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Paris 1922: A Night at the Majestic

Paris 1922: A Night at the Majestic

Saturday August 12 at 7:30 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church | $22-$35

Program Notes

“For a long time I would go to bed early. Sometimes, the candle barely out, my eyes closed so quickly that I did not have time to tell myself: ‘I’m falling asleep.’ ”

Thus begins À la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust (1871-1922), arguably one of the most important novels of the last century. Translated literally as In Search of Lost Time, Proust’s magnum opus offers an incredibly deep exploration of one man’s inner life, the power of memory, and the foibles that add spice to our amorous, social, and familiar relations. His reputation prior to the publication of À la recherche hung on a few perceptive essays and his loyal defense of Alfred Dreyfus in the latter’s epic political trial. After the first volume appeared and caused an immediate sensation, Proust became a leading figure in Parisian society, earned several prestigious awards, and endured the “benefits” of being a celebrity. Reclusive by nature, he had basically retreated from society after the painful death of his mother in 1905. Lying in bed, Proust labored at composing and revising the later stages of À la recherche. On one rare occasion - May 18, 1922 - he ventured outside his cork-lined bedroom walls for a gala event at Paris’ famed Hotel Majestic. Present that evening would be several giants of European modernism: Igor Stravinsky, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, and James Joyce.

The nominal purpose of the event was to celebrate the premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet Renard, choreographed by the great Serge Diaghilev. Implicit expectations, however, centered on hopes that Proust and Joyce would launch into literary fireworks and provide astonishing displays of wit and wisdom; instead Proust only turned up after 2:00 am, the two writers barely spoke to one another, and even then the conversation devolved to commiserating over their shared ailments. Tonight’s concert teases out the threads of how interrelated all of these figures were. As we explore compositions from Ravel, Satie, Barber, and others, we allow a fuller conversation to unfold between Joyce, Proust, Stravinsky, and the rich musical life of Paris in the 1920s.

Composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) may not have been at the Majestic that famous night, but his name was known to everyone there. Born to a life of privilege in the Basque region of southwestern France, Ravel 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.

Although Ravel had moved in 1921 to a quiet suburb outside Paris, he maintained established connections with most of the Majestic luminaries, including Stravinsky, Cocteau, and Diaghilev. And in a touch of poignant interconnection, it would be Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess) that serenaded Proust’s coffin to its final resting place just months after the Majestic dinner. Ravel’s Pavane, originally scored for solo piano and probably heard that way at his service, sounds lush and radiant in the composer’s own orchestration. Compared to his other works, the Pavane uses rather simple, quaint harmonies aimed - as the title would suggest - to evoke a traditional Spanish pavane, or solemn court dance. Yet Ravel also glibly denied the literal connection and claimed he merely liked the way those words sounded when he spoke them. Ravel favors a rich tapestry of seventh chords for the slowly changing, modal harmonies of the A section, which projects a porcelain-like delicacy. The B section is more rapturous, but at no point does he stray from the simplicity of an antique lullaby. Pavane for a Dead Princess work is dedicated to the Princesse de Polignac, who was a major patron of the arts (and very much still alive) when the Pavane was composed in 1899.

In an era of great artistic upheaval and avant-garde experimentalism, American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981) navigated his own quiet course between extremes. Conservative by temperament, Barber typified a trend in composition that sought inspiration from abroad, but blended it with a deep interest in American (or at least English) idioms of folk music and poetry. Samuel had been a child prodigy, composing musicals and light opera by age 10 and, four years later, was one of the first students to enter the new Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. His parents provided a comfortable upbringing filled with culture and privilege, but it was probably his aunt and uncle - the former a Met contralto, the latter a noted composer of art songs - who sparked Samuel’s lifelong devotion to vocal music. Barber’s best-known work, the Adagio for Strings (1936), may be purely instrumental, but he wrote far more for the voice than for any other medium. And when choosing texts to set, he repeatedly went back to the words of Irish poet and novelist James Joyce.

In 1938 Barber composed Three Songs, Opus 10. Each takes a text from Joyce’s early collection of poems entitled (aptly enough) “Chamber Music.” In later years Barber would also set passages from both Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. The first song in Opus 10, “Rain Has Fallen,” shows the composer’s fully-developed sense of tonality. Connections from one chord to the next seem non-linear, but a clear feeling for tension and resolution still remains. What is more, the dramatic flair compels our attention, as raindrop-like isolated notes eventually build to a thunderous downpour at “Speak to your heart.” “Sleep Now” takes a page from the style of Rachmaninoff, clearly evident in the massive piano chords that accompany key moments. Barber subtly allows various time signatures to fluctuate and respond to the text’s emotions, but by the end all has returned to utmost repose. A very different aesthetic marches across the final song, “I Hear An Army.” Barber focuses on the sheer noise and spectacle created by an army on the move; the galloping rhythm is an easy semiotic marker. Beyond bloodshed and chaos, the army also steals away the protagonist’s beloved. Thus a more intimate sorrow gradually takes hold, but it can barely utter a word amidst the cataclysmic, thick harmonies.

Samuel Barber and Luciano Berio (1925-2003) were contemporaries but could hardly differ more in style. Berio came from a musical family and began studying with his father and grandfather, both professional musicians. The defining experience of Berio’s early compositional career occurred in 1951 at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony. It was there that he met Luigi Dallapiccola, one the century’s most eloquent proponents of serialism (in brief, a compositional style that organizes pitches, rhythms, dynamics, etc., according to a pre-ordained numerical sequence). Personal contact with Dallapiccola inspired Berio’s own move to serialism. Returning to Europe, he took a position at the center of the Darmstadt Institute, a mecca for avant-garde composers; Institute residents have included Messiaen, Boulez, Nono, Stockhausen, and Cage, to name a few.

In the late 1950s Berio began to direct an electronic music studio under the auspices of Italian radio. Based in Milan, Berio’s work at the Studio di Fonologia allowed him access to advanced technological resources for the creation and manipulation of recorded sound. In 1958 he produced a radically new composition along these lines, Thema (Homage to Joyce), which can rightfully claim to be the first electroacoustic composition in history that involves post-production manipulation of an audio track. Thema involves no live performer. Instead, the composer recorded the voice of his wife, the Armenian-American soprano Cathy Berberian, reading the “Sirens” passage from Chapter 11 of Joyce’s Ulysses. