Program Notes: Ravel’s Bolero

Sergei Rachmaninov, The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29

Those who create art, whether in the performing arts or in the visual arts, inevitably find their personal “niche” in matters of style. And it is of little consequence whether their artistic orientation is a conscious personal choice, or one seemingly imposed by their audiences and by professional critics. Simply put, there are artists whose voice naturally works within tradition and commonly understood artistic language; they strive to develop that tradition to new levels of meaning through their own talent and personal vision. Others make a total commitment to artistic truth arrived at through new voices, new styles, new languages. Every museum and gallery of art, and every concert hall is testimony to this essential dichotomy. And it must be admitted that there is an innate prejudice among many intellectuals, especially those who subconsciously view the arts as they do technology, that new is good. The latest styles are more sophisticated; hence more relevant, and old styles should be left with the dead artists that created them. This popular view was dominant among the cognoscenti during most of the twentieth century, but is beginning to moderate, as a more liberal acceptance of diverse artistic styles now is more common than previously—in all the arts.

Like J. S. Bach, who upon his death was looked upon as an old fuddy-duddy (now we know better, of course), Rachmaninoff has borne his share of criticism for having composed in a hopelessly old-fashioned style, long after its relevance.  His compositions are the last major representatives of vivid Russian Romanticism—long after that style was presumed dead and buried. Yet, like Bach, his musical genius, his talent, and his strong belief in the validity of his art all led him to create a legacy that took “old-fashioned-style” to a natural and valid high point of achievement. While a child of the nineteenth century, he died almost at the midpoint of the twentieth, secure in his success, and secure in the world’s enduring appreciation of his “dated” style.

In 1907 Rachmaninoff, while performing in Paris, saw a black and white reproduction of a painting by the Swiss symbolist artist, Arnold Böcklin, which profoundly gripped his imagination. Entitled Die Toteninsel (The Isle of the Dead), it depicted a boat rowed by an oarsman over dark waters carrying a coffin and a solitary mourner draped in white. The boat is approaching a gloomy island with huge rocky outcrops, symbolic cypress trees, and the impression of crypts hollowed into the looming cliffs. It was a wildly popular painting (the artist painted five versions of it), and reproductions hung everywhere—in modest middle-class homes and in the offices of luminaries. An island cemetery, of course, is one of the common tropes of Romanticism, from San Michele in Venice, where Stravinsky and Diaghilev are buried, to the graves of J. J. Rousseau and Princess Diana. Two years later, in 1909, while living in Dresden, Rachmaninoff composed his symphonic poem inspired by the painting, and conducted the première in Moscow shortly thereafter.

The symphonic poem, or “tone poem” is an important genre that can be said to have originated with Liszt. It became the quintessential orchestral means of telling a story with a symphony orchestra.  More or less the antithesis of a symphony, as in Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, the symphonic poem takes as its subject matter, not just an abstract musical theme, but something in the real world and develops a depiction of it, and perhaps a narrative. It is the darling of those who prefer music to be “about” something and went on to become an important part of romantic musical style in the orchestra. Some choice subjects of Liszt’s symphony poems included:  battle scenes, a Shakespeare play, a philosophical idea, poems, a Victor Hugo story, and so forth. Richard Strauss went on to write memorable ones that were very specific in their narrative threads: this happened, and then this, and so on.

Other symphonic poems are much more abstract and concerned with impressions of moods and general situations, for example. And Isle of the Dead is just that—it’s all about death and its symbols, inspired by just one image. To a degree that is like Debussy’s La Mer, a wide-ranging impression of the sea.

Isle of the Dead begins softly and ambiguously with the harp and low strings, in five-eight time, seeming to depict the irregular movement of Charon’s oars in the lapping water. Throughout, one hears intimations of one of the composer’s favorite musical motifs, beloved by so many composers, the Dies iræ, the “day of wrath” from the medieval mass for the dead. The relentless undulations gradually lead to a powerful climax, but gently subside into a sepulchral iteration of the chant motive in the brass. The middle section begins lighter, more tranquil, and in a more optimistic key.  Rachmaninoff, himself, refers to its “life” motive. The hopeful optimism builds to two passionate climaxes, but the ardent, futile attempt for hope is demolished by loud hammer strokes in the whole orchestra. A soft, imaginative passage follows, led by a solo clarinet, in which the chant is heard overlapping in three different note values, a creative allusion to an ancient canonic technique. Brief solos by violin, oboe, and clarinet introduce a transition to the crepuscular gloom of the beginning. Now, the Dies iræ motive is even more in evidence, with its last reference in the strings and low woodwinds.  After which the work concludes in a soft resignation to life’s finality.

