Monday, October 20, 2008

KSO Programme Notes: 20 October 2008

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Daphnis et Chloé: Suite No.2

1. Lever du jour
2. Pantomime
3. Danse générale
The myth of Daphnis and Chloë comes to us through a 2nd century Greek text credited to Longus. The story is fairly typical of pastoral erotica of the period: two children, raised by shepherds on the isle of Lesbos, nurture an unrecognised passion for each other that is brought to the surface through the medium of mutual peril. More notable is its characterisation, which is more extensive than its more plot-driven contemporaries, and puts it closer in style to a modern novel.

The combination of sex, mild adventure and textual innovation therefore made the story naturally attractive to the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev as a potential subject for the Ballet Russe when they sensationally swept into Paris in 1908. Ravel, the composer earmarked by Diaghilev for the commission, was however more dubious: he disapproved of the racier elements of the story, and this led to arguments with the choreographer Mikhail Fokine, with whom he wrote the scenario for the ballet. An episode in which Chloé is abducted by pirates ended up particularly toned down from the original, and Ravel's final score dispatches it in an alarmingly perfunctory manner.

Beyond these aesthetic disagreements, Ravel found the work immensely difficult, and many of his most famous pieces of this period, such as Ma Mère L’Oye were in fact produced largely as procrastinatory diversions from completing work on Daphnis. The premiere, originally slated for the Ballet Russe's 1910 season, was continually delayed as Ravel fiddled with the score, and it was not heard in public until 1912.

The music that is performed in concert as the Second Suite consists of the finale of the ballet, by which point what little plot there is has been resolved. After a depiction of dawn, one of the very finest pieces of orchestral writing Ravel ever produced, the reunited lovers perform a pantomime in thanks to the gods, an enacting of the myth of Syrinx, who, pursued by the god Pan, came to a river, and, asking for help from the river nymphs, was transformed into a water reed, from which the frustrated god fashioned his eponymous pipes. There then follows a final bacchanal, whose pagan frenzy is intensified by a wild quintuple pulse.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, Op.10

Introduction and theme - Adagio - March - Romance - Aria Italiana - Bourée Classique - Wiener Walzer - Moto Perpetuo - Funeral March - Chant - Fugue and Finale

When asked, after he had conducted a concert featuring Ravel's music, if such an eminent composer would ever emerge from England, Frank Bridge replied, "You will hear of one: Benji Britten."

The relationship between Britten and Bridge was of crucial importance for the younger composer: it was hearing and being "knocked sideways" by Bridge's Suite The Sea that set the young Britten on the path to becoming a composer himself, and it was his subsequent lessons with Bridge that honed and disciplined his natural talent, instilling in him his mentor's sense of rigour: Bridge insisted that a composer should write not one more note than was absolutely necessary to make his point, and this asceticism would become the backbone of Britten's own style.

So when the commission came to write a work for Boyd Neel's string orchestra to perform at the Salzburg Festival it was natural that Britten should take the opportunity to compose something in tribute to his teacher. The resulting work was heard in 1937, and confirmed Britten's growing reputation as England's brightest musical talent. What was particularly remarkable about the Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge was their European quality: aside from the various parodies of Italian, Austrian and French music, the young composer's style showed an obvious knowledge of such composers as Bartók, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, which set him apart from the insular attitude of much of 1930s Britain, exemplified by the suspicious reviews the work received in British newspapers, in contrast to the more positive reception afforded by the European press.

Perhaps Britten fully intended to provoke his native establishment. Certainly the theme he chose to use - from Bridge's Three Idylls for string quartet - has a wistful, nostalgic quality (of a kind that Bridge himself had long since abandoned in favour of a more abrasive style) that is blown away by its subsequent transformations. The work was intended as more than witty stylistic parody though: As well as their titles, the variations also originally had subtitles, intended to indicate an aspect of his teacher's personality. It was only with difficulty that Bridge himself persuaded Britten to abandon these, unquestionably the right decision; while one might see how the brooding first variation might embody "his integrity", it is difficult to see what the distillation of every waltz cliché in the Wiener Walzer has to do with "his gaiety", and "his sympathy" is an entirely inadequate description of the extraordinary funeral march, whose bitterness is only magnified by the frothy vivaciousness of what precedes it. The extraordinary "Chant" that follows takes the music into another, visionary realm altogether. A devilish fugue takes us to the conclusion, which weaves quotations from other works of Bridge around the main theme. So subtle and so integrated are these that it is only in very recent years that anyone has noticed they are even there.

