Fauré: Pelleas et Mélisande Suite
Brahms: Concerto for Violin and Violoncello
Tchaikovsky: Roméo et Juliette Overture (final version)
Roussel: Bacchus et Ariane, Suite No. 2
Pelléas et Mélisande, Suite from the Incidental Music, Op. 80. . . Gabriel Fauré
(Born May 12, 1845, in Pamiers, France; died November 4, 1924, in Paris)
Fauré lived and worked during a great period in the history of French art: the truly creative cultural explosion that took place in the early years of the Third Republic, after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. It is perhaps because he wrote so few works for orchestra that his name was relatively little known in the United States for so long, yet he is the composer and teacher whom Ravel revered, and to whom he dedicated his String Quartet. Through his pupil, Nadia Boulanger, and her pupil, Aaron Copland, Fauré’s esthetics and his techniques had a great influence on the course of American music in the 20th century. He composed while he earned his living as an organist, first in Rennes and then later at some of the most famous churches in Paris. In 1896, he succeeded Massenet as professor of composition at the Conservatory, where from 1905 until deafness forced his retirement in 1920, he was Director.
Pelléas et Mélisande, a play by the Belgian poetic dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949) was published in 1892 and was first performed in Paris in the next year. It quickly captured the interest of some of Europe’s finest (and the most dissimilar) young composers. Debussy made an opera of it (1902) and Schoenberg, a symphonic poem (1903). A 1905 performance of it even included incidental music by Sibelius. Fauré wrote his own incidental music for a production in English translation that opened at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London or June 21, 1898, with the great Mrs. Patrick Campbell as Mélisande and the composer conducting. His was the first music inspired by the play to be composed. The play tells the story of the beautiful and mysterious young Mélisande whom Golaud, grandson of the King, finds wandering in the forest. They marry and return to the royal castle, where she and Golaud’s brother, Pelléas, fall in love. Golaud kills Pelléas, and Mélisande dies.
Fauré and Mrs. Campbell discussed the project in March or April 1898, in London, and she apparently designated the places in the play that were to have music. He had barely a month in which to work: the pressure of his duties at the Conservatory and as organist at the Madeleine in Paris could not be lightened in the interest of a commercial theater enterprise in a foreign land. In fact, the Conservatory complicated matters for him greatly with a rush order for two flute pieces needed for the annual competition to be held in July, a commission he could not refuse. Surprisingly little of the new Fantasy for flute crept into the Pelléas music.
In order to get all this work done on time, he called on his young pupil, Charles Koechlin (1867-1950), to orchestrate the Pelléas music. Altogether there were eighteen pieces, some only a phrase or two in length and many of them interrelated. They served as entr’actes or as background music, heard behind the characters’ speeches. With some changes, the music was used in many subsequent stagings of the play in England, America and France, and probably elsewhere. As is the case with theater music, there were great variations between one production and another. These were not as substantial as those that must have been introduced into the play later, when Mrs. Campbell played Princess Mélisande in English, while the part of her lover, Pelléas, was played in French by Sarah Bernhardt.
The concert suite, taken from the incidental music, is made up of the biggest pieces, the Prélude and three entr’actes, all re-orchestrated by the composer. In its earliest form there were only two entr’actes, but Fauré later added another. The Prélude, which was heard before the curtain went up, prepared the atmosphere of the forest scene that opened the play. In the Prélude, passionate climaxes of emotional intensity mirror Mélisande’s involvement. Both the first movement and the last display Fauré’s sense of the tragic destiny of the characters with Mélisande the focus of both. Fileuse (“The Spinner”) preceded a scene in which the lovers were discovered alone in a castle room, Mélisande seated at a spinning wheel. The Chanson de Mélisande was not originally part of the suite that Fauré conceived, but its material is related to that in La Mort de Mélisande. Fauré had written the Sicilienne, a gently flowing, slow dance, for a production five years earlier of Molière’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme; he added it to the suitesome years after the first edition was published. Here it belonged to the title characters’ brief happy scene. Finally, in the music of The Death of Mélisande, Fauré’s music reflects Mélisande’s tragedy and the emotions she inspires in others.
The suite was first performed at a Lamoureux Concert in Paris, on February 3, 1901, conducted by Camille Chevillard.
Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, in A minor, Op. 102 . . . Johannes Brahms
(Born May 7, 1833, in Hamburg; died April 3, 1897, in Vienna)
Brahms prematurely became concerned about the fading of his creative force and worried how he would spend his last years. In middle age, the composer assumed a harsh and severe attitude toward much of the world outside his work, a protective stance made necessary by his wish to preserve time and strength for composition. Brahms even quarreled with some of his oldest and most faithful friends: his disagreements with Clara Schumann were relatively easily smoothed over but a problem with the violinist, Joachim, was somewhat more difficult to mend.
