Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Five Preludes (1910-13), arr. Zender (1991)
II: Le danse de Puck
III: Général Lavine – eccentric
IV: Les collines d’Anacapri
V: Des pas sur le neige
Debussy’s talent as a young composer was confirmed when he was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire aged just 10 years old. In instrumental classes he proved to be an exceptional pupil, showing particular skill at the piano, but he was more problematic as a student of composition. Debussy was argumentative and single-minded, refusing to obey the rigid teaching rules of the Conservatoire, instead favouring a more experimental approach to his writing. When Debussy presented his works to his professor of composition he was met with the words: ‘I am not saying that what you do isn't beautiful, but it is theoretically absurd.’ His response was simple: ‘My foremost ambition, in music, is to produce something that represents as closely as possible life itself. It is a free art... boundless as the elements, the wind, sky, and sea.’
Often described as impressionistic, although he disliked the term himself, Debussy’s sensory approach to music redefined the traditional concepts of consonance and dissonance, combining areas of tonality – whole-tone, pentatonic, modal – in ways that had previously been frowned upon. At the forefront of Debussy’s mind was a desire to create colours – new colours – using textures, harmonies and forms in fresh and often surprising ways. Debussy claimed, ‘There is no theory. You merely have to listen. Pleasure is the law.’
It is little surprise, then, that Debussy’s two books of preludes for piano are nothing like the collections of those who established the format before him. While similar collections by J.S. Bach and Chopin explore each of the 24 keys in turn, Debussy’s collection has no particular unifying pattern, instead comprising a series of character pieces along disparate themes. Their titles, if they can be referred to as such, are printed not as the header but as the footer to the page, suggesting that their subjects might have been dreamed up almost as an afterthought, inspired by the music itself. Their evocative subject matter – the sunken cathedral, the girl with the flaxen hair, footsteps in the snow – and rich, colourful textures have proved ripe for orchestration, with a number of arrangers choosing to adapt the works for different ensembles over the years.
Among the most successful are Hans Zender’s arrangements of five of the preludes for orchestra, made in 1991, which sensitively capture the delicate part-writing of Debussy’s piano versions. The gentle cascading lines of Voiles may suggest the wind caressing the waves of the sea but its title is deliberately ambiguous, translating either as ‘sails’ or ‘veils’. For Debussy, this is intentional, as he insists it is ‘not a photograph of the beach or a postcard.’ Other works are less obscure, with Le danse de Puck capturing the playful dance of the nymph, Puck, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the cake-walk style of Général Lavine – eccentric depicting one of the most celebrated figures in international vaudeville, Ed Lavine. Les collines d’Anacapri alludes to the hills of Anacapri in southern Italy and exudes the sunny, exotic flavours of the Mediterranean, while in stark contrast, Des pas sur le neige, evokes a barren landscape and the sombre solitude of a single set of footsteps in the snow.
© Jo Kirkbride
Lyell Cresswell (b. 1944)
Triple Concerto (2012) world premiere
The triple concerto is made up of eight short interlocking movements. They are played without a break. The music is based on a set of four and five note chords, which are most clearly stated by the piano at the beginning of the fourth movement.
The movements are:
I Intrada - an announcement to begin the concerto. The soloists introduce short sharp chords, which are held quietly by the orchestra to give unruffled continuity.
II Giocoso-tranquillo - playful-tranquil. There is contrast between light pizzicato in the first part and slow moving chords in the second. Both parts stem from the same sequence of chords.
III Corrente - stream, or running. Constant rapid flowing semiquaver movement, extracted largely from the ubiquitous chords, passes from instrument to instrument
IV Calmo - a serene movement contrasting the chord sequence in the piano and orchestra with long lines for the solo violin and cello.
V Scherzo - grows from a pattern of repeated notes that recurs in various ways from time to time throughout the concerto.
VI …quasi una siciliana… - the siciliana is a gentle pastoral dance of Sicilian origin with rocking dotted rhythms. This is a dislocated siciliana.
VII Vivace - a continuation of III, corrente. It takes up the rapid repeated notes and constant semiquavers of the earlier movement, with pauses for breath only towards the end.
VIII Adagio - everything is reduced to the bare essentials for the finale. It simply builds to a climax and then falls away
This concerto was commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Association Les Amis du Schweizer Klaviertrio.