Manuel de Falla (1876-1946)
El Sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat)

Part 1: Introduction - Afternoon - Dance of the Miller's Wife (Fandango ) - The Grapes
Part 2: The Neighbours' Dance (Seguidillas) - The Miller's Dance (Farruca) - The Corregidor's Dance - Final Dance (Jota)

Diaghilev had all the major composers of Europe in his sights, and so as well as Ravel, it was inevitable that he would approach Manuel de Falla to write something for the Ballet Russe. The subject he had in mind was Nights in the Gardens of Spain, suggested to him by G. Martinez Sierra. However, he happily transferred his enthusiasm to Falla's own suggestion that an adaption of El sombrero de tres picos, an 1875 novel by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón based on an older folk tale: a familiar story of political power abused for the aim of sexual gratification.

Falla had been toying with the idea of adapting the novel for some years, and was keen to set to work. However, the outbreak of war in 1914 meant that it would be nigh on impossible to produce the work, and so Falla, with the blessing of Diaghilev, produced with Sierra a pantomime, El corregidor y la molinera [The Corregidor and the Miller's Wife], which was produced in Madrid in 1917 to great popular success. He then revised this extensively to produce the definitive work which was unveiled under its final title in London in 1919.

If Diaghilev was hoping for a succès de scandale such as he had achieved with Nijinsky's notoriously erotic interpretation of Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune or Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, he may have been disappointed by the final ballet: Falla was devoutly Catholic and had toned down the plot considerably - the Miller's Wife is much less amenable to the advances of men other than her husband than she is in Alarcón's novel. In other respects, however, it attracted as much controversy as the impresario could have hoped for, with critical reaction divided between those who saw it as a remarkable example of the Spanish national character expressed in a contemporary manner (the opinion of many critics outside Spain) and as an act of modernist desecration of Spain's folk traditions (the opinion of many critics within Spain). To put these reactions in context, Spain during this period was undergoing something of an existential crisis: the battle between those who espoused strident international modernism and those who supported a more insular approach to Spanish culture was, in the wake of decades of political instability, a fierce one.

Synopsis


The set and costume designs for The Three Cornered Hat were as much a draw as the music: Diaghilev had secured the services of Pablo Picasso. For the drop curtain Picasso produced a painting depicting a party of spectators at a bullfight. To give the audience time to admire this, Falla added an introduction. A soprano sings:

Casadita, casadita, cierra trance la puerta; Que aunque el diablo esté dormido a lo mejor se despierta!

[Little house, you must bolt your door; although the Devil sleeps he may wake up!]

The curtain rises on a small village. In the heat of the afternoon the Miller and his wife go about their tasks: drawing water from the well (with a pulley that is obviously in desperate need of oiling), feeding the chickens, and so on. The Miller is an ugly man, but his Wife is much more attractive, indeed has the charm to teach the blackbird to whistle the hour of the day, and attracts the attentions of every passing man. She catches the eye of the Corregidor (the mayor and chief magistrate, whose authority is symbolised by his tricorn), who tries to dance with her. She teases him with a bunch of grapes, obviously a very tasty dish, as in his excitement he loses his balance and falls over.

Part two opens with a dance for the Miller's neighbours: it is St. John's Eve, and the villagers are gathering to drink and dance. The Miller's Wife invites her husband to dance the farruca, a solemn and intense flamenco dance. As he finishes, Fate (as represented by a very famous quotation) knocks at the door, in the form of the police, who are here to arrest the Miller on the orders of the Corregidor. As they haul the Miller off, leaving his wife alone, a warning is sung:

Por la noche canta el cuco. Ad virtiendo a los casados que corran bien los cerrojos que el diablo está desvelado!

[The cuckoo sings in the night. It cautions us to bolt the door, for the Devil is awake!]

Having disposed of the opposition, the Corregidor struts in, dressed in all his official finery to seduce the Miller's wife. Luck is not on his side, however: he falls into the millstream. The Miller's Wife mocks him and threatens him with her husband's blunderbuss; then, suddenly frightened, runs off. The Corregidor removes his sodden clothes to dry, and goes upstairs and falls asleep on the Miller's bed.

The Miller meanwhile has escaped, and returning home to find the Corregidor unclothed in his bed draws the obvious conclusion. Furious, he plots his revenge: he puts on the Corregidor's uniform and sets off to find his wife. When the Corregidor wakes, he finds his clothes missing, so puts on the Miller's clothes. This inevitably leads to a confusion of identity, as his own officials mistake him for the Miller and arrest him. The confusion is exacerbated with the return of the Miller's Wife, who, distraught to find what she takes to be her husband in the grip of the police, sets upon them, and uproar ensues. The Miller returns, and seeing his wife defending the Corregidor, attacks his rival in a jealous rage. The arrival of the St John's Eve procession heralds the final dance, during which the true identities of all are finally revealed, the Miller and his Wife are reconciled, and the Corregidor once again flounders, surrounded and mocked by the whole village.

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