Liberation of the Senses in Music of France and Russia
Compositions by Ravel, Duparc, Mussorgsky and Scriabin
Une barque sur lʼocéan and Alborada del gracioso by Maurice Ravel
A musical scene that could be a study by the arch-Impressionist Claude Monet: a little boat gliding over foamy water that glistens in the bright sunlight. Maurice Ravel captured this atmosphere in 1905 in Une barque sur lʼocéan [A boat on the ocean], the third piece of his piano cycle Miroirs [Mirrors]. Ravel, an alchemist of the play of orchestral colours, did not intend these works as “reflections” in the sense of a purely subjective act of seeing. He later said that Brutus’s aphorism from the first act of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar had influenced him: “The eye sees not itself but by reflection, by some other things.” Our attention is thus not directed to what is seen but to the mechanisms of perception itself. While Ravel was working on Miroirs, he was already regarded as the most prominent figure of his generation and Debussy’s legitimate successor. Debussy’s idea of music “whose form would be so free that it would sound improvised” was obviously what inspired Ravel to try his hand at piano pieces that would seem to have been “torn out of a sketchbook”.
The fourth piece of Miroirs, Alborada del gracioso [Morning song of the jester], a striking scherzo full of leaps, guitar-like staccatos and incredibly fast repeated triplets, is technically more demanding than Une barque. The middle section is an expansive vocal serenade – the morning music of the buffoon announced in the title. For only the second time in his career, Ravel devoted himself to a Spanish timbre here, to which he would later return repeatedly. He already worked on the orchestration of the Barque in 1906, at a time when he still had little experience with the large orchestra. He did not compose the brilliant symphonic version of Alborada with its Andalusian atmosphere until 1918, however, in connection with a London ballet project of the impresario Sergei Diaghilev.
Four Songs by Henri Duparc
“Seldom has any creative artist laid so small an offering on the altar of fame,” Sydney Northcote wrote about the man who furthered the genre of the mélodie, the specifically Gallic form of the art song, like no one else: Henri Duparc. He composed only thirteen songs over a period of fifteen years. An insidious nervous disease already put an end to his composing career in his mid-thirties. Overly critical of his output, in later years he destroyed even orchestral works and an opera fragment.
The hypersensitivity that later made composing impossible for him destined Duparc to be a brilliant interpreter of the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. The interplay of visual, acoustic, olfactory and tactile sensations that characterizes Baudelaire’s poem La Vie antérieure [My former life], for example, is captured imaginatively in Duparc’s setting (1884). But the ambivalences between the pure and the depraved, beauty and decay that are so typical of Baudelaire’s volume Fleurs du mal [Flowers of evil] are also echoed musically. The music adheres closely to the lines, firmly entrenching its emotional nuances in the prevailing mood of deep melancholy. Théophile Gautier’s Au pays où se fait la guerre [To the country where war is waged] (1869/70) takes on a more dramatic character when the longing for the lover who has gone to war finally seems to be fulfilled. But the sorrowfully recurring march remains, the symbol of endless waiting. The setting of Baudelaire’s Invitation au voyage (1870) is one of Duparc’s best-known songs. In the opening lines the voice ecstatically soars upwards over shimmering strings. In the refrain, however, corresponding to Baudelaire’s famous line “Luxe, calme et volupté” [Luxury, peace and pleasure], it reaches a state of almost static inner reflection. It is precisely this balance between emotional abandon and restraint that makes Duparc’s songs so unmistakable. Chanson triste [Sad song] (1868), a work he composed at the age of 20, already conveys this controlled passion.
Night on the Bare Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky
Modest Mussorgsky was not interested in such subtleties – far from it. Night on the Bare Mountain, the first larger orchestral work by the Russian, which he composed at the age of 28, exhibits hard edges and rough surfaces. It is deliberately vulgar, bizarre, brutal. The goal is not aesthetic idealization but rather the most direct representation of reality: it is about the dance of the witches on Mount Triglav on St John’s Eve. As he indicated in a letter from summer 1867, four situations are depicted: “1. assembly of the witches, their talk and gossip; 2. Satan’s journey; 3. obscene praises of Satan and 4. Witches’ Sabbath.” Mussorgsky’s mentor Mily Balakirev criticized the work so vehemently that it was not performed during the composer’s lifetime. Mussorgsky himself was satisfied with his work, however; he later recycled it in two opera projects.
Le Poème de l’extase by Alexander Scriabin
“It was like a bath of ice, cocaine and rainbows. For weeks I went about in a trance.” That is how the American writer Henry Miller described his encounter with Alexander Scriabin’s Poème de lʼextase [Poem of ecstasy] in 1959. It was composed at the time of the “maximalists” (Richard Taruskin) of instrumental music, who ambitiously surpassed everything that had come before, in the era of Strauss and Mahler. The intellectual aspirations of the period were high, thus the material expenditure could not be great enough. Scriabin’s enormous orchestral forces, which include eight horns, five trumpets and a large percussion arsenal, not only provide an immense wealth of colour combination possibilities but also ensure a massive physical impact of the music in the hall. Eleven identifiable thematic figures intersect and enrich each other, and the “theme of self-assertion” played by the trumpet assumes a significant role. Striving upwards in intervals of a fourth, it begins several times, then descends chromatically each time.
Although the colossal movement, 605 bars in length, can be analyzed as a free sonata form with an introduction, exposition, first development section, recapitulation, second development section and coda, when listening to it we experience above all the waves of excitement which build up continuously. We hear a seemingly constant, incessantly insistent crescendo over intricately layered dominant chords, which finally erupts in a magnificent C major apotheosis. Performance instructions such as “with ever more ecstatic sensual pleasure” make it clear that Scriabin’s programmatic idea – the merging of the creative human being with divine universal world knowledge – is tinged with a strongly erotic element. In his initial notes from 1905 he still referred to a planned Poème orgiaque, although, as his biographer Faubion Bowers contends, “orgiastic” could be directly equated with “orgasmic” in this context. Before the orchestration of the Poème was even completed, Rimsky-Korsakov described the work as “obscene”.
Of course, things are not quite that simple. Scriabin dreamed of being able to “transform” the universe into a “divine organism” on the strength of his own personality. His goal was “the intensification of creative power to the extreme limit, ecstasy” – rapture was to finally transcend the dividing line between soul and body. In Scriabin’s case it was the body that ultimately failed bitterly: in 1915 the 43-year-old composer contracted blood poisoning and died. The fatal illness was caused by a pimple.