This talk was given on August 20 2015 before the Auckland Philharmonia's "French Twist" concert. The programme was Debussy's "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un Faune", Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, and Prokofiev's Sixth Symphony. The piano soloist was
“Nymphs whose rosy flesh
can spur the drowsy air to dancing -
Did I love a dream?
My, my doubt, the residue of all my nights
dissolves into a maze
merely a budding grove -
Proof that what I took for rapture
was a subterfuge of roses
Just suppose those women had no other
reality than figments of a faun’s deluded mind.”
This is a tiny sliver, a moment of Mallarmé's poetic monologue, the Afternoon of a Faun, translated by Richard Howard. You can hear in it the languid, transgressive, musical qualities that must have initially attracted Claude Debussy, inspiring the delicate haze of a musical scene we’ll hear tonight, which in turn provoked the notoriously suggestive choreography of Vatslav Nijinsky.
Debussy saw in the symbolist poets and Mallarmé in particular a conceptual but especially a musical connection. He believed, and I quote, “that the poetic work of Monsieur Mallarmé remains today the best model that exists of the music of words”. Initially Mallarmé and Debussy had planned a collaboration, a theatrical reading of Mallarmé's poem The Afternoon of a Faun, with incidental music by Debussy, but the project fell through, and Debussy continued alone, using Mallarmé's poetry as a springboard for a purely musical exploration.
In describing his approach to the work, Debussy regaled a critic with this musing:
“Is it perhaps the dream left over at the bottom of the faun’s flute? To be more precise it is the general impression of the poem. If the music were to follow it more closely it would run out of breath… All the same it follows the ascending shape of the poem as well as the scenery so marvellously described in the text, together with the humanity brought to it by thirty-two violinists who have got up too early! As for the ending, it’s a prolongation of the last line: ‘Couple farewell, I go to see what you became.”
The idea of prolongation, suspending a moment of dream, an erotic reverie, is an important one – Mallarmé effused to Debussy after the first performance that “the music prolongs the emotion of my poem.”
Rather than a literal “word-painting”, rather than being simply a “tone poem”, Debussy takes the essence and energy of the poem and enlists it in a musical exploration that goes far beyond the narrative of the text. Debussy not only evokes the erotic transgressiveness of the poem but develops his own kind of purely musical transgressiveness in new kinds of harmony and form. Pierre Boulez called it the beginning of musical modernism, the real turn of the century.
Nevertheless the text has a lot to answer for – the opening flute solo, our point of entry into the work, is also Debussy’s point of entry into the literal stuff of the poem. From Mallarmé’s line “A single line of sound, aloof, disinterested” Debussy extracts a now-iconic sliver of solo flute.
PLAY opening of Prelude l’apres midi
Inviting Mallarmé to the premiere, Debussy wrote – “I need not say how happy I should be if you were kind enough to honour with your presence the arabesque, which, by an excess of pride perhaps, I believe to have been dictated by the flute of your faun.” The flute melody, or arabesque as it is named here, returns periodically, a kind of melodic refrain, a structural pivot around which Debussy weaves his harmonic and textural magic. The ambiguity of that opening line allows for a whole catalogue of harmonic possibilities, resolutions and non-resolutions, trajectories and misdirections.
But it’s not so much the harmonic language, beginning at Wagner’s Tristan chord and slipping off into new directions, but rather it’s Debussy’s fluid treatment of form and timbre, that gives the work its radical modernity. Boulez calls it a “mobile expressiveness” – and the flute solo might be what we could think of as the central pivot of a musical mobile, returning from different angles each time, spinning its shapes, adjacent harmonies and colours dangling from its delicate structure, as we lie beneath it, transfixed, perhaps like the nymph’s veil beneath the titillated faun. What was special about it to Boulez was its flexibility and instantaneousness – instead of a huge Wagnerian teleology, a grand arch towards ecstasy, Debussy had built a shimmering musical object that at any individual moment could be observed moving or frozen, twisting in the breeze, not beholden to any strictly linear narrative.