The two men, friends since 1853, had kept in touch through the passing years even though their busy careers prevented them from meeting often, but after a letter from Brahms to Mrs. Joachim was instrumental in defeating the violinist’s divorce suit, they did not speak for several years. It was Brahms, surprisingly, who took the first steps towards reestablishing their friendship, and his peace offering was this Double Concerto. It did succeed in patching up their friendship, but the old intimacy was never regained.
Why Brahms scored the “work of reconciliation,” as Clara Schumann called the concerto in her diary, for the unusual combination of violin and cello rather than for violin alone, is not clear. Perhaps Robert Hausmann, the cellist in Joachim’s quartet, had asked Brahms for a solo piece, as the composer was to use him as intermediary in reopening contact with the violinist. Perhaps the cello part was to be a cushion in case Joachim rejected Brahms’s proposal to renew their friendship. Brahms completed the concerto during the summer of 1887, in Switzerland, at Thun. He told a friend, to whom he habitually described his works‑in‑progress in deprecatory terms, that his “latest folly” was a “form of idiocy.” To Clara Schumann he admitted that he was having problems in writing for the soloists, but she replied encouragingly that as the composer of such fine sonatas for violin and for cello, he certainly knew how to deal with the instruments.
In the end, Brahms and Joachim worked together over the solo parts, making them more effective and more difficult to play than they first were. The two soloists are given all the time they need to display themselves individually, and when they play together, their music is often so richly textured that the listener can almost imagine them to be an entire string quartet. The concerto, Brahms’s last orchestral work, has writing as full as in any of his symphonies; after early performances, there were complaints that the orchestra covered the soloists. Since then, musicians have learned how to balance these apparently unequal sonorous forces.
Hausmann joined Joachim in the first performances of the concerto. In September 1887, the musicians tried the work out in a private reading with the Baden‑Baden Orchestra. Brahms conducted, and Clara Schumann attended the reading. In Cologne on October 18, the first public performance took place. Six years had passed since Brahms had last written a concerto, his huge Piano Concerto No. 2, whose four movements had led many musicians to think of it as a symphony for piano and orchestra. The Double Concerto is more conventional; in three compact movements, it is classical in construction. The first movement, Allegro, is powerful and dramatic, with great rhythmic force; the second, Andante, is based on two expansive, fresh, lyrical melodies; the third, Vivace non troppo, is a cheerful, witty rondo that recalls Joachim’s Hungarian origins.
Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy-Overture . . . Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
(Born May 7, 1840, in Votkinsk; died November 6, 1893, in Saint Petersburg)
Tchaikovsky was a young man and an inexperienced composer when he started to write a descriptive overture for orchestra based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The composer worked over the idea thoroughly with his friend Mily Balakirev, a self-taught composer of extraordinary natural gifts. None of Balakirev’s compositions would earn him a career or a place in history like Tchaikovsky’s, but he possessed one quality that Tchaikovsky completely lacked: self-confidence. Almost every step in Tchaikovsky’s work on the score for his overture was made under his friend’s scrutiny. Balakirev suggested the subject, the musical style, and the form. While the work was in progress, Balakirev criticized the themes and their organization, and when Tchaikovsky tired of the piece and allowed his attention to wander elsewhere, Balakirev steered him back to Romeo.
In November 1869, Tchaikovsky completed the score, and in March 1870, the piece was the Orchestra of the Imperial Russian Music Society of Moscow premiered it, under the direction of Nikolai Rubinstein. Unfortunately, the debut was a sad failure, and Tchaikovsky (and Balakirev) set to work on a revised version. The new version was performed in St. Petersburg in 1872, but was still unsatisfactory. Later on, Tchaikovsky briefly considered composing an opera based on Romeo and Juliet, but instead returned to the fantasy-overture; in 1880, he completed the popular third version.
The score of the first version was not published until the 20th century, when many modern musicians who had at first thought it would be interesting only as part of the history of a popular masterpiece, decided it deserved to be heard for its own sake. Music lovers will note that it has a different beginning and that the first version seems to be more Russian in character. Familiar melodies are heard, but at different points in the time structure and with different weights. A brief suggestion of a march has no counterpoint in the final score; the ending, too, is changed. The original Romeo, in sum, can stand on its own and can give the attentive listener some new insights into a great composer’s creative process.
The overture follows the structure of sonata form, but the plot of Shakespeare’s play does not dictate a specific program for the music. Some of the themes do, however, represent specific character or plot developments in the play. According to Jonathan Kramer, the Andante introduction with chorale-type harmonies represents Friar Laurence. The Allegro that follows, consisting of quick scales and rhythms, represents the feud of the Capulet and Montague families. The love theme, which, of course, refers to Romeo and Juliet’s love, is a quintessential romantic melody. In the coda, the work’s main ideas recur and gain intensity. The death of the two young lovers ends the work.
Bacchus and Ariane, Suite No. 2. . Albert Roussel
(Born April 5, 1869, in Tourcoing; died August 23, 1937 in Royan, France)
Roussel was born into a prosperous family of textile manufacturers in the north of France. He was orphaned at eight, and by fifteen, had made a firm decision about his future. He would go to sea and enter the Naval Academy.
