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Program Notes: April 28, 2007

Songs of the Auvergne, Books 1 and 2

Joseph Canteloube

(born Annonay, France, 1879; died Paris, 1957)

Love affairs with folk music began long before Marie-Joseph Canteloube de Malaret wrote his five volumes of folk songs, Songs of the Auvergne, from 1923 through 1954. Although Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and many others adapted folksongs, their artistic sound was very different from the academic ethnomusicology of Canteloube’s contemporaries, such as Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly. In a way, Canteloube bridged the gap by using folk melodies directly but giving them orchestral clothing, sometimes sparse, sometimes lavish, but generally keeping as true as possible to each song’s origins.

Canteloube came honestly by his lifelong passion for folk music. He was born and raised in the Auvergne, France’s beautiful southern region that is famous for its cheeses and rich culture of folksongs and dances. When Canteloube was a boy, his father often took him on walks in the countryside, where they gloried in the farms, mountains, and provincial life filled with the “peasant arts,” as folkways were then called. From an early age, Canteloube was enchanted with the delightful, soulful melodies of Auvergne’s indigenous music. His family encouraged and supported his musical abilities, which eventually led him to study with French composer Vincent d’Indy (1851-1932). Although d’Indy influenced Canteloube’s Impressionistic and Wagnerian composing style, the two were peers in their devotion to folksong. Both found folk music purer and more accessible than what they saw as overly academic art music. It was while studying in d’Indy’s music school, the Schola Cantorum, that Canteloube came to believe that “peasant songs often rise to the level of purest art in terms of feeling and expression, if not in form.”

Although Canteloube composed much during his long and active life, he is best known for the Songs of Auvergne, set for soprano and orchestra, and characterized by an unusual language, sound mimicry, and use of old dance forms. Canteloube composed in the language of the Auvergne, known as Auvergnan or Languedoc/Provençal, and still spoken by many Auvergnats today. Some historians believe that it derives from the Gaels, with Latin influence, and some words cannot be translated into English. In his music, Canteloube uses the oboe and clarinet to mimic a regional instrument called the cabrette (little goat), a bagpipe made of goatskin. So popular was this instrument that in social gatherings, most songs could be sung only with its accompaniment. Lastly, many of the songs take the form of ancient regional dances, particularly the bourrée. Common in the Auvergne and Biscay (Spain) in the 17th Century, the bourrée was danced in quick double time, somewhat resembling a gavotte. Art composers like Bach wrote bourrées, often as dance movements in suites, but also as independent pieces. Over the centuries, as is common in folk traditions, the dance form blended with several song forms, its new associations mixing with the old. Some of the blithest songs in Canteloube’s collection are these sweet bourrées. Especially beautiful are the cabrette-style cadenzas with oboe and clarinet that separate the three Book I bourrées, Water from the spring, Where shall we go to graze?, and Down there in Limousin.

Perhaps the most famous song in the collection, and certainly one of its most beautiful, is The Deserted Girl (Book 2). The mournfulness and precious longing in its melody exemplify what Canteloube and many others found so universal in folk music. Here, too, is Canteloube’s superb ability to give a lush, Romantic orchestral accompaniment to a simple a cappella folksong. Though his contemporaries criticized this practice, Canteloube responded with a famous and reasonable justification: “Just because the peasant sings without accompaniment, that is not sufficient reason to imitate him. When the peasant sings at his work, or during the harvest, there is an accompaniment which surrounds his song which would not be felt by those whose interest is purely academic. Only poets and artists will feel it… It is nature herself, the earth which makes this, and the peasant and his song cannot be separated from this… If you suppress the atmosphere, you lose a large part of the poetry. Only the immaterial art of music can evoke the necessary atmosphere, with its timbres, its rhythms and its impalpable, moving harmonies.”

— Max Derrickson

Symphony No. 4 in G Major

Gustav Mahler

(born Kalischt, near Iglau, Bohemia [now Jihlava, Czech Republic], 1860; died Vienna, 1911)

The themes behind Gustav Mahler’s symphonies can be difficult to unravel, so deeply personal and seemingly self-indulgent are they, and yet so sweepingly universal. For example, in 1901, when Mahler conducted the premiere of his Symphony No. 4 in Munich, many were baffled by its fourth-movement soprano song about a child’s view of heaven, not to mention its use of sleigh bells and the curiously tuned violin solo in its second movement. The symphony’s program, about a child’s earthly death and heavenly life, may be explained in part by Mahler’s difficult early childhood (four of his 13 siblings died before he was born, and four more died when he was young), and by his struggles with poor health and his obsession with his own death. All ten of Mahler’s symphonies (nine symphonies outright, and one symphonic song cycle) form a huge cycle that addresses issues of life, death, and, specifically in the fourth, innocence.

