Thursday, March 1, 2012

Gabriel Fauré catches Pelléas Fever

This weekend’s concert with the Harrisburg Symphony includes Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with violinist Philippe Quint, and Mozart’s final symphony, justifiably given the lofty nickname “Jupiter.”

Fauré at time he wrote Pelléas
But the program opens with a beautiful, charming and downright exquisite work by Gabriel Fauré, a suite from the incidental music he’d composed for the play “Pelléas et Mélisande.”

The performances are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum. Dr. Timothy Dixon will be giving a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance. This is also the concert supporting the nationwide program, Orchestras Feeding America.

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Listen to Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in the delicious "Spinning Song" from Fauré's Suite:
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If everybody’s talking about Downton Abbey these days, Europe must have gotten caught up in “Pelléas Fever” shortly after Maurice Maeterlinck’s play first opened in Paris in 1893.

Claude Debussy had read the play soon after it was published the year before its premiere and asked Maeterlinck for permission to set it as an opera. He worked at it steadily until it was - finally! - ready for its first performance in Paris in 1902. It quickly became regarded as one of the great masterworks of the 20th Century, especially in the “impressionist” style. (You can see a complete video of the BBC production conducted by Pierre Boulez, here. By the way, I highly recommend this when you have a few hours!)

Debussy explained what attracted him to the play in the first place:

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"The drama of Pelléas which, despite its dream-like atmosphere, contains far more humanity than those so-called ‘real-life documents,’ seemed to suit my intentions admirably. In it there is an evocative language whose sensitivity could be extended into music and into the orchestral backcloth.”
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The largely forgotten Scottish composer William Wallace, who had a stylistic sympathy for the music of Liszt, wrote a tone-poem inspired by the play in 1903.

Arnold Schoenberg wrote a vast symphonic poem for a large orchestra inspired by the story (the subject was suggested to him by Richard Strauss) which he completed in February of 1903. It was premiered in 1905. Stylistically almost the exact opposite of Debussy’s more intimate score, it is scored for a huge orchestra with quadruple winds (instead of the standard double or triple) with 8 horns, 4 trumpets, 5 trombones and tuba. (You can hear an excerpt here of Claudio Abbado's performance with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, the section beginning with Pelleas' murder.)

Sibelius composed ten pieces to accompany a production of the play in Helsinki in 1905. (You can hear the opening of Sibelius' setting, here.)

Mrs. Campbell & Dog
But Gabriel Fauré had been asked by the English actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell for her London production of M’s play in 1898. She had initially invited Debussy to compose the music for her but he declined because he was busy trying to finish his opera. So she asked Fauré instead. This would make Fauré’s score the earliest of these musical settings of Maeterlinck’s story.

(I could not find any performances or videos I was comfortable recommending by embedding them here. There is a series of each section of the Suite with accompanying unrelated illustrations of the recording by Ernest Ansermet with not very good sound which, given those caveats, you can listen to, starting here.)

Fauré was also busy at the time. Before, when he was organist at one of the major churches in Paris and the inspector of provincial music schools (not to mention as a critic for Le Figaro), he often found himself trying to compose on a train or between two weddings.

But now, he had just been appointed professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire, dealing not only with a busy schedule but also a nasty amount of political in-fighting.

After the death of the school’s director Ambroise Thomas in 1896 (who had regarded Fauré as “too modern” for the school), Jules Massenet expected to succeed him. Given his status in the French Pantheon of composers at the time, he felt he could demand to be appointed for life. They turned him down and gave the position to Theodore Dubois which infuriated Massenet who immediately resigned. Fauré then was appointed professor of composition in Massenet’s place.

Fauré felt composition students needed a firm grounding in the basic skills – harmony and counterpoint, especially – which he usually outsourced to his assistants. In his students’ lessons, he would help them make use of these skills as they pertained to what they were working on at the moment.

Among his students were Maurice Ravel (whom he was constantly defending against the more conservative faculty, especially after he was denied the coveted Prix de Rome in 1905), George Enescu (the Romanian violinist best known for his two Romanian Rhapsodies) and Nadia Boulanger who herself became one of the leading teachers of a significant number of 20th Century composers ranging from Aaron Copland to Elliott Carter and (if only obliquely) Astor Piazzolla.

Ravel would later tell this story about Fauré's open-mindedness. Less than enthusiastic about the new String Quartet he’d just showed him, Fauré asked to see the manuscript again a few days later: "I could have been wrong."

The musicologist Henri Prunières wrote, "What Fauré developed among his pupils was taste, harmonic sensibility, the love of pure lines, of unexpected and colorful modulations; but he never gave them receipts for composing according to his style and that is why they all sought and found their own paths in many different, and often opposed, directions.”

Anyway, back to April 1898 when Mrs. Campbell made her request. Since the production was to open in June, Fauré felt hampered by the tight deadline. As he wrote to his wife, “I will have to grind away hard for Mélisande when I get back. I hardly have a month and a half to write all that music. True, some of it is already in my thick head!” He was also expected to travel to London to conduct the performance – so in order to save time, he used a few earlier pieces (not the first composer to recycle bits from unsuccessful earlier works) and gave his sketches to his student Charles Koechlin to orchestrate them.

The Sicilliene, perhaps one of Fauré’s better-known melodies, was added at the last minute, taken also from an earlier work (originally for cello and piano) and may strike us as unbelievably sunny for such a gloomy location as the castle where Mélisande finds herself practically imprisoned. Originally, Fauré used it to underscore the tender love scene between the two ill-fated lovers.

Mrs. Campbell was enchanted by his music, in which she felt "he had grasped with most tender inspiration the poetic purity that pervades and envelops M. Maeterlinck's lovely play." She produced the play several times over the next 14 years, always using the music Fauré composed for her. Sarah Bernhardt also used it for her production of the play in 1904.

Originally, there were 17 brief orchestral interludes, three of which he later re-orchestrated for a standard orchestra rather than the original small “pit orchestra” to create the standard orchestral suite one hears in concerts and on recordings today - the Prelude (a pre-curtain Overture), the Spinning Song (Melisande at her spinning wheel) and the Death of Melisande. Fauré was unhappy with the first performance of the Suite and later added the Sicilienne (again).

Here, basically, is a summary of the plot:

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Prince Golaud finds a mysterious young woman, Mélisande, lost in a forest. He marries her and brings her back to the castle of his grandfather, King Arkel of Allemonde. Here Mélisande becomes increasingly attached to Golaud’s younger half-brother Pelléas, arousing Golaud’s jealousy. Golaud goes to excessive lengths to find out the truth about Pelléas and Mélisande’s relationship, even forcing his own child, Yniold, to spy on the couple. Pelléas decides to leave the castle but arranges to meet Mélisande one last time and the two finally confess their love for one another. Golaud, who has been eavesdropping, rushes out and kills Pelléas. Mélisande dies shortly after, having given birth to a daughter, with Golaud still begging her to tell him “the truth”.
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- Dick Strawser

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