© Lyell Cresswell
Tōru Takemitsu (1930-1996)
How Slow the Wind (1991)
"In music I found my raison d'être as a man. After the war, music was the only thing. Choosing to be in music clarified my identity." So began Tōru Takemitsu’s career as a composer and with it his own exploration of the meaning of nationality. Takemitsu was born in Tokyo, Japan, but his relationship with Japanese music was complicated by the onset of war during his teenage years. Western classical music was banned in Japan during this time, and Takemitsu’s only experience of non-Japanese musical traditions came from the illicit gramophone sessions he shared with his colleagues while serving the term of his military service. The ban on Western music only intrigued Takemitsu all the more, and when the war was over he took every opportunity to listen to the music broadcast on the US Armed Forces radio service. But as his love for Western music grew, so too did his regard for Japanese music diminish, becoming tainted by ‘the bitter memories of war’.
As Takemitsu’s career developed, however, and he began to receive the attention and admiration of his contemporaries, his thoughts turned towards his homeland. Looking back at the end of his career he declared: "I must express my deep and sincere gratitude to John Cage… For a long period I struggled to avoid being 'Japanese', to avoid 'Japanese' qualities. It was largely through my contact with John Cage that I came to recognize the value of my own tradition." As his renewed interest in Japanese music took hold, Takemitsu became increasingly interested in exploring the similarities between the two musical cultures, integrating Japanese instruments into the traditional orchestra and combining the tonal language of both traditions. Takemitsu also drew inspiration from the natural world around him and likened the process of listening to music to walking through a Japanese garden: "A garden is composed of various different elements and sophisticated details that converge to form a harmonious whole. Each element does not exert its individuality, but achieves a state of anonymity - and that is the kind of music that I would like to create."
How Slow the Wind was written during the final years of his life and is inspired by a short three-line poem by Emily Dickinson of the same name: "How slow the wind, how slow the sea, how late their feathers be!" The poem’s elegant simplicity is echoed in the musical structure, with the basic melodic material taken up by each of the instruments in mini-variations. The careful placement of these lines creates an organic growth of sound that eventually transforms effortlessly into a simple D-flat major chord. This represents for the composer: "a milk white light in the midst of darkness".
© Jo Kirkbride
Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
Ballet: Mother Goose (1912)
Dance of the Spinning Wheel and Scene
Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty
Conversations of Beauty and the Beast
Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas
The Enchanted Garden
Ravel created his fairy tale ballet in 1912 – the third incarnation of this music. It all began with a piano duet for two children, Mimi and Jean Godebski. Ravel wrote the Pavane of Sleeping Beauty for them, and when his publisher heard it he encouraged him to write more. A full suite of pieces followed, though regrettably, it turned out to be too difficult for the youngsters to play – this was child-like (a word that was used to describe Ravel himself) rather than childish music. Subsequently, Ravel orchestrated his suite, and then finally elaborated it further to create a ballet to his own scenario: on the eve of her wedding, Princess Florine (Sleeping Beauty) pricks her finger on a poisoned spinning wheel and falls asleep. The good fairy enchants the whole castle to sleep with her until she is re-awoken by her prince; as she slumbers, she dreams fairy tales which come to life in the foreground.
Many of the tales that feature in the ballet have been told in many languages and ways, but Ravel’s specific inspiration was the 18th century fantasies of Perrault. Like Ravel’s music these were not strictly intended for children. For all their charm they have a bloody and macabre side, and Ravel responded with music that is charming without sentimentality. There is nothing ‘Disneyfied’ about it. The Beast serenades his Beauty with exquisite grace. The image of Beauty and the Beast has been used more than once to describe music (not least Beethoven’s piano sonatas) in which delicacy is juxtaposed with harsher sounds. Ravel is different: his Beast is an altogether courteous creature and Belle a delicate, fragile princess. Tom Thumb walks in the woods, and leaves a trail of crumbs so he can find his way home, but the birds (you can hear them in the orchestration) swoop down and eat them all up. Laideronnette is a lovely princess cursed with ugliness by a wicked fairy. The usual prince has yet to come along and break the spell, so Ravel depicts her bathing while musicians attend − apparently playing a small gamelan. Ravel’s closing section originally evoked a magical garden, but in the ballet it also serves to accompany the awakening of Sleeping Beauty and the transformation of the Beast back into a man.
© Svend Brown
Many have attempted to translate Debussy’s Preludes from piano to orchestra, but none succeeds better than Zender. With an intuitive way of getting under the skin of the music, he is a magician in the same class as Ravel, whose timeless Mother Goose completes the evening. Lyell Cresswell knows the SCO well and has written a stream of dramatic, high-impact pieces for the Orchestra. His new work is unusual: a concerto for trio and orchestra.