Despite its generally unsuccessful premiere, the Symphony No. 4 had its champions from the start. Indeed, many people became beguiled by Mahler through first falling in love with this, his only symphony that lasts less than an hour and is uncharacteristically light-hearted. Like his other symphonies, however, the fourth shows us what is so breathtaking about Mahler’s way of making music: his extremely colorful and innovative orchestration, the astounding breadth of his works’ organic-ness, their melodic beauty, and those uniquely Mahlerian moments that capture the vastness of earth, sky, and universe in a single chord.

Mahler built his fourth symphony around the poem Das himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life). In 1892, when many composers were gathering inspiration from folksongs and poetry, Mahler borrowed Das himmlische Leben from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), an anthology of old folk poems. Many of the anthology’s poems made their way into Mahler’s music. This one nearly made its way into several works prior to the fourth symphony. The vision of a child’s blissful delight with feasting, playing, and singing in heaven influenced his third symphony, a massive work describing how the sacred speaks to us on earth. At last, the poem found its place as the finale of the fourth symphony, and Mahler essentially created the rest of the symphony to lead up to it.

The sleigh bells and the four flutes that open the pastoral first movement are indeed a unique way to start a symphony. Their startling yet comfortable sound is a shrewd metaphor for the coexistence of human and nonhuman, and serves as a tonal link between the first and last movements. The first movement’s gentle atmosphere, even with its anxious moments, represents the deep blue sky, the floor of heaven, so appealing and yet so daunting. Storms will come, but the blue purity continues high above. A richly melodic string first theme and low-string second theme become intermingled in an immense development section. In one of its most glorious moments, as the basses pluck away gently but with purpose, unison flutes play an enchanting melody that captures a sense of soaring above the clouds. This good-natured movement is interrupted by a conspicuously dark fanfare—a motif that will become a defining theme in the Symphony No. 5 (1902). After the sleigh bells announce the return of the first section (recapitulation), the themes sound a little different. Already we have started to make the transition from earth to heaven.

The second movement plays the role of a scherzo, but in no great hurry. The movement opens with the horns darkly tolling like distant bells, a clever contrast to the opening of the first movement. Even in its leisure, the music is disturbing and even a bit freakish. Mahler called it a danse macabre. He first entitled the movement Freund Hein spielt auf (Friend Death Performs) —Death playing his fiddle to lure the child to the afterlife. To accentuate Death’s otherworldliness, the solo violinist must play with each string tuned a whole tone higher than usual, a technique called scordatura, meant to sound jarring, like an out-of-tune street fiddler. The contrasting trio is in the form of a ländler, an old Viennese dance form, in which presumably the dear child is happily being wooed into death. Yet the horns occasionally toll, carrying the child closer to the abyss. After the timpani tap out a rhythm firmly escorting the child to the beyond, the movement closes rather delightfully, showing us that death isn’t as mean-spirited as we might have thought.

The third movement is perhaps Mahler’s most exquisitely beautiful slow movement. He described it as laughing and crying at the same time. The first theme, meditative and ethereally lovely, is countered with an anguished second theme. Beneath both themes, the basses play a slow, quiet, persistent pizzicato (plucking). The movement becomes a set of variations, with the bass pizzicato holding everything together. This movement portrays soulful transition, profound peace as the evanescent spirit prepares to break free. The transition arrives with the loudest moment of the symphony, when the strings leap up and the skies split before us. With massive blows, the timpani pound out the pizzicato motif while the harp glissando’s furiously, the bass drum rends a huge tear in heaven’s blue floor, and the brasses foretell the fourth movement. The child’s soul breaks free and rises through the deep blueness. Undulating harmonies lift us gradually higher, until harmonics in the strings give us our first fresh breath of the new plane.

The fourth movement opens with a sweetness that tells us we have arrived in heaven. The movement is set in song form, with the poem sung by a soprano. Each new verse is announced by the sleigh bells and flute theme that began the first movement, and ended in solemnity and peace. The text is the child’s view of heaven, naïve but sacred in its innocence. By the last verse, the music is serene, reflecting the child’s words about heavenly music and its patron saint, Cecilia. As the symphony closes, quiet and sublime, the harp sews up the gateway rent by the bass drum in the third movement, by gently plucking in its lowest register, where, above the deep blue, souls forever sing.

— Max Derrickson