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Annotations on Masterworks 3 – Rachmaninoff, Debussy and Bizet

Annotations on Masterworks 3 – Rachmaninoff, Debussy and Bizet

February 2, 7:30 pm concert; 6:30 pm pre-concert lecture
Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall

Bizet – Suite No. 2 from L’Arlésienne/Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30/Debussy – La mer

Georges Bizet (arr. Giraud)
L’Arlésienne Suite No. 2

Composer: born October 25, 1838, Paris; died June 3, 1875, Paris

Work composed: Bizet wrote incidental music for Alphonse Daudet’s play L’Arlésienne in the summer of 1872. Bizet arranged an orchestral suite that premiered a month after the play flopped. Four years later, Bizet’s friend and colleague Ernest Guiraud compiled a second L’Arlésienne Suite from remaining musical materials Bizet did not use in the first suite.

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, alto saxophone, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, timpani, tambourine, bass drum, cymbals, harp, and strings.

Estimated duration: 18 minutes

In 1872, Léon Carvalho, director of the Théâtre du Vaudeville, asked Georges Bizet to write incidental music to a play by Alphonse Daudet, L’Arlésienne (The Woman from Arles). Bizet quickly supplied a score with 27 interludes. Both playwright and composer agreed that Bizet’s music far outshone the play. Daudet himself is credited with making this perceptive remark after the play’s lackluster premiere: “a most dazzling failure with the most charming music in the world.”
Bizet quickly assembled four of his score’s original 27 movements into an orchestral suite, which found immediate success in the concert hall. Four years later, after Bizet’s untimely death at age 35, his friend and colleague Ernest Guiraud compiled a second orchestral suite from music Bizet did not use in the first. Giraud found this project somewhat challenging, as Bizet had already mined L’Arlésienne for the best musical excerpts.
The opening Pastorale, originally the prelude to Act II, features a sweeping, expansive melody. The Intermezzo, which Guiraud lifted intact from Bizet’s score, features a brass chorale and a melody taken from a Provençal folk song that showcases a bassoon playing in a high register. Giraud ended up borrowing a flute and harp duet from Bizet’s 1867 opera The Fair Maid of Perth for the Minuet. The closing Farandole is an ingenious mashup of popular tunes from Provence: the majestic Christmas hymn, “March of the Three Kings,” and a buoyant Provençal folk dance, “Danse dei Chivaux-Frus” (Dance of the Fiery Horses).

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30

Composer: born April 1, 1873, Semyonovo, Starorusky District, Russia; died March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, CA

Work composed: 1908-09. Dedicated to pianist Josef Hofmann.

World premiere: November 28, 1909 with Rachmaninoff at the piano, under the direction of Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony.

Instrumentation: solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum and strings.

Estimated duration: 44 minutes

Sergei Rachmaninoff began working on the Third Piano Concerto in the summer of 1908 at his family’s estate at Oneg, and rushed to complete it in time for his first tour of North America, in the fall of 1909. On the voyage to the United States, Rachmaninoff had no access to a piano, so he brought a cardboard keyboard along to practice and memorize the demanding solo part.
After the premiere, and a second performance in New York led by Gustav Mahler, Rachmaninoff arrived in Boston. He made such a magnificent impression there that he was asked to assume the post of Music Director for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, an offer he declined. Despite his success in the United States, Rachmaninoff heartily disliked America. In a letter to his cousin, he wrote, “In this accursed country you’re surrounded by nothing but Americans and their ‘business,’ ‘business’ they are forever doing, clutching you from all sides and driving you on. Everyone is nice and kind to me, but I am horribly bored by the whole thing, and I feel that my character has been quite ruined here.” Lonely and homesick, Rachmaninoff returned to Russia in February 1910.
One critic from the New York Herald wrote of Op. 30, “The work grows in impressiveness upon acquaintance and will doubtless take rank among the most interesting piano concertos of recent years, although its great length and extreme difficulties bar it from performances by any but pianists of exceptional technical powers.” The extraordinary virtuosic and musical demands of the Third Concerto make it one the most challenging works in the piano concerto repertoire. The soloist plays almost constantly throughout, and must combine ear-popping virtuosity with a chamber musician’s ability to listen and blend into the orchestra.
When Rachmaninoff discussed the thematic origins of the Third Concerto, he denied any specific influences. When asked about the primary melody, Rachmaninoff insisted that “it is borrowed neither from folk song forms nor from church services. It simply ‘wrote itself.’” The pianist plays this theme underneath the orchestra at first, in a subdued, almost hushed manner. “If I had any plan in composing this theme, I was thinking only of sound. I wanted to ‘sing’ the melody on the piano, as a singer would sing it – and to find a suitable orchestral accompaniment, or rather one that would not muffle this singing.” Rachmaninoff no doubt sincerely believed the theme was his creation, but every composer’s music derives from a collection of influences assimilated, often unconsciously, over the course of a lifetime. With regard to the melody in question, scholars have found strikingly similar music in monastic chants from the Russian Orthodox liturgy. Rachmaninoff could have absorbed these melodies when he attended mass as a boy.
The Intermezzo and Finale are played without pause, an abrupt transition from the reflective melancholy of the second movement to the ferocious virtuosity of the Finale.