Rachmaninoff’s life and work is perhaps the eloquent example of an artist who found profound opportunities in established perspectives. In the words of the conductor, Leon Botstein, in an article in the Wall Street Journal:  “Rachmaninoff retained the notion that music serves as a reminder of sheer joy, beauty and happiness in dark times.”  Precisely.

 ©2022 William E. Runyan

Bohuslav Martinů, Rhapsody-Concerto for viola and orchestra, H. 337

The prolific Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů was born in Polička, Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He showed some early talent on the violin and was encouraged in his musical endeavors, entering the Prague Conservatory at 16. He was not particularly diligent in his studies but possessed excellent aural skills, able to memorize music on hearing it. Dropped from the violin studio for lack of practice, he lingered a while before being dismissed from the Conservatory in 1910 for “incorrigible negligence.” He returned to Polička and began teaching while continuing to compose and study music on his own. Following World War I, he joined the Czech Philharmonic as a violinist and began formal composition study with Josef Suk.

Martinů moved to Paris in 1923, studying with Albert Roussel and soaking up the era’s heady mix of music, literature, art, dance, and theater that would have such lasting influence on a generation of artists. While deriving inspiration from his Bohemian roots, Martinů was greatly influenced by Igor Stravinsky’s music and after much experimentation, settled on neoclassical style as his own.

Martinů began to enjoy a degree of success, winning prizes and having works performed by prominent artists and ensembles. World War II forced him and his wife to flee Paris and after many months and much difficulty securing safe passage, they finally arrived in the United States in 1941. As with so many other artist émigrés in similar circumstances, life was difficult. They settled in Manhattan and he began to compose again as well as teach. Hopes of returning to Prague were dashed in 1948 with communist seizure of power in Czechoslovakia. Martinů became an American citizen in 1952 but was drawn to Europe and settled in Nice in 1953. He succumbed to cancer in 1959, having composed more than 400 works in a wide range of genres.

The viola is a noble instrument, bridging the sound world between cello and violin. Composers love its warmth and lyrical nature but have far too often overlooked its potential as a solo instrument. Baroque, Classical, and Romantic era viola concerti are sparse in number.

In the 20th century, several viola virtuosi sought to remedy the situation by commissioning new works. Lionel Tertis and William Primrose are often mentioned in this capacity but Ukrainian-born violist Jascha Veissi (1898-1983) is frequently overlooked. Veissi studied violin at the Odessa Conservatory before immigrating to the United States in 1920. He joined the Cleveland Orchestra in 1921 and served as assistant concertmaster from 1924 to 1929, leaving to become principal viola of the San Francisco Symphony and later playing with the Kolisch Quartet. Veissi and Martinů met in Paris in the late 1920s and in 1951, Veissi commissioned Martinů to write a viola concerto for him. Martinů was reportedly inspired by the singing quality of Veissi’s instrument, a particularly fine 16th century Gasparo da Salò viola. Composition went quickly and Veissi premiered the concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra led by George Szell on February 19, 1953.

Cast in two movements, the Rhapsody-Concerto exemplifies its hyphenated moniker, filled with rhapsodic melody deftly joined to virtuosic elements. The opening is lush and legato, with metrical divisions smoothed over and emphasis given to sheer beauty of sound rather than rhythmic prominence. The solo viola sustains that mood with a folk-like melody that soon gives way to a more rollicking tune. The opening theme returns as a bridge to yet another animated section. Calm is restored and the movement ends quietly.

The last movement’s lyricism is tinged with a hint of melancholy but the taut writing forestalls indulgence. Extensive chords and doublestops populate the solo line while still maintaining melodic momentum. A sweet melody gives way to an expressive cadenza. After so much rhythmic ambiguity throughout the work, the driving pulse that animates the following section is a welcome contrast. The momentum subsides and the sweet melody returns. As the piece ends, the soft rat-tat-tat-tat of a snare drum recounts Martinů’s childhood memory of walking around the church tower in his home village of Polička, playing a drum.

© Eric T. Williams


Claude Debussy, Ibéria from Images pour orchestre, L. 122

Claude Debussy was the eldest of five children born to Victorine and Manuel-Achille Debussy. His mother was a seamstress and his father worked in a printing factory following an unsuccessful venture running a china shop. He began piano lessons at age 7 and made exceptional progress, being admitted to the Conservatoire de Paris in 1872. Extremely talented, Debussy was a casual student, prone to skip classes and rather careless about his responsibilities. He was an excellent pianist but not inclined to pursue a career as a performer.