Perhaps it is this mobile expressiveness, along with the erotic subtext of the scene, that lends it so well to dance. Almost twenty years after the orchestral premiere, Nijinsky choreographed and performed it with the Ballet Russe, and it’s worth quoting at length a review of that original ballet production from Auguste Rodin.
“Nijinsky has never been so remarkable as in his latest role. No more jumps - nothing but half-conscious animal gestures and poses. He lies down, leans on his elbow, walks with bent knees, draws himself up, advancing and retreating, some-times slowly, sometimes with jerky angular movements. His eyes flicker, he stretches his arms, he opens his hands out flat, the fingers together, and as he turns away his head he continues to express his desire with a deliberate awkwardness that seems natural. Form and meaning are indissolubly wedded in his body, which is totally expressive of the mind within... His beauty is that of antique frescoes and sculptures: he is the ideal model, whom one longs to draw and sculpt.”
Ravel said of his Piano concerto in G: “it’s a concerto in the truest sense of the word: I mean that it is written very much in the same spirit as those of Mozart and Saint-Saens.” At its essence it’s a divertissement: a sparkling vessel for virtuosity and entertainment. It might not have the formal contortions and harmonic slippage of the Debussy but it has an incredible classical clarity and lightness, and its own kinds of harmonic and formal invention. It’s not pushing the boundaries of the canon perhaps in the way musicologists think a canonic work ought to - but it’s a masterclass in melodic diversion, proportion, and especially in orchestration.
PLAY opening of Ravel Piano Concerto in G
It’s worth picking out some of those striking orchestral colours. Numerous wind entries approach perilous heights: both bassoon and horn solos in particular are pushed to high extremes of register where their very timbral identity starts to become ambiguous and malleable. Ravel is a kind of magician here, turning one sound into another: the scratchy tone of the low piccolo resembles a medieval fife; the treacherous horn solo I mentioned a moment ago - to my ears at least - sounds like a kind of brassy flute; in the finale a pair of bassoonists become the coruscating left hand of a pianist – right at the edge of performability, flickering figurations that splash piano idiom into the orchestra. Throughout the concerto are some of the most iconic solos in the orchestral repertoire – Ravel manages to capture and transform the spirit of each instrument, and most of all the brilliantly percussive, iridescent piano solo. Trill glissandi, blues harmonies, percussive paradiddles; this is the virtuosity of a mechanical industrial world: hard-edged, shiny, clear and bright.
We are attracted to these surface elements: we love the sensuality of Ravel’s colours and harmonies, his control, his precision. But more than that what makes the concerto is a synthesis of emotion and intellect, surface and substance. On the surface it’s percussive, syncopated, bristling with energy, but there’s melancholy underneath, and for the pianist all sorts of different touches are required. Not least for the second movement, with its seemingly endless melodic line that never repeats itself, continually recycling and reinventing, and of course its wonderful gentle polyrhythm. In the left hand a slow 6/8, two groups of an accompanying waltz pattern, against a doubly slow 3/4 cantabile line in the right hand. It’s perhaps one of the most iconic slow movements in any concerto; Ravel himself was drawn to the Mozart clarinet quintet as a model, perhaps more than any superficial jazz influence.
Here’s Ravel again: “What is being written today without the influence of jazz? It is not the only influence, however: in the concerto one also finds bass accompaniments from the time of Bach, and a melody that recalls Mozart, the Mozart of the clarinet quintet, which by the way is the most beautiful piece he ever wrote.”
Like Ravel himself, musicologist Michael Russ suggests that the jazz influence is often overstated, that “many of the harmonic preoccupations which we call ‘jazzy’ [actually] followed on from Ravel’s own innovations.” Ravel embraced his compositional lineage and place in the world, and alongside Mozart and Bach you can hear Gershwin, Stravinsky, and the music of Ravel’s native Basque region. Each one respectfully, without the slightest sense of parody.
