Fin de Siècle
Saturday August 19 at 12:00 pm
Central United Methodist | Free admission
Born to a life of privilege in the Basque region of southwestern France, Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) demonstrated a prodigious ability at the piano, enough to gain entrance to the Paris Conservatory as a teenager. Despite his pianistic skills, he soon gravitated more toward composition. A marked eclecticism, perhaps inspired by his father’s numerous mechanical inventions, burst forth in great skill with all manner of instrumental styles and folk-inspired idioms. He wrote the Introduction and Allegro for seven chamber players in 1905. Coming fresh on the heels of his lustrous String Quartet, the Introduction and Allegro closes a period of substantial strides in Ravel’s early career.
The work opens onto a hushed, serene world of woodwinds and muted strings. Ravel proceeds to explore both traditional and non-traditional timbres from the full ensemble. Resonances of Debussy’s evocative Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune (1894) lurk just below the surface. Ravel’s gestures are terse and lively, and the main theme in major mode is characteristically bright and scintillating. Abundant arpeggios create a rapturous backdrop against which the work’s main themes periodically step forth. One highlight is the central cadenza for solo harp, coming hard on the heels of the piece’s dynamic climax. Elements of sonata form development and reprise will be heard, and the basic musical material is all laid out in the opening introduction.
The piece may not be one of Ravel’s most ambitious, and the composer clearly had mixed feelings about it. He did not include it in his own catalog, yet he programmed it often and even conducted it for a 1924 recording. Ravel certainly succeeds very well in what he has tried to do: situating the modern chromatic harp in the center of familiar chamber instruments, and writing an impressionist composition full of sensuality and harmonic color. At its premiere in 1907 the piece impressed a Parisian audience and has not left the repertoire ever since.
The talented violinist, conductor, and composer George Enescu (1881-1955) was one of the brightest leading lights in Romanian music during the first half of the 20th century. He began formal study on the violin at the Conservatory in Vienna at seven years old, and by the age of fourteen he was at the Paris Conservatoire, counting Maurice Ravel among his fellow classmates. Here he shifted focus to composition and benefited from the tutelage of Massenet (1895-6) and Fauré (1896-9). Upon leaving the Conservatoire, Enescu (or Georges Enesco, as he became known in France) would bounce back and forth between Romania and France, primarily composing in Romania during the summers while performing violin in France throughout the other seasons. During World War I, however, he remained in the country of his birth, and contributed to the musical growth of the nation through his foundation of a symphony orchestra in 1917 and the country’s first national opera company in 1921.
A bit of an obsessive rewriter when it came to his compositions, Enescu only published 33 works throughout his lifetime, although a handful of these include large-scale compositions, like his opera Oedipe, premiered in 1936 at the Paris Opéra, and three symphonies written during the first two decades of the century. Some of his most celebrated chamber works include a Piano Quintet (1940), Second String Quartet (1951), and a Chamber Symphony (1954).
Today’s octet comes from some of Enescu’s earliest years of composition, just on the brink of turning nineteen years old. The work is impressive for a wealth of reasons, but the trait that immediately stands out is the structural unity of the work. As the composer points out in the 1950 edition of the piece, “This Octet, cyclic in form…is divided into four distinct movements in the classic manner, each movement linked to the other to form a single symphonic movement” (italics in original). In other words, Enescu wrote the octet so that the entire work emulates a single, sonata-form movement, like what you would find in the first movement of a symphony. Enescu’s octet’s first movement, broadly conceived, acts as the exposition, introducing thematic material, whereas the two interior movements develop the material—although they introduce a few new themes themselves—whereas the final movement possesses the summarizing recapitulation of the earlier material. Given the richness of Enescu’s contrapuntal writing, as well as the sheer number of his lyrical themes—some analysts count as many as twelve appearing throughout the whole work, some quite lengthy in duration—what results is a work of extraordinary, layered density. This is one chamber piece that definitely rewards multiple listens.
(c) Emily Masincup and Jason Stell, 2023