Program Notes - April, 24, 2004
Overture to “Le Roi D’Ys”
Edouard Lalo composed for a wide variety of forms, including stage, symphony orchestra, and chamber music. Unfortunately, his stature outside his homeland rests almost entirely on one spectacular violin showpiece, the Symphonie Espagnole. Within France, however, he is noted for his other works as well, including a single operatic masterpiece “Le Roi D’Ys” (the King of the legendary city of Ys). He himself considered this work to be his greatest work, yet it surprisingly initially met with official rejection.
In a sort of “midlife crisis” Lalo had given up composing to concentrate on teaching and his poorly rewarding career as a performer. However, in his mid forties his creative muse returned to him, and he resumed writing on a much larger scale. Several orchestral and concerto successes prompted him to try his hand at the grand opera, and he set to work (in his mid fifties!) on Le Roi D’Ys. After several years of effort he finally completed the work, and submitted it to l’Opera Comique in Paris. They turned it down, but as consolation offered him a commission for a ballet, which he gratefully accepted. However, he stubbornly refused to give up on the opera and pushed persistently for a performance. After several years, the opera house gave in a staged a performance. The drama was an instant success with the public, and enjoyed a long run. Lalo had finally achieved vindication of his belief in himself, but could only enjoy it briefly. He died a few years later, before the end of the opera’s long run of initial popularity. It is still revived occasionally in France.
The opera is based on an old Breton legend, reminiscent of the legend of Atlantis. The mythical city of Ys was resplendent with power and glory, a center of trade on the coast of Brittany. The sea, held back by dikes, was both the source of its riches and the instrument of its eventual demise. The King of the city had betrothed his daughter Margared (who, in the way of most operas loved another man) to Karnac. When her lover returns to Ys just in time to interrupt the wedding, Margared refused to go through with the ceremony. Out of spite, the King forces a marriage of Margared’s lover to her younger sister. Infuriated, Margared seeks out Karnac (whom she had just spurned) and seduces him into opening the sluice gates holding back the sea. Although Karnac is killed, it is too late to save the city. Remorseful over her deed, Margared throws herself into the sea to appease the gods of the ocean.
In the legend, Ys is submerged and lost forever. But the tragic conclusion would never have appealed to the Parisian audiences of the time. Lalo’s librettist therefore gave the opera a happy ending: St. Corentin, the patron saint of the city, observes from heaven her ultimate remorse and self-sacrifice. His statue comes to life and calms the waves just in time to save the city. In spite of Lalo’s happy ending, the legendary city of Ys is said to reside below the ocean just off the Breton coast – a sort of Celtic Atlantis. It is said that the engulfed cathedral so colorfully portrayed by Debussy in his piano prelude (performed in its orchestral version a few years ago by the Immaculata Symphony) is the Cathedral of Ys, and that the name Paris originates from ‘Par Ys’ (meaning “equal to Ys”) in reference to the glory of the sunken city.
Selections from “Songs of the Auverne”
Joseph Canteloube was born in the town of Annony, in the Auvergne region in southern France. His early rural heritage eventually shaped his musical life, though this was not the case at first. His mother was a fine pianist, and she began his musical education at age six. After a few years, the family sent him to boarding school in Lyon, where he spent most of his youth in a cosmopolitan city environment rather than his peasant roots. His father died while Joseph was in his teens, and his mother passed away at age twenty-one. By this time, the young man had shown real musical talent and he moved to Paris to study with Vincent D’Indy at the Schola Cantorum. Here he became part of a circle of young composers that would shape his life’s work.
Vincent D’Indy was consumed by a self-imposed mission of preserving the unique musical languages that had developed in the widely variant cultures of France. He hoped eventually to incorporate them into the more cosmopolitan musical language which dominated the Parisian musical establishment. He drew his own circle of young students into his mission, and none took it up with more fervor that Joseph Canteloube.
Canteloube became a fine pianist (whom Debussy admired greatly), and initially adopted a performing career. Shortly after the first World War, he began to painstakingly build a collection of peasant songs and music by going into the countrysides of all the regions of France, listening to the indigenous music and noting the simple peasant melodies, all the while absorbing the stylistic differences in their songs. His early composing career, which had to be fit into his performance schedule, reflected D’Indy’s rigorous training which emphasized harmony and form. He wrote orchestral pieces, operas, incidental music and choral works, but is known outside France almost solely for the collection of songs from his home region, the Auvergne. (It should be noted that he collected the music and harmonized the songs of many other regions as well, such as Burgundy and the Basque country – none are as famous as the five volume set of Songs of the Auvergne.)
