Gabriel Fauré: Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande, Op. 80.
In the late 19th century, the Belgian poet and writer Maurice Maeterlinck was one of the most performed playwrights in the world. His shows ran in many languages on the stages of many different countries. And composers of all kinds flocked to set his texts to music, including Rachmaninoff, Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, Dukas and Lili Boulanger – an amazingly mixed bunch!
One of Maeterlinck’s most successful plays was Pelléas et Mélisande, a dreamy tragedy set in an imaginary mediaeval world, where a mysterious girl, found in a forest, is married by her rescuer, but then falls in love with his younger brother, with predictably violent results.
At the beginning of the 20th century, this play was turned by Debussy into an opera, one of his greatest works and a masterpiece of French musical theater. And around the same time, it was transformed into a huge romantic tone-poem by the Viennese composer Schoenberg (long before he became famous for his more modern-sounding music). And Sibelius wrote theatre-music for a production in Finland.
But the very first composer to write music for this play, in the last years of the 19th century, was another great French composer, Gabriel Fauré, who was commissioned by a British theatre impresario to create a score for the first ever English-language production of the play in London. The French master wrote 19 separate pieces, including a beautiful song. Afterwards, like many composers who wrote for theater in those days, he decided to salvage the four biggest pieces from the score and turn them into a beautiful concert suite.
Fauré’s Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande beautifully captures the fairy-tale atmosphere of Maeterlinck’s 4-act drama. He begins with a Prelude, which captures the feeling of an ancient and mysterious forest, filled with darkness, where a young girl, completely lost, is sobbing her heart out beside a pool of water.
To change the feeling before Act 2 of the play, and to cover a change of scenery behind the curtain, Fauré provided what is now one of his most famous pieces, his Sicilienne for flute, harp and orchestra (a "sicilienne" is a lightly skipping traditional dance from the island Sicily), which captures the innocent beginning of what will become a fatal love-affair between Mélisande and her young brother-in-law Pelléas.
A filigreed Fileuse (a "spinning song," depicting the title character alone in her room and working at her spinning-wheel) was originally an introduction to Act 3 of the play, when the plot starts to become more tangled. And the suite ends with The Death of Mélisande, originally the prelude to the final act and the tragic ending.
So, each of the four movements depicts the heroine of this romantic play as she moves from loneliness, to joy, to anxiety and catastrophe. The music is like a series of portraits.
Paul Dukas: La Péri, Poème Dansé (Dance Poem in One Scene)
Paul Dukas, one of the leading French composers of the generation of Fauré, Debussy and Ravel, is most well-known today for his short orchestral scherzo, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. He was also yet another composer of his time – just like his friends – fascinated by the plays of Maeterlinck, and he used one of those for his own full-length opera, Ariadne and Bluebeard.
In the period before the First World War, like his colleagues Ravel and Debussy, Dukas grew close to Stravinsky’s music and to the spectacular productions of the famous Russian Ballet seasons of Serge Diaghilev. It was for the Ballets Russes and Diaghilev that he wrote his ballet La Péri (The Fairy), which was intended to be performed in the 1912 season in Paris, the year after Stravinsky’s Petrushka and the year before The Rite of Spring.
In the event, Diaghilev fell out with the principal ballerina and the production was moved to another theatre and another company. But this gorgeous and ridiculously colorful score was still a great success, and La Péri has many times since been performed as a ballet, with choreography by all sorts of different artists.
The story is rather loosely ("very loosely" would perhaps be a better description) adapted from a tangle of ancient Persian legends, some of which appear in the famous collection The Arabian Nights:
A great king, Iskender [a mythical version of Alexander the Great], has been told by his advisors that he will die unless he finds the Flower of Immortality. He searches for it in all corners of his empire until one day he encounters a Peri (Fairy) asleep, clothed in rich jewels and holding the Flower in her hand, in the shape of a lotus the emerald color of the ocean at dawn.
As she sleeps, the king steals the lotus from the Peri, and in his hand, it changes color to the blazing yellow of a midday sun over a forest. At this the Peri wakes with a scream, and the Flower changes color yet again to a deep purple.
In a passionate duet, the Peri uses all her sensual allure to seduce Iskender and win back the Flower. The purple of the Flower grows more and more intense. Eventually, overcome by her outrageous charms, Iskender hands the lotus back to her and it changes color yet again, this time to the silver and gold of an ocean shore at sunset.
Triumphant, the Peri, clutching her Flower, melts into an eternal flame and disappears, leaving the king to face his end alone as the shadows gather around him.
What’s immediately obvious from this uncomplicated tale is the idea of color, and the changing colors of the lotus. And it is this that powers Dukas’s amazing orchestral score, which is orchestrated in the most over-the-top manner, with rippling strings, two harps, distant sounds of bells, and very powerful wind and brass writing. Although this work is not so often performed, you can immediately see why it was something of a cult piece with the great Hollywood composers, who loved the way Dukas shamelessly piles orchestral texture upon orchestral texture. This is truly an orchestral showpiece, and listening to it is like taking a long soak in a huge hot tub, with all kinds of strange scents in the water and a glass of champagne to the side of the pool!
Perfect for the San Diego Symphony Orchestra and Rafael Payare!
Evencio Castellanos: Santa Cruz de Pacairigua
Evencio Castellanos was one of the leading composers of the 20th century in Venezuela, as well known in his own day as a performer and educator in his country as he was as a composer. He was part of a whole generation of remarkable musicians who created a new "classical" music for Venezuela, combining a deep knowledge of the symphony orchestra and its repertoire with the seething richness of Venezuela’s own multifarious musical traditions, reaching back to indigenous cultures, African cultures brought by captured slaves, and Spanish traditions brought across the ocean by the first immigrants from Europe.
One of the first things any Venezuelan will tell you about Venezuelan music is that it changes from area to area. Not just different human cultural mixes, but different geographical and natural conditions. Plains, mountains, forests, rivers, the shores of the ocean have all given rise to different sounds, rhythms, melodies, colors, which – for Venezuelan people – are a vital part of the range and diversity of their nation. A song or a dance, like a person, always comes from somewhere, and is marked by the journey it has taken from there to here.
This "orchestral suite" by Castellanos – Santa Cruz de Pacairigua is in reality a single-movement work in three contrasted sections – was composed in 1954 to celebrate the opening of a new church in the city of Guatire, in Miranda State, just a few miles east along the coast from the country’s capital, Caracas. At the very opening, the music explodes with excitement and catchy rhythms vividly suggestive of street music. There’s a touching middle section, with a lovely melody like the remembrance of a prayer (this is a piece, after all, to celebrate the building of a church!), before the uproar in the street creeps back again and the music ends with an explosion of joy.
Antonio Estévez: Cantata criolla, “Florentino, el que canto con el Diablo”
(Florentino, the One who Sang with the Devil)
Poem by Alberto Arvelo Torrealba
An almost exact contemporary of Evencio Castellanos, and like his contemporary a distinguished educator, performer, conductor and organizer of the musical life of his country, Antonio Estévez is nowadays most celebrated for his Cantata criolla (A Creole Cantata), which (incidentally) first appeared in the same year, 1954, as Castellanos’s Santa Cruz di Pacairigua. A memorable year for Venezuelan music!
For many Venezuelans (and our Music Director Rafael Payare is no exception), the Cantata criolla is quite simply the most important work of "classical" music ever created in their country. The lyrics, taken from a powerful poem – half folk-story, half national epic – by the 20th century Venezuelan writer and politician, Alberto Avelo Torrealba, tell one of the oldest tales in the world, found in many different cultures: what happens when an ordinary man meets the Devil?
The "ordinary man" here is Florentino (a llaneros – a herdsman, plainsman or cowboy) who at the beginning of the story is wandering across the flat and desolate plains (the famous llanos, a vast territory in central Venezuela and home of one of the country’s most famous styles of popular music), when he is overtaken by a mysterious rider, dressed all in black and riding a black horse, who challenges him to a singing competition when he gets to the next town.
Florentino is not afraid to accept the challenge. He himself is a well-known coplero, a popular poet or ballad-singer (a composer of couplets – coplas – or two-line lyrics), and expert in the thrilling art of contrapunteo: literally, "counterpoint," but here meaning an improvised verbal and musical competition or confrontation. In the contrapunteo, each singer throws out rhymed verses made up on the spur of the moment, and ends each verse with the trickiest possibly last line, which their opponent then must seize on to build an answering verse of equal complexity. (There are poetry and singing competitions like this in many cultures across the world.)
Arriving at their destination, Florentino and the Devil begin their battle, the Devil taunting the cowboy with ridiculous and sinister riddles. The confrontation is funny but also dark and threatening; what the Devil wants is Florentino’s soul. But Florentino is a poor man, and courageous, and he has nothing to lose. As dawn comes, the Devil realizes that he has lost, and vanishes, while Florentino and the chorus sing a beautiful hymn to the Virgin Mary, her Son and the Holy Trinity.
So why is this cantata "Creole"?
The word "creole" can mean many different things, depending on where it is used – in the south of the US, in the Caribbean, and in many different countries in Latin America. In some places, it means people of slave background; in others, free men; it can imply Black, or poor Whites of strictly Spanish descent, or people of mixed race. It can refer to music, language, food, and many other cultural traditions. And nearly always it suggests the combination of elements from African, European and indigenous American heritage. It is a word which simultaneously celebrates and mourns the history of people in the Americas, and above all it is a source of pride.
As Rafael Payare himself said, when asked what this word means specifically for Venezuelans:
It’s very much of the land! So…with real ownership of where you come from. In other words, as Venezuelan as can be!
Florentino is a Venezuelan Everyman, a symbol, the embodiment of his country.
When Alberto Arvelo Torrealba, the author of the original "Florentino y El Diablo" poem, first heard the Cantata criolla, he wrote a warm and enthusiastic letter to the composer to congratulate him:
Your Cantata reveals itself to us as consoling and at the same time disturbing, flat and at the same time deep, universal and Creole, popular and erudite, real and ghostly.
No wonder that Rafael Payare has such a strong desire to conduct this work outside Venezuela. To him, this music speaks of his country and his countrymen. But it also speaks to all of us.
– San Diego Symphony Creative Consultant GERARD MCBURNEY