Dark Light and Dazzling Shadows
Works by Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Albert Roussel and Béla Bartók
The four works in today’s concert were composed within a period of fifty years: from Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1893-1902) to Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole (1907/1908) and Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane (1930) to Bartók’s unfinished Viola Concerto (1945). Three Frenchmen and a Hungarian in American exile, who belong to the same generation. Or, to use the standard clichés: three Impressionists and an Expressionist. Music of thrilling rhythmic power and incredible vividness, the subtlest orchestral nuances and effects, a profusion of sounds in the chiaroscuro between the dazzling brightness in Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole and the dark shadows of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. The closer one comes to the works, however, the more blurred and diffuse the image becomes. Each of the four composers set out for modernism from a different starting point, and each of the four works occupies its own position in it. And much is not as it appears at first glance: the light is dark, the shadows are dazzling.
In Search of a “Simpler Form”: Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande
The premiere of Claude Debussy’s only completed opera at the Opéra Comique in Paris on 30 April 1902 marked a crucial turning point in the history of opera. Debussy regarded the eight and a half years that he had spent setting the symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck since summer 1893 as a kind of “withdrawal treatment” from the drug of “Wagnerism”, to which he had become addicted in his youth. At the end the spell seemed to be broken, as Debussy explained in an interview with Louis Schneider: “The composer wanted to counteract the influence of Wagner, which he regards as corrupting and wrong. ... Debussy’s goal is to find a simpler form that is based on human behaviour; he wanted to create a language which, although it does not abandon symphonic means, does not completely surrender to them either and above all avoids long and boring development sections.”
The “simpler form” focusses on a new type of tonal, key and timbral symbolism – a kind of “phrasal chemistry” (Debussy) in which each musical element has its own meaning. In a seminal study from 1977, Albert Jakobik deciphered this compositional principle according to fixed “harmonic colour values”, which he subdivides into a “primary colour”, a “complementary contrasting colour” (often chromatic) and an “open connecting colour” (often whole tone). According to this theory, in the first scene of Pelléas, for example, D minor represents Golaud / the forest and F sharp major, Mélisande / the water, while a whole-tone texture connects the two characters and levels of nature. That can hardly be described as “Impressionism”, however. For his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker Alain Altinoglu has compiled and arranged sections from Debussy’s opera as an orchestral suite.
Seemingly Createdfor the Moment: Maurice Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole
Maurice Ravel, who was born thirteen years after Debussy, had seen nearly all the performances of Pelléas, but his creative approach was entirely different: for one thing, because Wagnerism was no longer relevant to him, and for another, because – despite his admiration for Debussy – his aesthetic of art for art’s sake was alien to him. Ravel professed his commitment to “the will and intelligence that are lacking in his [Debussy’s] music”, as he wrote in an article for the Musical Digest in 1928 – ten years after the death of his older colleague. Debussy, on the other hand, had reproached Ravel for “the attitude of a conjurer” who “plays with marked cards”.
In Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole a rather atmospheric web that seemingly comes into being by chance is confronted with the clear logic of Debussy’s Pelléas, allowing sounds and colours to collide without appearing to strive for a goal. Effects such as the second dissonances in the strings playing sul tasto (on the fingerboard), the clarinet and bassoon cadenzas and the crystalline dialogue of the harp and celesta light up and disappear again, briefly take on rhythmic contour and then end in faint string harmonics which fade away into nothingness. Everything seems to be created for the moment at which it is heard, fascinates, surprises – and is over almost as soon as one has noticed it.
Focussed, Pure, Clear, Orderly: Albert Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane
Albert Roussel – seven years younger than Debussy, six years older than Ravel – came to music late. After more than eight years as a lieutenant in the French Navy, he resigned at the age of 25 and began his studies at the newly established Schola Cantorum four years later (1898). To begin with, Roussel was a “Debussyist”, including a certain inclination towards Wagnerism. He soon went his own way, however: for one thing, because of his fascination with India and the Far East, for another, as a result of his analysis of Igor Stravinsky: “Debussy has given music incomparable masterworks, but his time is past, and his imitators can contribute as little to the music of our day as the imitators of Wagner. It was unquestionably Stravinsky who showed us the way to the future.”
Typical of Roussel’s individual style is the ballet Bacchus et Ariane op. 43, which had its premiere at the Paris Opéra on 22 May 1931. The Suite No. 2 is identical with the second act of the ballet. The ostinato melodies and rhythms, the often jagged and angular orchestration and the dissonances within a harmony that is basically still major/minor tonal but “distorted” by many augmented intervals give the score a sometimes archaic, sometimes modernistic tone which is influenced more by Expressionism than Impressionism (if an “ism” is necessary at all).
Unfinished Work in Completed Form: Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra
The example of Béla Bartók also shows how great Debussy’s influence was on early modernism. Until well into the 1910s Bartók’s music had clearly Impressionistic characteristics, and even in his last works – the Third Piano Concerto and the unfinished Concerto for Viola and Orchestra – harmonic and instrumental idioms are still found which sound like reminiscences of late scores by Debussy.
In summer 1945 Bartók began work on a concerto which the violist William Primrose had commissioned him to write – first at Saranac Lake, then in New York – but the work progressed slowly: “I could not do any composing work in this unfortunate and inadequate apartment of mine in New York,” he confessed to Primrose on 8 September. “In addition, a sequence of various illnesses visited us ... I am very glad to be able to tell you that your viola concerto is ready in draft, so that only the score has to be written, which means a purely mechanical work, so to speak. If nothing happens I can be through in five or six weeks.” Bartók died on 26 September 1945, however, and the concerto remained unfinished.
Bartók’s close friend Tibor Serly reconstructed a performing version based on the sketches, which Primrose premiered in Minneapolis on 2 December 1949. Bartók’s son Peter and the violist Paul Neubauer produced a second version in 1995, which differed significantly from the first. After exhaustive study and experimentation, the violist Csaba Erdélyi followed these two versions with another in 2004, which was revised again in 2016 and has its European premiere at these concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker. The Hungarian composers György Kurtág and Peter Eötvös advised Erdélyi on this revision, particularly regarding the orchestration.