Not everyone looked kindly on this kind of eclecticism. Stravinsky’s arch-propagandist and right-hand man Robert Craft was dismissive of Ravel’s later music, and especially of his incorporation of these diverse influences. Craft on Ravel: “he never regained his path after the War, when he became the influenced rather than the influencer.” Not only uncharitable, but simply untrue. While at the time it may have been Stravinsky that was leading fashion, one could argue that Ravel had a sizeable influence on the course of music making throughout the twentieth century. His advanced understanding of timbre made him the spiritual ancestor of spectralist music and some might say the godfather of modern orchestration. And aside from all that these surface influences were all just part of a synthesis into Ravel’s own voice, so succinctly captured in this slow movement.
PLAY opening of 2nd mvmt Ravel
As a younger person playing in Auckland Youth Orchestra on a tour to the United States, I was lucky to experience the Ravel Concerto in many performances with John-Paul Muir as a soloist. John-Paul was brilliant, of course, and I loved the concerto – but in my adolescent arrogance I didn’t think Ravel understood syncopation – I didn’t like the fact that my ear was confused, that I couldn’t lock into a catchy metric pattern – at that glacial tempo I thought the sense of polyrhythm was totally lost, wasted.
Far from Debussy’s languid sonic bath, or Ravel’s suspended Mozartian lyricism, Prokofiev’s sixth symphony is music of angular motion, anxious risk, brief skittering episodes of brutality and nostalgia. The tempo and texture change restlessly. But like Debussy, Prokofiev is full of misdirection, albeit in a far more agitated manner; a slippery harmonic blur in Debussy becomes a jolt in Prokofiev; in a pinch a pastoral character transforms into a funereal, or a martial one. And the Second World War looms large, but Prokofiev generally resists the straightforwardly militaristic; his are the quiet patterings of discontent rather than the volleys of machine-gun fire. This is Prokofiev after all, not Shostakovich.
Michael Steinberg calls the sixth a symphony of conflicting and unresolved emotions. Following on from a relative box office hit in the form of the Fifth Symphony, the sixth is sceptical where the fifth seemed triumphant. As in the Ravel there is a tension between the sharp, bright musical surface and what lies underneath it. When we think of Prokofiev we think of his wit, his craft, his inventiveness, but under all the compositional play and presentation there’s something darker and more unsettling. And as in Ravel the heart of the music is at its temporal centre, in its central slow movement. But where Ravel’s melancholic lyricism is tinged with eccentricity, coloured with bluesy modal mixture and surreal episodes at the fringes, Prokofiev’s is framed with heavy, harsh strokes. Steinberg is not being melodramatic when he makes the claim that Prokofiev had not written such lacerating music as the opening of the second movement in more than twenty years.
PLAY Prokofiev 6th Symphony, 2nd movement opening
Beginning and ending the second movement is this music of grating anguish, intense, screaming stuff. Woodwinds grind in chromatic parallel motion against a stubborn bass pedal, over which a piercing lament… but these outbursts are fleeting, dangerous, taboo – quickly passed over but etched in the memory. From these dizzying, angular heights it’s quite a leap to the apparent optimism of the finale. Superficially it seems upbeat, but it has a forced, manic quality, and the threat of violence is never far away. One can’t escape the sneaking suspicion that it’s the optimism of a pop star singing at a mafia wedding, the fear lurking behind a brittle façade of craft and professionalism.
As a listener the Prokofiev requires a different sort of approach from the Debussy and Ravel. At face value the lurching tone might seem bewildering; but it’s the conflicts and discontinuities between phrases and textures that I think are the key to getting the most out of this work. As Arnold Whitall puts it, there’s a continual opposition between exuberance and melancholy, and between the familiar and the unexpected – out of context each one seems straightforward but the lurching of tone calls that into question. It’s a kind of power struggle, an argument, one of the last great statements of the marginalized artist under Stalin. Take a deep breath and enjoy the concert. Thank you.