Tonal Images in Bright Colours
Music by Adès, Mozart and Debussy
The French region of Brie, east of the capital and famous for its soft cheese, was the cradle of the Couperin family of musicians. François Couperin, born in Paris in 1668, was its most important member and nicknamed “le Grand”. Court organist and harpsichordist in Versailles, as well the royal family’s keyboard teacher, he published 212 Pièces de clavecin in four volumes beginning in 1713. Among these harpsichord works, which made him famous, are many character pieces with programmatic titles depicting individual persons and occupational groups, animals, plants or landscapes. Couperin’s harpsichord pieces were prized not only by Bach but also by Brahms. Richard Strauss came across the French Baroque master through a reference by Romain Rolland, and in 1923, he created a dance suite after Couperin for the Vienna State Opera Ballet. In 1941, in the middle of World War II, Strauss returned to Couperin’s rarefied sound-world when he arranged additional pieces by the French old master for small orchestra for the Bavarian State Opera’s ballet Verklungene Feste (Faded Fêtes). His aim was to link rococo and modern music by widening the range of colours.
Amusements and sighs: Three Studies from Couperin by Thomas Adès
Thomas Adès follows a similar path in his Three Studies from Couperin. For this work, composed in 2006 to a commission from the Basle Chamber Orchestra, he augments the chamber orchestra with percussion (marimba, bass drum, timpani, rototoms and metal bars or anvils). Adès leaves unaltered the melody, tonality, harmony and number of bars in Couperin’s originals. What is new here are the tonal colours. In the minuet-like opening piece Les Amusemens, the G major melody in stepwise motion alternates between muted string and brass instruments within the phrases; the end is signalled by a massive slowing down. The title Les Tours de passe-passe (Sleight of Hand) may be explained by the frequent use of hand-crossing within a narrow range so that the observer can hardly tell whether the repeated notes are being played by the left or the right hand. Finally Adès has chosen Couperin’s harpsichord piece L’Âme en peine (The Soul in Torment), music with sighing figures in the minor mode, lent a dirge-like character by the heavy accents of the brass and bass drum. Although the British composer’s treatment of the courtly world of the aristocracy is generally less trenchant here than in his opera Powder Her Face, the present work also has its share of alienation effects.
Like a human voice: Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto K. 622
Mozart wrote no fewer than 23 concertos for the piano but only one for the clarinet. This masterpiece from the composer’s last year was created for his friend Anton Stadler. He probably first encountered the clarinettist, three years his senior, in 1781, then heard him again in March 1784, when Stadler took part in a performance of Mozart’s Wind Serenade K. 361. Barely a week later came the premiere of Mozart’s Piano Quintet K. 452, in which Stadler played the clarinet part and Mozart was the pianist.
In addition to the clarinet, Anton Stadler played the basset horn, a wind instrument with a metal bell, invented around 1760. Mozart, who loved this instrument’s dark timbre, wrote several basset horn trios as well as canzonettas for voices and basset horns. The first movement of his Clarinet Concerto was also originally composed for basset horn around 1787. A year later, Stadler, in collaboration with the Viennese court instrument maker Theodor Lotz, he devised a clarinet with a range extended downward by four semitones. Mozart was captivated by the new possibilities of this so-called basset clarinet and used it in his A major Quintet for clarinet and strings K. 581, which had its premiere in Vienna in December 1789. At the end of September 1791, he decided to write a solo concerto for the new instrument and made use of the Allegro he had already produced for the basset-horn concerto, transposing it from G to A major and adding an adagio and rondo. Thus the Concerto K. 622 came into being.
Today the A major Concerto is one of Mozart’s most frequently performed works. The basset clarinet, for which it was conceived, eventually fell out of use (though it has been revived in recent decades), and the piece is now usually played on a normal clarinet. An arrangement eliminating the low notes appeared as early as 1801. Contemporaries had lauded Stadler for making the clarinet sound like a human vice. This is also how Mozart treated the solo instrument in his composition. Along with brilliant broken chords that traverse the clarinet’s entire compass, one often seems to be hearing instrumental arias, echoes of the late buffo operas Figaro and Don Giovanni.
Of foreign lands and people: Images pour orchestre byClaude Debussy
Debussy believed that his two books of Images, begun in 1905, would “assume a place in the piano literature to the left of Schumann or to the right of Chopin”. They are musical depictions of little scenes: lights reflected in water, bells tolling in the distance, the moon descending. Like Schumann in his Kinderszenen, Debussy dedicated himself to foreign lands and people, but he opted for a larger scoring. His third book of Images was originally conceived for two pianos but finally composed for orchestra.
Ibéria opens with the sharp clicking of castanets, at once evoking a typically Spanish colour. There is also a suggestion of Iberia in the polytonal harmonic elements and modal melodic turns. The many changes of metre and tempo give this music an unusual rhythmic flexibility. When the bolero rhythm of the first part gently dies away, the night with its intoxicating scents begins “slowly and dreamily”, expressed through chromatically displaced chords in contrary motion on harps, oboes and clarinets. The motion almost comes to a standstill before dawn is heralded. To the strains of a slowly approaching march, the town awakens to celebrate a popular festival.
Ibéria represents Debussy’s rapprochement with Spain; the other two Images are linked to Italy/France (Rondes de printemps) and England (Gigues, which uses a French adaptation of an English folksong “The Keel Row”). André Caplet, who may have completed the orchestration of this movement, spoke of “the portrait of a soul in pain”, which borrows the wooden voice of an oboe d’amore to express its bottomless sorrow. A normal oboe offers a long consoling line but the sister instrument’s lament returns.
In Rondes de printemps, Debussy harks back to the symphonic suite Printemps that he composed in Rome in 1887, apparently inspired by Botticelli’s painting Primavera. Although he quotes from an old Tuscan spring song in the epigraph on the score, he has the oboe play the French folksong “Nous n’irons plus au bois”, which he had already used several times before in his music. The movement’s enchanting instrumentation is unusually light, omitting trumpets and trombones but including triangle, tambourine and cymbals. “There is something special about the music of this piece,” wrote Debussy to his publisher. “It is immaterial and, as a result, cannot be treated like a robust symphony, marching on four feet.”