WDBX Opera Overnight – Debussy, Puccini, Schoenberg

English: Photograph of Act 5 of the original 1...

Photograph of Act 5 of the original 1902 production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, published in Le Théâte, June 1902 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We start tonight’s show with Claude Debussy‘s Pelléas et Mélisande. Debussy began Pelléas et Mélisande in 1893, although he had wanted to write an opera for at least a decade prior.  He wanted to do something completed different from what was then available – he had his own vision of “musical theater”.  He was also tiring of the Wagnerian influence, and wanted to go in a different direction than that.  With this opera, he succeeded.

Tonight’s recording is a 2000 recording that features Anne Sophie von Otter, Wolfgang Holzmair, Laurent Laouri, with Orchestre National De France and the Choeur de Radio De France, under the baton of Bernard Haitink.

For more info on the opera, check out my previous blog on the piece.  (This way, I don’t have to be repetitive, since I wrote quite a bit that day).

Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon in La Boheme

Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón in La Boheme, in a production filmed for PBS’ Great Performances in 2008-2009

For our next opera, we are going to hear a fairly recent recording of a great work by Giacomo Puccini, La Bohème.  Puccini used a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa which was in turn based on a set of stories by Henri Murger.  It was premiered in 1896, and is ranked as the fourth most frequently performed opera in the repertoire, with numerous great recordings available.  Tonight’s recording is from 2008, and features the great combo of Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón, with Bertrand De Billy conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra & Chorus.

Arnold Schoenberg

Arnold Schoenberg

Our final piece of music is a four scene “drama with music” by Arnold SchoenbergDie glückliche Hand (The Hand of Fate) was written by Schoenberg between 1910 and 1913, and was premiered in Vienna on October 24, 1924.  Schoenberg was influenced in his writing by events that had occurred over the previous few years, and the underlying theme of the work is that man continues to repeatedly make the same mistakes.

The work is scored for one singing role, a baritone, along with two mimed characters and a six person chorus.  Tonight’s recording is from 1981, and features Siegmund Nimsgern, with Pierre Boulez directing the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.


The Galaxy – I hope the sea doesn’t make you seasick

French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918), by Marcel Baschet, 1884 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, we celebrate the 150th birthday of Claude Debussy.  Debussy’s importance in the larger historical scheme of music should not be underestimated, and is generally considered to be crucial to the movement of music from the Romanticism of the 19th century to the modernism of the 2oth.  He was a brilliant pianist, and that brilliance easily informed his compositions, and can be easily heard today in his solo piano and his chanson compositions.  But he also had a distinctively brilliant capacity for symphonic colors, using with great ease the tonal palette that the orchestra gave him.   To me, Debussy’s importance in the scale of musical history is no less than that of Wagner’s, and the fact that Debussy’s impact extended far beyond the operatic world, and into the world of the practical musician (through his piano works, something that operatic superstars like Wagner or Puccini never did) increases his influence substantially.


Claude Debussy saw to publication two editions...

Claude Debussy saw to publication two editions of the full score of La mer. The first was published by Durand in 1905 and bore the famous reproduction of Hokusai’s Wave “in various shades of green, blue, tan, and beige” on the cover page. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Debussy was inspired by a livelong fascination for the sea when he began the writing process for La Mer in 1903.  “I have always retained a passionate love for her.  You will say that the ocean  does not exactly wash the Burgundian hillsides… and my seascapes might be studio landscapes; but I have an endless store of memories and, to my mind, they are worth more than the reality, whose beauty often deadens thought.”  While the piece was not initially well-received, it eventually earned a place among Debussy’s most well-admired works, as it gives a full demonstration of his genius for orchestration, and his willingness to use what was then unusual and exotic chordal patterns.  Tonight, we heard a lovely recording, a long-time favorite of mine from the St. Louis Symphony, conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

Photograph of Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After La Mer, we also heard, from the same recording, Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.  Debussy was greatly inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé‘s L’après-midi d’un faune, written in 1865, but it would appear that Mallarmé did not like the idea of his poetry being set to music, at least at first.  But we are told that Mallarmé appears to either have warmed to the idea, or was so struck by the music that Debussy wrote for the piece that his mind was changed.  Debussy biographer Maurice Dumesnil quotes a letter from Mallarmé that states: “I have just come out of the concert, deeply moved. The marvel! Your illustration of the Afternoon of a Faun, which presents a dissonance with my text only by going much further, really, into nostalgia and into light, with finesse, with sensuality, with richness. I press your hand admiringly, Debussy. Yours, Mallarmé.”

Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky and Ludmilla Schollar in Jeux, 1913

Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky and Ludmilla Schollar in the original performance of Jeux, 1913

Jeux was the last work written by Debussy for orchestra.  It was originally intended to be used for a ballet (it was initially described as a “poème dansé”) by the Ballet Russes and Serge Diaghilev (with Vaslav Nikinsky dancing lead, as depicted at right), and after some dispute about the ballet’s scenario, wrote it in August-September 1912.  It was premiered on May 15, 1913, but it was not well received, and also had the bad fortune of being premiered a half-month before the legendarily controversial premiere of Igor Stravinsky‘s Rite of Spring.  Even if Jeux might be a bit (shall we say…) gentler than Rite of Spring, it was no less daring musically, and was just as demanding of the musicians playing it, with no fewer than 60 tempo changes.  The scenario given by Diaghilev to Debussy described the scene thusly:

“The scene is a garden at dusk; a tennis ball has been lost; a boy and two girls are searching for it. The artificial light of the large electric lamps shedding fantastic rays about them suggests the idea of childish games: they play hide and seek, they try to catch one another, they quarrel, they sulk without cause. The night is warm, the sky is bathed in pale light; they embrace. But the spell is broken by another tennis ball thrown in mischievously by an unknown hand. Surprised and alarmed, the boy and girls disappear into the nocturnal depths of the garden.”

Tonight’s recording is a 1991 recording by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, under the conduction of Jukka-Pekka Saraste.

Debussy at the piano, in front of the composer...

Debussy at the piano, in front of the composer Ernest Chausson, 1893 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We earlier stated that Debussy was a brilliant pianist, who could have easily made a living doing concert performances – this brilliance came out in his piano music.  His piano music comes to us in two forms – that which he wrote for solo piano, and his chansons, which he wrote for voice with piano.  These chansons are of great interest, in that these works easily display the regard that he held for the French poets of his day (Paul Verlaine was a particular favorite), and they display the great care in which he set these works to music (note the affection shown by Mallarmé to Debussy’s setting of his work).  Indeed, if we listen to some of his early songs, we get a glimpse into the development of his compositional technique.  Tonight, we heard a set of songs that Debussy wrote between 1882 and 1884 for Marie-Blanche Vasnier, collectively known as the Vasnier Songbook.  At the time he wrote the songs, Debussy was a student at the Paris Conservatoire, and was apparently quite infatuated with Mme. Vasnier, married though she was.  He wrote at least 27 songs for her, of which we heard 12.  Five of them are settings of Fête galantes by Verlaine, which seek to set to music the similarly named genre of eighteenth century painting (the term translates as “romantic festivities”, and largely consist of scenes of people amusing themselves in shady parks and country landscapes; such subjects also found their way into numerous Impressionist paintings).  After the Verlaine, we heard a setting of a poem by Theophile Gautier, then six poems by Paul Bourget.  All this comes from a 1995 recording by Dawn Upshaw, with James Levine (well known for his leadership of the Metropolitan Opera) accompanying on the piano.

We then heard a set of pieces for solo piano.  We started with Debussy’s setting of Clair de Lune, from his Suite bergamasque.  Debussy actually wrote several pieces with that same title, including one of the chansons from the Vasnier Songbook that we heard earlier (Clair de Lune is actually the title of a poem by Paul Verlaine that Debussy set to song), but they are all unrelated musically, although they may have shared some inspirational genesis.  However, this rendition of Clair de Lune actually had the original title of “Promenade Sentimentale”, again taking after a poem by Verlaine.  As Debussy began the piece around 1890 and completed it in 1905, it is unknown how much of the suite was written earlier and how much was written later.  It is suggested that, as the original title refers to one of Verlaine’s earliest poems, that Debussy may have changed the title to reflect both Verlaine’s changing styles and his own.

André Caplet with Claude Debussy

André Caplet with Claude Debussy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After Clair de Lune, we closed the show with a set of six piano pieces that Debussy wrote for his daughter, Claude-Emma.  Debussy wrote Children’s Corner between 1906 and 1908, with titles for the individual movements in English, and a mixture of English and American inspirations.  It is considered among his more important piano works, and was set into an orchestral version by his friend André Caplet.
Tonight’s recording, as with the recording of Clair de Lune, was by Phillipe Entremont.  Clair de Lune was dated 1959, while Children’s Corner dates from 1963.

WDBX Opera Overnight – Debussy, Stravinsky

Mary Garden as Méĺisande in Debussy's "Pe...

Mary Garden, the original Mélisande (Image via Wikipedia)

We began the show with a rather distinctive piece of music, the only opera completed by Claude Debussy.  Debussy began Pelléas et Mélisande in 1893, although he had wanted to write an opera for at least a decade prior.  His delay was in part because he was having difficulty finding a play that would fit the vision that he had for “musical theater”.  He suffered through several aborted attempts, including a libretto based on the legend of El Cid, as he was wanting to avoid the standard operatic plot devices that were popular in that period.  Also important was the influence of Richard Wagner, in an odd sort of way – by 1892 he was tiring of the Wagnerian operatic style, and wanted to go in a completely different direction.  In an 1890 letter, he wrote:

“The ideal would be two associated dreams. No time, no place. No big scene […] Music in opera is far too predominant. Too much singing and the musical settings are too cumbersome […] My idea is of a short libretto with mobile scenes. No discussion or arguments between the characters whom I see at the mercy of life or destiny.”