In 1892, on shipboard, Roussel first thought of writing music. He tried his hand at a Fantasy for Violin and Piano and then at an opera about which we know only that it was based on an American Indian legend. By 1894, he was commanding officer of a torpedo boat that sailed on a mission to Southeast Asia. When he returned, he resigned his commission to study music; he devoted the rest of his life to composition, but did not fully develop his compositional style until he was turning fifty.
Roussel was an independent man who belonged to no school, but early on was influenced by the ideas of both the Impressionists and the Neo-classicists. His music displays the vigor of a man of action.
Roussel created complex but clear melodies, powerful rhythms, imaginative harmonies, masterful counterpoint and firm structures. By the 1920’s, he had eliminated the idea of description and impressionism from much of his work. Although his compositions are full of incident and rich in events, these are purely musical incidents and events, told in and by music, without depending on visual or other external stimuli. “I want to create music that is satisfying in itself, he once said, “music that seeks to eliminate all picturesque and descriptive elements. I force myself to put out of my mind the memory of objects and forms that can be interpreted through musical sounds. I want to make just music.” At another time he remarked that he wanted music “in all its purity, to transmit to those who love it for itself the secret of its beauty and the extent of its power.”
Roussel’s Symphony, No. 3, composed just before Bacchus et Ariane, was one of many works Serge Koussevitzky commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. With the exception of this work, Roussel’s music was not very well known outside of France, and unfortunately, when he died, his music was just beginning to be recognized abroad.
The ballet Bacchus et Ariane, composed in 1930, is one of the high points of Roussel’s work, praised for its orchestral brilliance and grandeur. Premiered at the Paris Opéra on May 22, 1931, the ballet only received a lukewarm reception. Roussel, confident that his music was worthwhile and could stand alone, re-titled the music used in the two acts for the ballet Bacchus et Ariane Suite No. 1 and Suite No. 2, giving this music a continuing independent life. Sumptuous, rhythmically volatile music, it offers the listener a sense of vivacity with glowing melodies in brilliant orchestral writing.
Bacchus is a god of enchantments and compelling dynamism; Ariane, with much tenderness, draws music from him. The music is compact, but filled with spellbinding invention. The final Bacchanale and coronation of Ariane come to powerful endings. Suite No. 2 made its debut in the Salle Pleyel with Pierre Monteux leading the Paris Symphony on February 2, 1934, and has become the more popular of the two suites perhaps because it concludes with a fabulously Dionysian climactic apotheosis.
The ballet Bacchus and Ariane is based on legends from Greek antiquity. The British music critic of the late 20th century, Wilfrid Mellers, saw the music Roussel composed at this time as a neo-classicist and “as a successor, in command of physical movement and even in aesthetic ideal, to Rameau.” Neo-classical music emphasized structure and precision of expression in reaction to the felt excesses of the late-Romanticism of such composers as Strauss and Mahler. In Bacchus the listener is conscious of the many characteristics Roussel’s music also shares with Ravel’s: the brilliance, the elegance, the strain of refined exoticism. Roussel’s style, however, is somewhat leaner, and the music leans toward neo-classicism. His lush harmonic colors and sinuous melodic lines often are juxtaposed with a sequence of spiky rhythms and fairly dry textures.
The Hermant designed scenario for the ballet was significantly different from the traditional legend in which Theseus, after killing the Minotaur and making his way out of the labyrinth, abandons Ariadne on Naxos in order to pursue her sister Phaedra. In the Hermant version, Bacchus, the God of Wine, chases Theseus, the future founder and king of Athens, away, and casts an enchantment that makes the sleeping Ariadne dream of him; when Ariadne awakes and becomes desperate because she finds Theseus gone, Bacchus gives her a kiss of immortality.
When the inventive music of the ballet’s second act became Suite No. 2, it was structured in eight interconnected sections:
I. Introduction (Andante). Ariadne’s sleep, which Roussel depicts with a floating musical current on ambiguous beats giving the effect of the realm of sleep, and then her gradual awakening.
II. Pantomime. Ariadne awakens (here Roussel recreates the jitters she feels via the clarinet’s quick rhythmic figures followed by plucked strings) and looks around for Theseus; feeling abandoned, she makes her way to the top of a cliff, intending to throw herself into the sea. Bacchus appears from behind a boulder, and she falls into his arms.
III. Bacchus and Ariadne dance as they had in her dream.
IV. Bacchus Dances Alone. A brilliant scherzo.
V. The Kiss and The Dionysiac Enchantment. First a group of bacchantes marches past; then the slow tempo resumes as a faun and a Maenad present Ariadne with a golden cup, which they have filled with sweet grapes.
VI. Dance of Ariadne
VII. Dance of Bacchus and Ariadne. Others join as the dance ends.
VIII. Bachanal: an Apotheosis in which Bacchus, after giving Ariadne the kiss of immortality, reaches to the heavens for a handful of stars and crowns her with them.