In 1880, Debussy obtained a job as pianist in the retinue of Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s patroness. He travelled with her family across France, Switzerland and Italy, and to her home in Moscow, another aspect of his less-than-conventional education. His compositions also began to flaunt orthodoxy for which he incurred disapproval from the Conservatoire’s faculty. Despite this censure, Debussy won the prestigious Prix de Rome and spent two years in Rome. He was not enamored with Italian music and found the Roman sojourn more stifling than inspiring.

Upon returning to Paris in 1887, Debussy heard a portion of Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde and he found inspiration in its brilliant harmonies. The Paris Exposition of 1889 offered another discovery for the composer: Javanese gamelan music. Its scales and textural possibilities appealed to Debussy and he began incorporating its sensibilities in his music. His String Quartet debuted in 1893 and his revolutionary Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) premiered in 1894. At the time, he was working on his operatic masterpiece, Pelléas et Mélisande. Its premiere in 1902 brought Debussy great acclaim in France and internationally. He was appointed a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in 1903 and eventually became a member of the governing council of the Conservatoire.

Paris was a heady place for the arts and Debussy’s circle of friends and acquaintances included Erik Satie, Ernest Chausson, Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Manuel de Falla, Serge Diaghilev and Paul Dukas. Over the years, many would disown Debussy for his cavalier treatment of spouses and lovers. He had one child, a beloved daughter nicknamed “Chouchou,” to whom the Children’s Corner Suite is dedicated. She died in the diphtheria epidemic of 1919, 16 months after her father’s death. 

Debussy had largely abandoned chamber music following the success of his String Quartet in 1893. His publisher, Jacques Durand, encouraged Debussy to return to the genre in 1914 and a set of six sonatas for various instruments was envisioned, paying homage to 18th century French composers. Debussy completed three sonatas before succumbing to colorectal cancer in 1918 while World War I was still raging.

As the 20th century arrived, Debussy began mapping out a set of works that would capture fleeting moments or places. The first six Images were composed for solo piano and published in two sets in 1905 and 1907. His symphonic poem La mer (The Sea) premiered in 1905 and he began work on a set of pieces for two pianos before realizing that an orchestra’s tonal resources were required for the music he had in mind. The resultant suite, Images for Orchestra, comprised three works evoking England, Spain, and France. Ibéria, the second work in the suite, was completed by 1908 and premiered on February 20, 1910 with Gabriel Pierné conducting the Orchestre Colonne at the Châtelet Theater in Paris. The U.S. premiere was given by the New York Philharmonic led by Gustav Mahler on January 3, 1911.

Why Debussy chose to depict Spain musically is a mystery. Was it inspired by his new friendship with Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, as the two men met in 1907? Were there memories of Spanish music and culture resonating from the Paris Universal Expositions of 1889 and 1900? Or was it the milieu of the time, obsessed with the exotic and colorful accouterments of different cultures? It is an interesting oddity that some of the most evocative and enchanting Spanish music was written by French composers, including Debussy, Jules Massenet, Georges Bizet, Emmanuel Chabrier, Édouard Lalo and Maurice Ravel — although Ravel was born in the Basque region to a Basque mother and was deeply influenced by this background.

Debussy’s direct experience with Spain was quite limited, as de Falla noted:

Just once [Debussy] travelled to Spain to stay some hours in San Sebastián and attend a bull fight — little enough experience indeed. He kept, however, a very intense memory of the impression made by the unique light of the bull square: the amazing contrast of the part flooded by sun and the one covered by shadows. In “La Martin d´un Jour de Féte” of Ibéria, it´s possible to find an evocation of that afternoon in the threshold of Spain…

However, in that which touches Ibéria, Claude Debussy expressly said, during its first audition, that he had not had the intention to make Spanish music, but rather to translate into music the impressions which Spain awoke in him…

We hasten to add that which has been realized in a splendid fashion. The echoes of the villages, in a kind of sevillana — the generating theme of the work — seem to float in a clear atmosphere where the light scintillates; the intoxicating magic of the Andalusian nights, the joy of people in celebration who walk while dancing to the merry chords of a band of guitars and bandurrias… all, all that whirls in the air, approaching, receding, and our imagination, without cease in awakening, remains dazzled by the strong virtues of a music intensely expressive and richly nuanced.

Ibéria has three movements. “Par les rues et par les chemins” (Along the streets and along the paths) opens the work. An aural travelogue, Debussy’s imagined impressions of Spain are heard through a French filter. Castanets provide flavor as the clarinets present the theme. Melodic riches are shared throughout the orchestra with shimmering colors and vivacious rhythms. The spirited journey winds down, transitioning to “Les parfums de la nuit” (The Perfumes of the Night). String glissandi (slides) and suave woodwind scales sinuously weave amongst the shadows as the oboe somewhat plaintively intones a melody redolent with seductive fragrance wafting on the night air. Debussy divides the strings into as many as 14 parts, creating a rich sonority. Shafts of silvery moonlight occasionally pierce the darkness before receding as bells gently herald the coming dawn.

