Articulate Silences

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Category: Impressionism

L’enfant et les sortilèges, Maurice Ravel

The ornate, nocturnal sound-world of French composer Maurice Ravel has left its indelible stain across the arc of 20th century music, whether sowing the seeds for minimalism in 1928’s Bolero, or finally meeting up with dance culture in 1995 with the release of electronic instrumentalist William Orbit’s Pieces in a Modern Style. In his epic survey of the 20th century, The Rest is Noise, the music journalist Alex Ross described the composer as “something of a cultural mutt” – a reference to the Basque folk music heritage of Ravel’s mother and the engineering background of his Swiss father. Dual identity inevitably appeared in his musical language, encompassing Ravel’s love of folk-song as well as his embracing of frozen harmonies and mechanized texture.

Admitted to study with Fauré at the Paris Conservatoire, Ravel fell under the cathartic influence of the 1889 Exposition Universelle (an experience that had so profoundly inspired Debussy’s music), where he encountered gamelan, Spanish and Russian music. Much like Debussy, Ravel’s new sounds also bridged the maximalism of Romanticism and the modernism of the new century. His music discovered a novel sense of space, encapsulated in the resonance of tolling bells that fall through his 1905 suite for solo piano, Miroirs.

But the comic filth of Ravel’s 1911 opera L’heure espagnole – a tale of adultery and dirty old men hiding in grandfather clocks – explicitly rejected the heightened sexual emotion of Debussy’s escapist opera Pelléas. Ravel’s second opera, L’enfant et les sortileges, had its premiere in 1925 with a libretto by Colette, who later observed how little contact she had with the composer. As such L’enfant stands as a perfect example of Ravel’s singular imagination, with a keen eye for operatic clichés in its sequences involving a ragtime duet for teapot and china cup, a princess’ lament and a chorus delivered by wallpaper shepherds. From its dancing animals through to eccentric instrumentation (including a cheese grater), this opera is pure Alice in Wonderland territory.

In Part 1 a child refuses to do his homework and confined to his room he falls into a rage, attacks his tame squirrel and the cat, breaks the Grandfather Clock and tears up his books. But the room awakes and the mistreated objects find their voices. In Part 2 the child wanders into the garden where he faces further accusations from the plants and the animals, building to a commotion in which the squirrel is injured. The child bandages the wound and seeing this act of reconciliation, the animals sing of his kindness. The opera closes with the child singing “Maman”, perhaps evoking the similar cry of dying soldiers in Colette’s book La chambre éclairée.

L’enfant revels in melodic celebration, balletic focus and pastiche, whether it be an 18th century courtly dance for a couple of chairs, or a duet for cats (which caused a scandal in its Paris premiere). And yet with the narrative’s Freudian tones, the obsession with dance, and the gradual shift itself within the instrumentation from aggression towards a magical, shifting soundscape, L’enfant’s success lies in its ability to be more than a collection of sketches. Roger Nichols describes one Glyndebourne performance ending with “middle-aged men in evening dress and floods of tears”. The opera’s themes of maternal love and natural harmony make for so much more than escapist nostalgia, while all dressed up in Ravel’s jewelled night music.

Below is a recording of L’enfant, followed by a brief listening guide.

At 1:52 two oboes circle, seemingly without direction, in an introduction that prefaces the circularity and symmetry pervading the entirety of the opera. The audience immediately identifies with the child who enters at 3:12, characterized by a vocal line clearly pitched below the instrumentation. A whole sequence of pastiches follows as the objects of the boy’s rage respond, from the 18th century dance performed by two chairs at 6:27 through to the ragtime duet of the china cup and teapot at 9:40. The opera takes a melancholic turn at 18:45 with the appearance of a fairy-tale princess who is left without a future because the child has torn apart the story-book. The first concentrated emotional climax comes with the child’s lament for the departed princess, “Toi, le Coeur de la rose” (23:44) in a nod to French operatic tradition. Musical rupture continues with the arrival of Arithmetic (25:33) and his frantically dancing numbers. The opera’s garden scene opens in a halo of nocturnal sounds (30:10) and tranquil harmonic movement. But the tension increases as the child calls out for “Maman!” (40:29) and the garden’s inhabitants turn on the child. Amidst the chaos, the squirrel is injured. The opera reaches its crux as the child bandages the squirrel’s paw (41:30) in a meeting of reality and magic. The animals sing their hymn of praise (44:00) and the opera closes with the child greeting his mother.

The recording comes from the 1987 Glyndebourne production, but Lorin Maazel’s version with the RTF National Orchestra for the Deutsche Grammophon label comes highly recommended (as does his recording of L’Heure Espagnole).

To take a look at the signature Ravel has left on contemporary music, have a listen to Carl Craig and Moritz von Oswald’s Recomposed project (also on Deutsche Grammophon).

Artwork: Glyndebourne set design, David Hockney

by En Liang Khong

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Pelléas et Mélisande, Claude Debussy

“The century of aeroplanes deserves a music of its own”, announced the French composer Claude Debussy as he set about creating a new musical language at the close of the 19th century, reaching a sensual ambience in his orchestral rejection of German symphonic form and melodic development. At the Paris Conservatory, he was accused of “vague impressionism”; his departure from rigid tonality embraced timeless modality, chromatic liberation and melodic expanse. Dissonant expression, unresolved chords and whole-tone and pentatonic scales all added to the delicate gauze of sound.

Whilst classical music critic Alex Ross begins his epic survey of the 20th century, The Rest Is Noise, with Richard Strauss’ Salome, Debussy’s only complete opera Pelléas et Mélisande – which received its premier in 1902 – holds equal symbolic weight, standing at the edge of centuries. Debussy took his libretto from the Belgian Maeterlinck’s Symbolist play – an adulterous tragedy where the timeless narrative, open to perpetual interpretation, never makes clear any sexual detail: Prince Golaud discovers Mélisande lost in a forest, marries her and returns to the castle of his grandfather, King Arkel of Allemonde. Mélisande’s attachment to Golaud’s half-brother Pelléas spirals into increasing jealousy with Golaud rushing to kill his brother as he confesses his love with Mélisande. As Golaud repeatedly begs her for “the truth”, Mélisande dies after giving birth to a daughter.

Debussy’s direct setting of Maeterlinck’s prose text, his rejection of set-pieces and use of silent expression – all bathed in half-light – was highly influential on the history of 20th century opera. But even from its premiere, Pelléas has never sat comfortably; the orchestra complained that the score was “unplayable, outrageous” while the audience thought of its abstraction as “celestial boredom”.

Pelléas’ problems have always been rooted in its tortuous relationship with 19th century Wagnerian opera and its heightened drama, orchestral intensity, perpetual melody and use of leitmotifs (repeated musical ideas). Pelléas resonates both musically and textually – in its use of mythic beauty, the fatalistic, the forbidden and the symbolic – with Wagnerian tradition. And yet Debussy’s orchestra is far more shaded, his music pursues natural speech rhythms – reaching almost the negative aesthetic of the modernists.

Auden described Pelléas as “one of the great anti-operas” and in many ways, that’s a perfect description for Debussy’s shift from the maximalism of Wagnerian opera. Pelléas rejects symphonic artificiality and instead seeks the internal musicality and drama of the human voice. Vocal declamation of the text, approaching the fluidity of chant, looks towards clarity rather than high emotion. Debussy’s orchestral diminution above all stressed instrumental colour over volume – at the central climax as Pelléas professes his love, the orchestra is silent with Mélisande’s reply. Interrupted musical lines build a sonic impression of the opera as a shaded surface, fractured only by voice. The discomforting ambivalence in unresolved harmony, modal pull, whole-tone scales and chromatic suggestion all work against the operatic ideal.

Below is a recording of Pelléas et Mélisande accompanied by a brief listening guide.

Stretching to two and a half hours, this five-act opera hardly lends itself to a compressed listening guide. I have picked out a couple of moments to look for in this highly claustrophobic, shadowy sound-world.

ACT I opens with a softly spoken orchestral prelude in muted cellos and double-basses, spinning out a series of themes – sparse, vaporous tones perfectly set up the otherworldly forest scene where Golaud encounters Mélisande, singing in fragmented melody. The act closes as elusively as it begins with 27:15 the first time Mélisande addresses a direct question to Pelléas.

ACT II begins with Pelléas bringing Mélisande to the Blind Men’s Well– floating flute lines and harp arpeggiation creating a liquidity in the texture. This forms the crux of the opera, with Mélisande losing her ring and so setting Golaud’s jealousy in motion – he orders her to search for it, leading to the cavern scene 23:00 where orchestral colour floods in, fed by blooming harp glissandos (in contrast to the claustrophobia of the opening forest scene).

ACT III opens with Mélisande’s song in the tower – the only point where she is alone. The emphasis is on phrase patterns, with her song shaped not by music but by syllabic flow. By 22:15 Golaud’s jealousy is open and through accumulated, unresolved orchestral tension, the music here forms a crescendo into the terrifying passage at 31:20 where the string section plays ‘sul pont’ (near the bridge of the instrument).

ACT IV increases the psychological agitation, with Golaud’s outburst at 8:40, and Debussy’s interlude at 14:58 opening into full orchestral climaxes. 31:58 sees the opera’s culmination as the lovers spot Golaud – achieving musical orgasm in accelerating instrumental rhythm, orchestral release and the ecstasy of vocal phrasing.

ACT V brings the servants’ entrance at 15:24 in muted conclusion, with the emotional flow disrupted by sonic bursts.

The performance above belongs to Claudio Abbado’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic for Deutsche Grammophon. A completely different performance can be found in Karajan’s post-romantic approach on his EMI recording.

To explore further Debussy’s subtle orchestral hues, his short ballet, Jeux, is seen by many as an even fuller expression of his avant-garde sound-world. Another piece in the Maeterlinck repertoire is Arnold Schoenberg’s 1903 symphonic poem, Pelleas und Melisande – stretching both tonality and texture, the piece originally started as an opera.

Artwork: A set design from 1953, Dmitri Bouchene

by En Liang Khong