Although it would seem that the original goal was simply to collect the music, Canteloube went far beyond simple arrangements of the melodies. He combined his own skill at colorful orchestration with the unique new harmonic language of the Impressionist movement, augmented by D’Indy’s formal training, to create essentially personal compositions. The only strong connection with their source was in the simple, straightforward melodies that he had collected. The rest of the music is pure Canteloube, rather than arranged Auvergnois harmonies.
The songs being performed today illustrate the wide range of different feelings that Canteloube was able to evoke in his music. The selections open with a Pastoral which is a conversation between a young maid and her shepherd lover. The second tells the story of l’Antoine (Anthony) and his lover who go to the fair to buy a cow. The girl gets the cow, Anthony only the horns! Such a trivial story for what is truly a beautiful lovesong. The third song, Le Bossu (the hunchback) is pure humor … this particular hunchback must have spent much of his time drunk, for the music stumbles through a confrontation in which he professes his love for Jeanette. She tells them that if he wants her, he must cut off his hump. He tells her to go to the Devil!
The final two songs are built around the dance rhythms of the Bourrée, separated by a fiendishly difficult clarinet cadenza. The first of these is a conversation with a quail: when asked about her nest, she eventually tells the questioner it’s a nest (like any other nest), containing eggs (like any other nest) … but prettier! The final song bemoans the fate of marriage: wretched is the man with a wife, still more wretched the man without one; happy is the woman who has the man she needs, but happier still the one who has managed to stay free. Throughout the entire collection, the melodies are simple, the stories simpler still – but the finished music of Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne is nothing short of exquisite.
Symphony no. 4 in f-minor, op. 36
Perhaps because of his troubled psyche, many of Tchaikovsky’s works emphasize the dramatic and emotional possibilities of the musical idiom. By the year 1877, when he embarked on his Fourth Symphony, he was nearing his creative peak. His catalogue included such emotionally powerful works as Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, Francesca da Rimini and the First Piano Concerto. Curiously, though, his first three symphonies displayed little of the psychological depths of these masterpieces. Not surprisingly, they have never made the impression on posterity of his last three symphonies. With the Fourth, he picks up the psychological thread of his recently completed Francesca and expands it to the breadth and depths of emotional power available nowhere else but in a Romantic Era symphony. It cemented Tchaikovsky’s growing reputation and made his career.
The first of three successive symphonies in which he explored the idea of “fate” was written in the midst of the most tumultuous period of his personal life. After starting the work he embarked on his disastrous short-lived marriage. (He recognized after only a few days that he could never live with a woman, and fled … leaving her behind and the marriage unconsummated. He eventually divorced her, and the experience warped Tchaikovsky forever.) Shortly thereafter, he made the acquaintance of Nazhda von Meck, who became his financial patroness and personal confidant for many years. Strangely, they both took pains never to come into direct face-to-face personal contact. The arrangement suited him perfectly, giving him the means to concentrate his musical life on composing alone. It also gave him a sounding board for whatever affected his psyche, either good or bad. In any event, he shortly resumed composing and in the next two years finished several of his greatest works, including the Fourth Symphony, the Violin Concerto and the opera “Eugene Onegin”.
Instead of the long, slow introduction that was standard for a Classical era symphony, Tchaikovsky opens the Fourth with one of the most stirring fanfares ever written – initially for horns, then with the rest of the brass, and finally supported by the full orchestra. It is commonly presumed that this fanfare theme (which recurs frequently, sometimes in modified form) represents “fate as a challenge”, to be met by a man in his ordinary life. Although the movement has no program or story-line, it contains some of Tchaikovsky’s most heroic writing. The general atmosphere seems to allude to the “struggle against overwhelming odds” that was a favorite theme of Romantic composers. Alternately strident and restful, the movement carries the listener through a myriad of emotions, until reaching a minor-key ending that is neither tragic nor melancholy. On the other hand, neither is it triumphant – the story is, as yet, unfinished. Man neither conquers nor succumbs to fate, but repeatedly faces it down and struggles on.
The Finale opens with the same vibrant feeling as the first movement, as if the hero has finally decided to overwhelm by one furious burst of effort the fate which challenged him in the first movement. Initially, it seems that he might succeed. The ensuing section, built around fragments from a Russian folk song, proves that fate is still the master, and the sense of struggle returns. The initial heroic-outburst theme comes back repeatedly, alternating with the somewhat melancholy air of the folk tune. Each time the struggle resumes – still with no conclusion – until finally the “fate” fanfare of the first movement returns in the brasses. One last repetition of the heroic reply to fate’s challenge leads to a major-key finale that finally lets us know that our hero truly can overcome destiny to emerge triumphant.
Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly