La Belle Époque was a period in French history stretching from 1870 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. La Belle Époque means “the beautiful age” and this period in France’s history was named in hindsight after the devastation brought by the First World War. France enjoyed great prosperity and stability during this period, and all of the arts flourished. In music, one of the most important movements was Impressionism, particularly exemplified in the works of Claude Debussy, who was a profound influence on many of today’s composers. Impressionism was a reaction against Romantic music. Rather than focus on strong emotions or dramatic and heroic stories, as Romantic music often does, Impressionist music sought to create moods and atmospheres. Instead of strong chords and melodies, Impressionist composers used novel harmonies and scales such as the whole-tone scale and the pentatonic scale to create a harmonic world that is equally colorful but much less definitive than the solidly rooted tonal world of the Romantics. Both Romantic and Impressionist influences can be heard on today’s program.
The first half of our concert represents the “beyond” part of “La Belle Époque and Beyond.” La Belle Époque was brought to an abrupt end by World War I, a conflict two of our composers participated in. Francis Poulenc (1899–1963) was born into a wealthy family in Paris. He fought in WWI but luckily emerged unscathed. During the first part of Poulenc’s compositional career, he was noted for having a simple, direct, light-hearted, and witty musical personality, and composed much film and theatre music. However, in 1936 he made a pilgrimage to Rocamadour in south-central France. He was deeply affected by the death of the composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud just prior to his trip, which may have played a part in his religious re-awakening as a Catholic at Rocamadour. From that point on he started creating intense religious works, mainly choral, while continuing to produce secular ones. The first piece he composed after this religious experience was the Litanies à la Vierge Noire, written in the same year as his pilgrimage. The “vierge noire” or “black virgin” in the title is a statue dating from the 12th century in which the wood has blackened over time. Saint Amadour (also known as Zachée), who is referenced in Poulenc’s lyrics, is thought to be the founder of the shrine. Rocamadour is still a destination for pilgrims today.
André Caplet (1878–1925) was born to a poor family in the north of France. By the age of 12 he was working as a rehearsal accompanist at the local music hall and he won the Prix de Rome, France’s most celebrated composition award, at the age of 23. He went on to have a highly successful career as a conductor, including a four-year stint at the Boston Opera Company from 1910–1914. He also served in WWI, where he was twice wounded and also gassed, which tragically resulted in his premature death in his 40s. He became a close friend to Debussy, and they admired each others’ work. Caplet was influenced by Debussy’s novel use of harmony; and Debussy relied on Caplet as a proofreader for some of his works, as well as having him conduct premieres.
We will be performing several movements from Caplet’s 1920 work Messe à Trois Voix. This work was written for three unaccompanied female voices, although we will perform it with the entire chorus. There are a number of Impressionist influences in this piece. Caplet is very fond of shifting harmonies around pivot notes. While the chorus sings a triad, one part might hold their note and the other two parts will move up or down a half step, thus shifting a triad from a major chord to a minor chord or vice versa, or perhaps pivoting to a different triad entirely. He also makes use of the pentatonic scale throughout the piece, which can be heard in the first rising motive of the Kyrie, and then backwards in the falling motive of the Sanctus.
Our organist Joshua T. Lawton offers the following background on Jehan Alain:
Though obscure in terms of the Western canon, the music of Jehan Alain (1911–1940) is beloved of organists, and is sometimes hailed as some of the more idiosyncratic of the twentieth century. There is obvious cause for all three characteristics: being killed in action at the age of 29, and buried with military honors by the Germans after engaging, alone, a squad of troopers during the Blitzkrieg in France, was indeed a dramatic end for a classical musician. It is perhaps not surprising for one raised in a musical household, with a father who built pipe organs from scraps and siblings who enjoyed singing Bach cantatas for fun, to display a creative imagination. His music showed many influences, above all the language of Debussy and impressionism, with colorful scales and timbres predominating. Other fashionable trends are also apparent: musical ideas fashioned after western notions of exotic lands, including the Near and Far East; the rhythms and vivaciousness of dance forms and jazz; and a rediscovery of Baroque forms and melodies.