English: French operatic baritone Jean Périer ...

Jean Périer, the original Pelléas (Image via Wikipedia)

In 1892, he found a stage play by Maurice Maeterlinck that he thought would be perfect for the concept that he had envisioned.  Materlinck’s plays were quite popular in the avant garde community in Paris, and Maeterlinck’s Symbolist work was perfectly in line with the material that Debussy was at that time using for his numerous chansons.

The result is like nothing else in the opera canon, a work which is uniquely and distinctively Debussy’s.  Whereas Wagner’s work brings across images of heroes and heroines (i.e. Wotan, Brunhilde, Tristan, Isolde), Debussy’s work is the stuff of dreams, manifested in music.  Instead of writing music, Debussy is sculpting sound.  This sort of thing pretty much falls in line with the rest of Debussy’s work, i.e. La Mer, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, or aforementioned chansons, and easily ranks among Debussy’s best work.  The opera was premiered in 1902 with great success, and is still regularly performed.

In researching other recordings of this great masterpiece, I have stumbled upon this rather revelatory reminiscence by Andre Messager, the conductor who convinced the Opera-Comique to schedule the opera’s premiere, and who conducted it quite successfully.  It is quite interesting:

Andre Messager

Andre Messager, who conducted the premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande

“The singers read through Pelléas at my house, with no one else present. Debussy played his score on the piano, singing all the roles in that deep, cavernous voice of his which often meant transposing lines an octave down, but whose delivery gradually became irresistible. The impression produced by that music on that occasion was, I believe, unique. To begin with there was a kind of mistrust, a resistance, then an ever closer attention, with the emotional temperature rising until the last notes of ‘Melisande’s death’, which fell amid silence and tears. At the end all of us were carried away with excitement, burning to get down to work as soon as possible.

During the weeks that followed, rehearsals took place amid growing enthusiasm; each scene was gone over twenty times without any of the singers showing the least sign of temper in the face of the composer’s demands – and he was very difficult to satisfy. With the first orchestral read-through began a series of gloomy days and discouraging rehearsals. Debussy had had the generous but unfortunate idea of getting the orchestral material copied by a friend who was hard up, but who was a mediocre copyist and a somewhat rudimentary musician, and it took three or four rehearsals simply to get the corrections sorted out. In the meantime a new difficulty had arisen, of some seriousness, to do with the changes of scene. Although the stage of the Opera-Comique looks fairly large, it has such small exits and such narrow wings that it is impossible to manoeuvre even a flat through them, and we were having to make on average three rapid changes per act! Debussy, imagining that these changes would be more or less instantaneous, had linked the different scenes with music that was far too short. He had to return to work, grumbling and raving, and I went to see him every day to snatch away the notes he had written between one rehearsal and another; that is how he wrote the wonderful interludes which provide such a moving commentary on the action.”

Andre Messager, ‘Les premieres representations de Pelleas,’ ReM, 7, 1 May 1926, pp. 110-12, as quoted in from “Debussy Remembered” by Roger Nichols

Tonight’s recording is a 2000 recording that features Anne Sophie von Otter, Wolfgang Holzmair, Laurent Laouri, with Orchestre National De France and the Choeur de Radio De France, under the baton of Bernard Haitink.

Tom in Bedlam, comforted only by Sarah Young (...

The last of the paintings in A Rake's Progress, by William Hogarth, in which Tom Rakewell has gone insane and has been committed to an asylum (Image via Wikipedia)

For our second opera this evening, we’re going to hear Igor Stravinski’s The Rake’s Progress.  Stravinski wrote the opera in 1951, using a libretto written by his friend W.H. Auden and Chester Kalmann, which in turn was based on a series of paintings by William Hogarth (called A Rake’s Progress) done in 1732-1733.  It was premiered on 9/11-1951, with noted soprano Elisabeth Schwartzkopf creating the role of Anne Trulove (we’ve heard a number of her recordings in the last few months).  The Rake’s Progress was the last work of Stravinsky’s neo-classical period, and he would begin writing serialist music in 1952 (I personally think that one can detect a hint of that sort of direction throughout the opera, although it is definitely in a neo-classical mode; I also think that I detect a bit of Broadway musical influence as well).  Stravinsky was living in the United States at the time, having left Europe in 1939 upon the outbreak of WWII, and I have no doubt that this is part of the reason why this opera was written in English, which we are told was quite a struggle for him.

Photoportrait of , Russian composer.

Igor Stravinsky (Image via Wikipedia)

Tonight’s recording is a 1994 recording, currently out of print but can be acquired used (possibly reissued here), that features Jon Garrison, Jayne West, Arthur Woodley, Shirley Love and John Cheek.  The Orchestra of St. Luke, and the Greg Smith Singers, are directed by Robert Craft, who was a close confidant of Stravinsky’s during the writing of the opera.  Interestingly enough, a bit of research suggests several recordings can be found with Stravinsky himself conducting, including a recording of the world premiere, with Elisabeth Schwartzkopf and Robert Rounseville.

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.