Claude Debussy
La mer (The Sea)

Composer: born August 22, 1862, St. Germain-en-Laye, near Paris; died March 25, 1918, Paris

Work composed: 1903-05; Debussy wrote the date he completed La mer on the manuscript, “Sunday, March 5, 1905, at 6 o’clock in the evening.” He arranged La mer for piano four-hands in 1905 and later revised the orchestral version in 1909. Debussy originally dedicated La mer to his lover, Emma Bardac, “For la petite mienne (small mine), whose eyes laugh in the shade.” The scandal surrounding Debussy’s private life, and his desire to shield both himself and Emma from public scrutiny, may explain why he ultimately chose to dedicate the score to his publisher, Jacques Durand.

World premiere: La mer was first performed in Paris on October 15, 1905, with Camille Chevillard conducting the Concerts Lamoureux.

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 cornets, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, orchestra bells, tam tam, triangle, 2 harps and strings.

Estimated duration: 23 minutes

“You’re unaware, maybe, that I was intended for the noble career of a sailor and have only deviated from that path thanks to the quirks of fate. Even so, I’ve retained a sincere devotion to the sea,” Claude Debussy wrote to a friend in 1903, as he began work on La mer. Debussy’s connection to the ocean began in his childhood, when he made several extended visits to Cannes. Interestingly, the lure of the sea worked so powerfully on Debussy that he ended up writing much of La mer in the mountains, safely beyond the siren call of the ocean’s insistent presence. Debussy’s publisher, Jacques Durand, when describing Debussy’s study, recalled, “I … remember a certain colored engraving by Hokusai [a renowned Japanese artist; Durand is probably referring to Hokusai’s famous woodblock print, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa], representing the curl of a giant wave. Debussy was particularly enamored of this wave. It inspired him while he was composing La mer, and he asked us to reproduce it on the cover of the printed score.”
The three movements of La mer capture the ocean in its various moods: calm and glassy, with sunlight shimmering on its surface; wind-tossed; the playful rise and fall of waves one moment, stormy and violent the next. Throughout, Debussy’s penchant for Asian pentatonic (five-note) scales acts as both the harmonic and melodic foundation of La mer, effectively portraying the ever-changing mercurial quality of the sea.
Although considered a standard of orchestral repertoire today, La mer received decidedly mixed reactions at its 1905 premiere. The audience’s hostile response, however, had little to do with the music; rather; they hissed and booed Debussy in outrage over his scandalous private life, which had resulted in the very public suicide attempt of one of his former lovers. Camille Chevillard, who conducted the premiere, was also responsible for its poor reception. Although praised by many, including Debussy, for his abilities with established works, such as music of Beethoven, Chevillard had little interest in, or aptitude for, new music. (During rehearsal for La mer, according to musicologist Simon Tresize, “Debussy complained of [Chevillard’s] lack of artistry and suggested he should have been ‘a wild beast tamer.’”) To make matters worse, bad weather on the day of the premiere kept many concertgoers away.
Critical reception varied as well; some were captivated by La mer’s rich sonorities, while others were baffled by its form. Debussy subtitled the work “Three Symphonic Sketches,” but they are clearly finished movements, each with its own character. One critic wrote, “For the first time in listening to a descriptive work of Debussy’s I have the impression of beholding not nature, but a reproduction of nature, marvelously subtle, ingenious and skillful, no doubt, but a reproduction for all that … I neither hear, nor see, nor feel the sea.” In contrast, an admirer of La mer wrote, “Never was music so fresh, spontaneous, unexpected, novel rhythms; never were harmonies richer or more original; never has an orchestra possessed more voices and sonorities with which to interpret compositions overflowing with such a wealth of fantasy.”

© 2019 Elizabeth Schwartz