The Berceuse (1936), originally for piano, is very simple, with a basic melody and countermelody. The harmonies are not basic classical progressions, however, and give light and dark tints to the lullaby. Much more famous are the Litanies (1937), a favorite among audiences. The rock band Renaissance even borrowed the melody for the introduction to their song Running Hard. The Litanies may well have come to life as a humoresque; however, during the summer they were written, Alain’s beloved sister Marie-Odile died in a mountaineering accident. Subsequently, Alain finished the piece with the following text as a preface: “When, in its distress, the christian soul can find no more words to implore the mercy of God, it repeats, time without end, the same fierce-faithed prayer. Reason reaches its limits and only belief can chase its flight.” It is easy to recognize that Alain was an avid motorcyclist: the driving, motoric rhythm is constantly renewed throughout.
Our next two composers both deal with the subject of menace from the sea. Vincent d’Indy (1851–1931) came from an aristocratic family in southeast France, though he was born in Paris. He was obsessed with the military as a boy (and especially with his hero Napoleon) but he also studied music throughout his youth, and a trip to Italy in his late teens focused him in on the idea of becoming a composer. He studied under César Franck at the Paris Conservatoire. He later taught both there and at the Schola Cantorum of Paris where Varèse and Satie were among his students. His 1888 piece Sur la mer, for which he also wrote the lyrics, begins and ends in sinister fog, and in the middle describes the cycle of the sun rising and setting over the sea. His use of dramatic and flowery language are very Romantic, as are his sweeping, passionate melodies. The somber and threatening music of the fog which begins and ends the piece sets up a very Romantic notion of man being set against the power of the elements.
Like the organist Jehan Alain, Lili Boulanger (1893–1918) sadly falls into the category of composers who died far too young. Sister to the world-renowned teacher Nadia Boulanger and daughter of two accomplished musicians, she died of Crohn’s disease at the age of 24. Knowing her health was poor, she made good use of her limited time, however; at the age of 16 she decided to win the prestigious composition prize the Prix de Rome, an endeavor that she accomplished in just four years of diligent study. She had been sick her entire life, and wanted to ensure she had a way to support herself. In 1913 she became the first woman to win the prize with her cantata Faust et Hélène. She made international headlines, and was offered a contract with the music publisher Ricordi, which gave her an annual income in return for the right of first refusal to publish any of her compositions. Les Sirènes was written when she was 18. The opening piano part is a nod to the orchestral work La Sirène by Debussy, who knew and admired Boulanger’s work. The Sirens were mythological aquatic femmes fatales who sang so beautifully that sailors would jump overboard and drown trying to reach them. Boulanger’s setting of this poem by French poet Charles-Jean Grandmougin is perhaps the most Impressionistic work on our program. The Sirens float in a misty and totally unrooted harmonic world, at first charming and sweet, but then increasingly threatening in the middle section, and then once again sweetly triumphant at the end.
Léo Delibes (1836–1891) is the earliest composer on our program. Born in the little town of Saint-Germain-du-Val to a father who worked for the postal service and a musical mother, he studied at the Paris Conservatoire and worked as an organist and choir-master to help support himself. He wrote primarily for the theater; his two most famous works are the ballet Coppélia and the opera Lakmé. There is no date attached to Les Norvégiennes, but it was probably composed in the 1870s. The poet is Philippe Gille, who also wrote the libretto for Lakmé. It is a graceful and buoyant Romantic work depicting a sleigh dashing through the woods of Norway.
Jules Massenet (1842–1912) was of the same generation as Delibes. He was born near Lyons to a middle-class family with a musical mother. He also studied at the Paris Conservatoire, won the Prix de Rome, and as all of our other composers, lived for most of his life in Paris. In his 40s, his opera Manon Lescaut became a huge hit, and assured his success as one of the leading French operatic composers until his death. In his Noël, published in 1895, one can hear the qualities that made him so successful as an opera composer; the melody is charming and memorable, and dramatic tension ebbs and flows throughout the piece.
Our last two songs are traditional French Christmas carols. It is generally challenging to trace the history of carols; these are no exception, though they date from at least the 1700s and possibly earlier. Shepherds are a theme in both! The first is a group of shepherds wondering at the sudden wonderful fragrance they perceive on the first magical Christmas eve; and the second is a joyous celebration of the message the angels bring.
We wish you and yours a very happy holiday season, and hope you have enjoyed this French foray. We invite you to enjoy a bit of American Christmas music as well; after the concert we will be having a CD release party for our new CD An American Christmas and encourage you to join us.