Festival Français Programme Notes

Our inaugural Symphony Extra features chamber music with a certain je ne sais quoi, as Musaeus and mezzo-soprano Sandra Stringer bring a touch of Paris to the prairies.

If you prefer to download and print these programme notes, please click here (pdf version).

Symphony Extra A – Festival Français

Maurice Ravel – String Quartet in F Major
Maurice Ravel was born in 1875 to a Franco-Basque family in the southern French town of Ciboure. Soon after, the Ravels relocated to Paris, where Maurice would grow from an apt pupil of piano and composition to a beloved national talent. Though he was not a prolific composer, Ravel’s music is considered a keystone of the Impressionist movement, an association that the composer firmly rejected over concern for his meticulous craft. In the same vein as his contemporary Claude Debussy, Ravel’s music is radiant with international styles, having been influenced by his Basque heritage and his fascination with the music of Eastern Asia.

Ravel produced his String Quartet in 1903, premiering it the following year. Despite the fact that his output received popular acclaim, France’s conservative musical establishment was quick to dismiss Ravel’s compositional efforts. Their complaints were directed at the piece’s complexity and its similarity to an earlier string quartet by Debussy, a work that also boasts scalar harmonies and extended pizzicato sections. Even the quartet’s dedicatee, Ravel’s progressive mentor Gabriel Fauré, was not particularly smitten with the work. The piece, however, was not without its supporters. Debussy himself praised the work, and within a few years it had gained a respectable place in the quartet canon.

The first movement is marked by a singing melody, supported by slow ascending harmonies. Lighter, vigorous material is prevalent in the second movement, particularly in the huge leaps of the pizzicatos. The third movement is much more despondent, surging and recoiling with emotional crescendos. Closing the piece is the fourth movement’s brisk dark tremolos and florid polyphony, imbuing the work with both warm sonorities and a biting edge.

Erik Satie – Gymnopédies 1 & 3
Erik Satie surprised the musical world by using his modest technical ability as a performer to his advantage as a composer. He was a pioneer of modern classical music, revolutionary to the point of being dubbed ‘the precursor’ by Debussy. His style is evinced in freeform melodies and minimalistic polyphony. This way of writing is especially clear in his harmonically minimalistic parts as seen in his Gymnopédies, composed when he was only 22. Satie took the name of these pieces from Classical Greek choral dances, writing in a self-described ‘stripped down’ style to be reminiscent of their athletic movement. Both pieces are slow wanderings through simple melancholy atmospheres, calmly flowing with nostalgia for the noble gestures of ancient times.

Georges Bizet – Entr’acte from Act III of Carmen
Tragically, Georges Bizet’s life ended just as his career took its first steps towards success. But despite being brought down by rheumatism and a double heart attack at 36, he left behind an important corpus of music, which includes piano pieces, songs, orchestral works, and operas.

Of Bizet’s 15 operas the most famous is undoubtedly Carmen, a work first performed just three months before the composer’s death in 1875. Based on a novel by Prosper Mérimée, the opera was scandalous at the time for its depiction of Carmen’s unashamed sexuality, though it still had a relatively successful initial run. Since then it has gone on to become one of the great standards of the repertoire.

Édith Piaf Selections
The life of songstress Édith Piaf was a rollercoaster of highs and lows. She spent much of her poor childhood in a brothel run by her grandmother, beleaguered by illness including temporary blindness. In spite of her troubles she was endowed with undeniable talent, leading to her discovery on the streets of Paris by a nightclub owner at the age of nineteen. Her stint at the club launched a grand international career, though her struggles with fame encouraged further illness as well as drug problems and a widely scrutinized love life. To the benefit of her artistry her personal life greatly influenced her singing, resulting in a collection of deeply expressive recordings that resonate beyond language barriers.

Gabriel Fauré – Pavane and Sicilienne
Though often interrupted by academic duties, Gabriel Fauré wrote a body of music equally as important as that of his colleagues Ravel and Debussy. His more than 60 years as a composer enabled him to embrace romantic influences in his early career and modal influences near its end, all the while maintaining a personal and firmly melodic style.

An obvious embodiment of this style is on display in both Pavane and Sicilienne, two of the composer’s most popular compositions. Originally written for chorus and orchestra, the Pavane sees Fauré elaborate the Renaissance dance from which it borrows its title and rhythm to expressive effect. The song of the lead violin places us in an atmosphere of thoughtful melancholy, aided by the accompaniment of eerie plucked notes. Sicilienne, a triple meter dance, is derived from Fauré’s suite of incidental music for the popular Maurice Masterlinck play Pelléas et Mélisande. Here he evokes the love of the titular characters, the piece’s lilt and searing melody suggesting the throes of hidden passion.

Claude Debussy – Clair de lune
Claude Debussy was undoubtedly the most renowned radical French composer at the turn of the twentieth century. His compositional output saw him develop a wholly original harmonic palette, counting influences as diverse as the French Baroque and Indonesian gamelan. Though definitely avant-garde (especially in the composer’s lifetime), the sounds Debussy conceived are rich in colour, inspiring marked admiration among his compositional successors.

Clair de lune from the Suite Bergamasque is one of the most familiar melodies in classical music. Its instantly recognizable octave jump introduces the piece, whose mood deepens by way of chromatic harmony. Low arpeggiated lines provide a stable base for the tertian melody, pushing to the climax of the piece. A close in the higher registers ends the piece on a clear harmonic chord, as though illuminating the world by moonlight.

Notes by Zain Solinski