The Galaxy – The Joys of French Composing

Erik Satie (1866-1925)

Image via Wikipedia

Its amazing what little things can inspire the germ of an idea!  I was listening to a CBS Sunday Morning piece on Diane von Furstenberg, and they were playing some Claude Debussy in the background.  That inspired in me a train of thought – from Debussy to Erik Satie – that led to tonight’s show theme – a celebration of French Composing.

We started with a lovely motet by François Couperin, a composer and pedagogist who was a major influence on composers ranging from Bach to Johannes Brahms, Maurice Ravel and Richard Strauss.  Couperin’s book, “L’art de toucher le clavecin” (“The Art of Harpsichord Playing), influenced J.S. Bach to the point where Bach adopted the fingering system that Couperin set forth in the book.  Tonight’s piece was his Audite omnes et expavescite (a meditation on the Passion of the Christ).  The piece was buried within a private collection that surfaced at a second-hand bookseller’s shop in Paris in the 1930s.  An Australian art lover, Louise Dyer (the founder of the Éditions de l’Oiseau-Lyre) reunited this collection with another collection of Couperin that had been purchased at Sotheby’s by the Bibliotheque nationale de France, thereby retaining for posterity the magic of this great French master.  This compilation of the complete works of Couperin, and the resultant publication, was the first project of the Éditions de l’Oiseau-Lyre.

Next we heard a set of harpsichord pieces by another master of the baroque era, Jean-Phillipe Rameau.  Rameau made his name through the publishing of a “Treatise on Harmony” in 1722.  He spent his time after that as a teacher and composer, and eventually grew to be considered one of the most important composers and theorists in Baroque-era France.  Outside of his operas, his keyboard works are of considerable interest, and we heard one of those works tonight, his Pieces en Concerts (written in 1741), in a lovely rendition by Trevor Pinnock.

Jospeh Bodin de Boismortier (1689 – 1755) was accused in 1780 by theorist Jean Benjamin de La Borde as being a “competent musician [who] took only too much advantage of this tendency [for easy music] and devised, for the many, airs and duets in great numbers which were performed on the flute, the violins, oboes, bagpipes and hurdy-gurdies… He so abused the ingenuousness of his numerous buyers that, in the end, the following was said of him: ‘Happy is he, Boismortier, whose fertile quill each month, without pain, conceives a new air at will.”  Indeed, Boismortier was a prodigious writer (although apparently not quite as prodigious as J.S. Bach, his senior by four years) and pedagogue who wrote for the entire array of instruments available at the time.  Considered along with Rameau to be part of the French Rococo movement, he is also considered to be one of the first French composers to write concertos.  He is notable for being one of the first composers who was able to go without patronage, having been given a royal license for engraving music in 1724, thus being able to make enormous sums of money by selling his music to the public.  Tonight we heard his Deuxieme serenade ou simphonie francoise, a lovely dance suite that is crisply performed by Le Concert Spirituel.

Georges Bizet is easily best known for his enormously popular opera Carmen.  But Bizet wrote more than just opera.  Indeed, Bizet was considered by many to rank among the greatest European pianists of his day, with such a notable skill for sight reading that he is said to have given a faultless sight reading of a work of Franz Liszt in the presence of the composer.  Liszt ranked him among the three best pianists in Europe, and his skills were praised by Hector Berlioz, among others (Berlioz wrote in 1863, “His talent as a pianist is so great that no difficulty can stop him when sight-reading orchestral scores. After Liszt and Mendelssohn one could see few sight-readers of his ability.”).  Tonight we heard a set of songs of his, settings of various French authors, including the great French literary colossus Victor Hugo.  Of the five Bizet songs we heard, two were from Hugo, Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe (from 1866) and La Coccinelle, from 1868.  We also heard settings of another French Romantic, Alphonse de Lamartine‘s Chant d’amour,  and settings of Édouard Pailleron and Louis Delâtre.  Of course, one cannot say enough about the pleasure of hearing this gorgeous material in the interpretation done here by the great mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli.

Part of the inspiration for tonight’s show came from a hearing of a piece of Claude Debussy’s.  I would be tempted to refer to Debussy as the quintessential French composer, except that there is such a wide breadth of music that falls under the French tri-color flag, not all of which I am able to play tonight (for example, there is a lovely French pipe-organ tradition that goes back to the 1800s, and includes such lumineries as Maurice Duruflé, Marcel Dupré and Charles-Marie Widor, all of whom are worthy of further examination).  Yet, to me, it would be shameful to devote a program to French music and not include at least a sampling of the glorious wonders of Debussy.  For tonight, we have included a set of three piano pieces, referred to as Pour le Piano.  Written betwen 1894 and 1901, he borrowed the names for the three movements (Prelude, Sarabande and Toccata) from the Baroque tradition.  Yet the phrasing and the innate poetry of Debussy’s arrangement is uniquely Debussy’s.  Indeed, Debussy was an admirer of the aforementioned Rameau, even going so far to write a Hommage à Rameau as part of his first set of Images.  Yet Debussy’s music was solidly rooted in the times he lived in.

We followed Debussy with the great Erik Satie.  Satie’s work occupies the opposite end of the musical spectrum from that of Satie, a purposeful sort of minimalism that contrasts directly against Debussy’s aggressive musicianship.  Satie at times referred to his music as “furniture music”, music that was to be experienced without necessarily being noticed.  Yet such exquisite melodies as tonight’s set of three Gymnopédies (written in 1888, and ranking among Satie’s earliest compositions) just beg to be luxuriated in, with all their sensual beauty.  Jean Cocteau, who saw Satie every morning for an extended period, said this of Satie:

“He inherited a grave eccentricity from his Scottish ancestry… Egotistical, cruel, obsessive, he would listen to nothing that did not conform to his dogma and would fly into furious rages with anything that disturbed it.  Egotistical, because he thought only of his music.  Cruel, because he defended his music.  Obsessive, because he polished his music.  And his music was tender.  And so he was, too, in his own way.  He cleaned himself with pumice stone.  He never used water.  At a time when music surged forth in floods, recognising (sp) Debussy’s genius but fearful of his despotism (they remained in friendly but quarrelsome terms right up to the end), he turned his back on the latter’s school and became, at the Schola Cantorum, the odd sort of Socrates we knew.  There he pumiced, defied, smoothed himself, and forged the little orifice through which his exquisite force needed only to flow from its source.”

Given that The Galaxy revels in an examination of contrasts, it is only fitting that we should enjoy the contrast of styles that one gets when going from Debussy, to Satie, and then finally to Olivier Messiaen.  Whereas Debussy was inspired by the literary Symbolist movement, and Satie would construct his own method of minimalism that is now considered a direct predecessor to our modern “ambient” musical styles, Messiaen was inspired by a number of things, ranging from the sounds of birds to his devotion to Roman Catholicism.  He was an innovator in the field of serialism (Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone serialism was but one method of serialism).  Tonight’s work, La Bouscarle (in English, “Cetti’s Warbler”) is a “moment musicaux” that depicts a series of birdcalls, inspired by the bird commonly referred to as the Cetti’s Warbler, and was written between 1956 and 1958.

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