Van Gogh, Botticelli and Other Aural Landscapes
Works by Rautavaara, Prokofiev, Debussy and Ravel
Sites auriculaires – roughly translatable as “aural landscapes” – is the name of an early diptych for two pianos by Maurice Ravel. This evening’s four works, composed between 1887 and 1992, can also be experienced as aural landscapes, bathed in a play of changing tonal colours and chiaroscuro effects: musical pen drawings, watercolours and oil paintings of real or imaginary places which you can “visit” with your ears.
Einojuhani Rautavaara: Apotheosis
In Apotheosis by the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, it is the glistening sunlight of a summer landscape: fields of yellow-gold corn or sunflowers, the intense blue of the sky, the dark green shadows of trees at the edge of the road leading into a small town with houses clustered round the Romanesque church of Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption. Or, to be precise, the town of Auvers-sur-Oise, some 35 km north of Paris, on 29 July 1890: the day on which Vincent van Gogh shot a bullet into his chest in a field outside of Auvers and breathed his last in the Auberge Ravoux, attended by his brother Theo and the doctor Paul Gachet. In the third act of Vincent, the fifth of his nine operas, which had its premiere in Helsinki in 1990, Rautavaara gives the dying painter a final monologue in praise of the sun, summer and life. This Apotheosis, two years later, became the orchestral finale of the sixth of Rautavaara’s eight symphonies.
A protégé of Sibelius, Rautavaara was one of Finland’s leading composers in the second half of the 20th century. His style developed from neo-classicism via serialism to what could be called “neo-Romantic mysticism”. In its almost intoxicating tonal opulence, Apotheosis typifies that stylistic ideal, which merges dodecaphony and triad harmony.
Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, op. 16
A wholly different type of scenery awaits discovery in the Second Piano Concerto of the 22-year-old Sergei Prokofiev: that of pre-Revolutionary Pavlovsk, one of the summer residences of the Russian tsars, some 30 km south of St. Petersburg (of which it is now a part). After the country’s first railway line opened in November 1837, outdoor concerts were presented in the pavilion belonging to the station building, directly adjacent to the palace, featuring famous musicians such as Johann Strauss, Franz Liszt – and the young Prokofiev.
“The summer concerts in Pavlovsk were conducted by Alexander Petrovich Aslanov, another enthusiast for new music,” Prokofiev later recalled in his autobiography. “The first performance of the Second Concerto took place in Pavlovsk on 5 September 1913, with Aslanov conducting. It proved quite sensational, in that half the audience hissed and the other half applauded. The press was also divided. [Vyacheslav] Karatigin wrote a flattering article; other reviewers mocked me.”
In contrast to the single-movement Piano Concerto No. 1 in D flat major, op. 10, Prokofiev’s second contribution to the genre has four movements and (with a Scherzo and Intermezzo placed second and third) corresponds more closely to the model of a symphony than to that of a classical three-movement piano concerto. It must also be noted, however, that the solo part is so dominant and virtuosic that, as Prokofiev remarked, “the orchestra exists only as an afterthought”. The first movement’s lengthy and murderously difficult solo cadenza, the perpetuum mobile Scherzo, the grotesque march in the Intermezzo and the wild Finale, marked Allegro tempestuoso, all reflect much of that stile barbaro which is not dissimilar to Igor Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps.
Claude Debussy: Printemps
Debussy’s two-movement “suite symphonique” Printemps for orchestra, piano and chorus is an aural landscape inspired by painting and nature: by, respectively, Sandro Botticelli’s La primavera and the Villa Medici, where he spent two years after being awarded the Académie des Beaux-Arts’ Prix de Rome. Having won first prize for his cantata L’Enfant prodigue, Debussy arrived in Rome in January 1885 without much interest or inclination. Nevertheless, he fulfilled his obligation of sending at least one new piece a year back to the Académie in Paris: first the (lost) “ode symphonique” Zuleima, then Printemps.
The modal turns, post-Wagnerian harmony and elegant orchestration of this piece, which plays for just over a quarter of an hour, anticipate what Debussy would bring to perfection seven years later in the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. In spite of his ambivalence towards César Franck and Camille Saint-Saëns, their influence is still clearly detectable, though that did not soften the harsh criticism of his music by the Académie (of which Saint-Saëns was a member): “M. Debussy seems to be preoccupied wholly with creating the strange, the bizarre, the unintelligible, the unplayable,” was the commission’s verdict on Zuleima, and it is unlikely to have passed a more favourable judgement on Printemps.
Maurice Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé – Orchestral Suite No. 2
The last aural landscape is the ancient Greek writer Longus’ evocation of Arcadia in his pastoral romance Daphnis and Chloe, written in the second or third century AD and the basis for Maurice Ravel’s ballet of the same name: “My intention in writing it was to compose a vast musical fresco in which I was less concerned with archaism than with faithfully reproducing the Greece of my dreams, which is very similar to that imagined and painted by the French artists at the end of the 18th century. The work is constructed symphonically, according to a strict key scheme and using a small number of themes, whose development ensures the work’s symphonic homogeneity.”
The music Ravel wrote for Daphnis et Chloé is a virtual fireworks display of instrumental effects, juxtaposing the powerful expressivity of the tutti passages with sounds of wonderful transparency, like the rippling break of dawn (Lever du jour) with muted strings divided into 20 parts as background to the rustling demisemiquaver (32nd-note) triplets of the woodwind and harps. Brief motifs, in part reduced to a bare interval, organize the work and characterize the protagonists and the threads of the action. This approach clearly distinguishes Ravel’s score from a composition like Le Sacre du printemps (premiered a year later): whereas Stravinsky attempts to realize rhythmic freedom through constantly changing metres, Ravel sticks to clear and incisive rhythms and lets his orchestra revel in genuinely orgiastic sonorities – freedom of sound rather than freedom of form.
Perhaps that was why even the arch-conservative Vincent d’Indy, who otherwise hadn’t a good word to say about Ravel, could not resist the magic of this score and admitted that, with Daphnis et Chloé, “Ravel’s art – at least for the moment – was proceeding directly towards real music”.