. As Saint-Saëns himself said, he produced music as naturally as an apple tree produces fruit.
Saint-Saëns' music was inventive—sometimes branded as dangerously innovative—but maintained its classical elegance, mixed with Romantic harmonies and energies. Not only was he a musical genius, but his intellectual appetites ranged wide. As well as being a poet and playwright, he contributed to scholarly progress in astronomy, botany, archeology, and philosophy. As for his insatiable love of astronomy, he once called short an important rehearsal so that he could view a night-sky event. Saint-Saëns' personal life was the tragic opposite of his musical and intellectual success. A miserable marriage that ended in divorce, the tragic deaths of both of his young sons within 6 weeks of one another, slight physical stature, an easily caricatured beak-like nose, and a lisping foghorn voice'all this ultimately left him a misanthrope.
Of his hundreds of compositions, his orchestral works, his masterpiece opera Samson and Delilah, and his concerti are the most popular. His beloved Symphony No. 3 ('Organ') may have been his favorite child, but his bête noire quickly became The Carnival of the Animals. That this was his best-known work gave Saint-Saëns no end of disgruntlement. He composed the work in a few days during a trip to South America, but actually banned its public performance for many years, save for the lovely 'Swan' movement, knowing instinctively that this humorous piece of musical fluff, created as a gag to please his inner circle of friends, would become his albatross.
The Second Piano Concerto, premiered in 1868 with Saint-Saëns at the keyboard and his friend Anton Rubinstein conducting, was not initially successful. Having composed and rehearsed the work in only 3 weeks, Saint-Saëns blamed its lackluster premiere on insufficient practice. But the work soon became a perennial favorite. Its novelty shows Saint-Saëns in youthful high spirits, the piece being a bit inorganic in its juxtaposed themes and movements. A famous witticism about the concerto claimed, 'It begins with Bach and ends with Offenbach.'
The introspective, deeply reverent improvisatorial opening is reminiscent of Bach (but with a smidgeon of Beethoven). This is indeed an unlikely way to begin a concerto, especially when followed by a fairly bombastic orchestral introduction, and then by a demurely romantic and sensitive theme, which was actually created by Saint-Saëns' pupil Gabriel Fauré. In contrast to the moody, weighty first movement, the second movement dances a tricky scherzo with light-footed timpani work and clever oboe writing, filled with the invention of which Saint-Saëns was always so fond. The concerto ends with a tarantella, a carnival-like finale full of quick-silver piano passages whose energetic, yet sometimes menacing, mood could not be further removed from the pathos of the first. One can hear the skill of Saint-Saëns the pianist throughout this concerto, with its arching, difficult scalar passages and arpeggios, ultimately sparking to the finale's pyrotechnics. But this exquisite concerto is also a hallmark of Saint-Saëns the composer, characterized by his beautiful turns of phrase and harmonic diversions.
Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Opus 74, “Pathétique”
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
As the very first notes of Tchaikovsky's masterpiece Symphony No. 6 are played, we are drawn into a most extraordinary world. Beginning with the bassoon emerging from the sobering darkness, it is apparent that this Symphony is aptly named, filled as it is with emotion and pathos. The brooding yet simple opening theme proclaims fate and tragedy. Indeed, tragedy soon befell Tchaikovsky: He died just 9 days after the work's premiere, a death reported to be from cholera but widely suspected to be suicide.
Tchaikovsky was obsessed with Fate. He described it as ''the fatal force which prevents our hopes of happiness from being realized, and which watches jealously to see that our bliss and happiness are never complete and unclouded.' This sentiment seems to fill the symphony. The first movement includes the steadily descending melodic motif that Tchaikovsky associated with Fate in many of his works.
The subtitle Pathétique was given to the Symphony by Tchaikovsky's brother, Modeste, the day after its premiere. The composer himself considered the alternate subtitle of Programme (i.e., a work following a story line), because he cryptically described the piece as a symphony 'with a programme, but with a programme of a kind which remains an enigma to all'let them guess it who can.' It is tempting to agree with the oft-proposed theory that Tchaikovsky wrote the Pathétique as his own requiem, as evidenced by the work's pathos, the composer's mysterious 'program,' and the curious circumstances of his death. More likely, however, the grief pouring forth in the Pathétique reflects his highly discordant life and was the musical 'heart on the sleeve' found in so many of his works. Whatever its source, the poignancy and power of this symphony make it one of the towering achievements of Western music.
The opening Adagio is by far the longest of the four movements. It takes us through some heart-wrenching moments, culminating in the strings and low brass echoing a variant of the opening theme as they sink to the very depths of despair, at last giving way to a massive timpani roll, and the feeble spent utterance of bass pizzicati. No one but Tchaikovsky can so grab our very essence and smash hope into anguished bits. When our breath returns, the second prominent theme of the movement resurfaces'a sad, pleading melody in the strings, calming us at least for a bit, until a most unique coda appears to end the angst. Again, based on the opening theme, the brass and winds seem to lift us away from the muddiness and tell us, 'Look there. That's life, but there's more to be told.'
The Allegro con grazia second movement is another of Tchaikovsky's great achievements. This is a lilting waltz crafted in the meter of 2 + 3 (5/4). The writing is so clever and seamless that the listener hardly recognizes its off-balancedness. The waltz does indeed dance us out of the first movement's despair, quite gracefully, but with a slight limp. The middle section brings us back to B minor and tragedy, but is relieved by the return to the main idea.
The third movement, Allegro molto vivace, is another departure from pathos. This is a quick-step march filled with the effervescent melodies and thematic development that are quintessential Tchaikovsky, yet there are hints of the ever-menacing Fate that shadows the whole symphony. This march is masterfully situated within the structure of the piece, for, with all its shininess and energy, it leaves us a little exhausted. When the march ends, Fate awaits us. It's been expecting us.
The last movement returns to the sorrowfulness of the first, but with resignation. Some of the same ideas'descending scales of resignation'return from the first and second movements, with the horns calling out to weary souls. But the mood tells of desperation. The soulfulness of the writing in these, the last strains of the composer's life, are some of the saddest and most beautiful that he created. This final movement, quietly sobbing, ebbing away from hope, finishes Tchaikovsky's tragic tale of the human condition, in an abrupt terse, yet beautiful expression of despair.
— Max Derrickson