Rules of the Game for Sorcerers
Works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Camille Saint-Saëns and Maurice Ravel
With “Turcheria”: Mozart’s Violin Concerto in A major
A minor, of course. When Mozart wanted to salute the current fashion of music in “Turkish” mode, it was the appropriate key: in the Allegretto “alla turca” of the A major Piano Sonata K. 331 and the Presto overture to Die Entführung aus dem Serail K. 384, as well as in the Allegro in 2/4 time that suddenly bursts into a galant Tempo di Menuetto in the Rondeau finale of the Violin Concerto K. 219. With its forte-piano accents, simple harmony with chromatic darkenings and use of coll’arco al rovescio (also called col legno: bowing with the wood rather than the hair) in the cellos and double basses, it has surely been these roughly 130 bars to which the concerto has owed its undying popularity.
This is the last of Mozart’s five authentic violin concertos, of which numbers 2 to 5 were all composed within a short span of time – between June and December 1775 – in Salzburg, and probably not for himself but for Antonio Brunetti, who became Konzertmeister of the Salzburg court orchestra the following year. Later he composed individual movements, also for Brunetti – an Adagio (K. 261) and two rondos (K. 269 and 373) – as well as a lost Andante in A major (K. 470). Mozart was also perfectly capable of performing the concertos himself. He received his first violin lessons, of course, from his father Leopold, and he must have been a reasonably good player until he turned his attention increasingly to the piano. Already on their first Italian journey, Leopold reports: “Wolfgang plays the violin, but not in public”.
He deeply regretted that Wolfgang did not more often pick up “his” (Leopold’s) instrument and never ceased to admonish his son, for example in October 1777: “You yourself do not know how well you play the violin, if you will only do yourself credit and play with energy, with your whole heart and mind, yes, just as if you were the first violinist in Europe... Oh, how often you will hear a violinist play, who has a great reputation, and feel very sorry for him!”
“Trop célèbre”: Saint-Saëns’s Introduction et Rondo capriccioso
Although Camille Saint-Saëns’s concert piece Introduction et Rondo capriccioso op. 28 is also in A minor, its character is not “alla turca” but rather “plus espagnol que jamais” – “more Spanish than ever” – as the composer wrote on 30 December 1884 to the conductor Joseph Dupont. In a review of the work in performance, it was described as a “kind of Fantaisie-Valse à l’espagnole”, and indeed the syncopated 6/8 rhythm of the rondo has an unmistakable Spanish colouring – vaguely alluding to the asymmetry of a seguiriya (gypsy seguidilla), undoubtedly in tribute to the dedicatee, Pablo de Sarasate. The French composer and the Spanish violinist first met in 1859, aged 24 and 15, respectively. That proved the beginning of a cordial and intensive artistic friendship which lasted until Sarasate’s death on 20 September 1908 and yielded, in addition to Saint-Saëns’s violin concertos No. 1 in A major, op. 20 (1859) and No. 3 in B minor, op. 61 (1880), the concert piece being played today, a staple in the repertoire of every great violinist. Originally, the Introduction et Rondo capriccioso was probably intended as the finale of the A major Concerto – which remained in a single movement – and both works had their premieres at the same concert, on 4 April 1867. With Sarasate as soloist and Saint-Saëns conducting, they were performed on that occasion one directly after the other. The Introduction et Rondo capriccioso quickly acquired such popularity on its own that the composer himself later apostrophized it as “trop célèbre” – “excessively famous”.
A kaleidoscope of dream images: Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges
In May 1921, Maurice Ravel moved into the villa Le Bevédère in Montfort-l’Amaury, a village west of Paris. The house’s fantastic interior featured wallpaper designed by the composer himself along with the ornaments on the marble of the fireplace, delicate furniture in the decorative-arts style of the fin de siècle,and a constantly growing “collection of fakes”, as the violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange called it, distributed through all the rooms: Gothic ashtrays, figurines and imitations of Chinese porcelain, on the piano – bathed in diffused light from two weighty metal lamps with globes of etched milk glass – a glass dome beneath which ships appear to sway on a sea of shells, flowers and starfish. Similarly, the garden of this huge toy-chest was an artfully arranged microcosm of bonsais and similar dwarf plants, in which the 1.58 m (5’ 2”) composer must have seemed like a latter-day Gulliver. In this magical world at Le Belvédère, Ravel created a mystical realm – an “artificial paradise”. In its shelter, he immersed himself in the dreams of a child from which he produced his music, notably L’Enfant et les Sortilèges – Ravel and his fairytale world: a wondrous amalgamation of its creator with the work his German biographer H. H. Stuckenschmidt described as his “summum opus”.
In 1916, to a commission by Jacques Rouché, director of the Paris Opéra, the French writer (Sidonie-Gabrielle) Colette wrote a libretto which, with the working title Ballet pour ma fille, was offered to Ravel for composition. “He accepted,” recalled Colette later. “He took away my libretto and we had no more news of Ravel or of L’Enfant.” Eventually, she asked him cautiously but insistently how the score was coming on. Ravel explained on 27 February 1919: “I was actually wondering whether you still wanted such an inefficient collaborator. In truth, I am already working on our opera: I’m taking notes – without writing any.”
“Then the war came and total silence descended,” continued Colette in her memoirs. “I stopped thinking about L’Enfant et les Sortilèges”, as the work was later entitled. “Five years went by.” It was to the persistent cajoling of Raoul Gunsbourg, director of the Opéra de Monte Carlo, that Ravel finally yielded, contractually agreeing to deliver the score by the end of the year. And so, to Colette’s and Gunsbourg’s great delight, rehearsals could actually begin in January 1925, and on 21 March the triumphant premiere of L’Enfant et les Sortilèges finally took place.
The libretto kaleidoscopically strings together dream images of such diversity that the stylistic melange of the music was virtually obligatory. Some portions of the text – the fox-trot of the Wedgwood teapot and china teacup, for example, and the Cats’ Duet – were written in accordance with Ravel’s strict instructions. In his orchestration, he unleashes a veritable firework display of colours and rhythms, ranging from medieval organum (the oboes’ parallel 4ths and 5ths in the introduction) and Baroque dance forms to jazz.
It cannot have been a coincidence that Ravel scored the opera at Le Belvédère; every page of L’Enfant et les Sortilèges exudes the “atmosphere of tenderness and subtle pantheism” (critic Émile Vuillermoz writing in the journal Excelsior) that surrounded the composer in Montfort-l’Amaury. Colette’s text could have been describing Ravel’s garden when, to begin the second scene, the Child is transported outdoors with the two Cats: “Trees, flowers, a little green pool, a fat tree-trunk covered in ivy” glimmer in the moonlight; one hears “the music of insects, frogs and toads, the laughter of screech owls, the murmur of the breeze and nightingales.” L’Enfant et les Sortilèges has immortalized the enchantment of this fairy-tale realm.