“Le Matin d’un jour de fête” (The Morning of a Festival Day) gathers energy before bursting into the exuberance of a street festival. Debussy’s description is apt: “It sounds like music that has not been written down — the whole feeling of rising, of people and nature waking. There is a watermelon vendor and children whistling — I see them all clearly!” The string section is turned into a giant guitar and there is an invigorating clash of sounds, just as one might hear wandering through a festival. Clarinets clamor for attention and a street fiddler plies his trade before the oboe and English horn take up the tune. The cascades of sound collide in three bursts of musical fireworks, ending this gloriously colorful exploration of Debussy’s Spain.

© Eric T. Williams

Maurice Ravel, Bolero

Ravel was the son of a Basque mother and a Swiss father but was quintessentially French in his elegant and stylish artistic imagination. He is clearly in the camp of those classicists who elegantly re-interpret the genres, forms, and musical syntax of the past. Only a cursory review of many of the titles of Ravel’s works will bear out his deep fascination and appreciation for the uses of the musical past for imaginative, original contributions to a musical future. And yet, his music smacks nothing at all of the reactionary. Rather, while he did not storm the ramparts of startling change in musical style as did so many of his early twentieth-century compatriots, his music just sounds modern. As did so many seminal intellects of romantic and post-romantic Europe, Ravel knew and appreciated the works of the American poet, Edgar Allen Poe—which fact may surprise most Americans these days, who have consigned Poe and his raven to the dusty closet of school-house poetry.  Interestingly, Ravel considered him his third teacher after that of actual French musical models. For Ravel, Poe’s stress on craftsmanship, as well as his ideas on the process of artistic conception and creation, was strongly influential. Ravel also admired Poe’s thoughts on proportion, economy of means, beauty, and perfection.

His oeuvre from beginning to end is a succession of infinitely subtle, sophisticated, and attractive compositions. How ironic it is that what has come to be his best-known work he considered a trifle, an experiment, and a work consisting wholly of “orchestral tissue without music.” Bolero’s genesis came relatively late in Ravel’s life out of a commission from the great Russian ballerina, Ida Rubenstein. Her first suggestion didn’t work out and Ravel ultimately crafted a far more modest, or so he thought at the time, ballet for her (she had commissioned many works from the notable composers of the time). The story of the ballet is brief and the music lasts only around fifteen minutes:  In a Spanish tavern, in the midst of a raucous crowd, a women leaps onto a table and dances the traditional boléro, becoming gradually more animated, until violence is threatened among the men, and the intense episode ends with a crash. There was a near-riot at the first performance.

Ravel’s setting for this little scene begins quietly with the snare drummer playing the traditional boléro rhythm—an unenviable task the poor player will have to unwaveringly perform non-stop for over fifteen minutes, straight through until the end. Truth be told, the player would probably rather be somewhere else. The simple “Spanish-Arab” melody is first heard in flute with simple pizzicato accompaniment in the lower strings (they, too, have an endurance challenge, for they must pluck non-stop to the end). The listener will hear it repeated eighteen more times, each in a different solo instrument or new combinations of instruments. As the tune is passed around, notice that the instrumental combinations that form the accompaniment change as well. The large orchestral forces include a small clarinet, bass clarinet, English horn, oboe d’amore, piccolo trumpet, and several saxophones. The hypnotic rhythm and the ever-increasing volume tend to grab your attention but pay heed to the wonderful colors mixed up for the listener. The tension generated by the repetition is enhanced by Ravel’s steadfast adherence to the key of C major, although considerable charm and interest is occasionally wrought by having some of the accompanying instruments double the melody simultaneously in different, but closely related keys. A true stroke of genius occurs near the end: When you think that you are going to scream if you hear another bar of C major, Ravel abruptly signals the approaching end by a short move to the striking and ingratiating key of E major, but only for eight bars. The tumult reaches its climax, and with glissandi from the trombones and saxophones, amid smashing percussion, the orchestra triumphantly slides home to C major by a half step. Ravel’s “experiment” ends and in his own words:  you can “. . . take it or leave it.”

Economy of means is a traditional virtue in art, and Ravel intentionally experimented with repetitive rhythm and melody in order focus the mind on changing instrumental color. The long crescendo is important, but his acclaimed genius at orchestration makes the piece. You might say that never in the field of musical composition have so many enjoyed so much made from so little (sorry).

© 2015 William E. Runyan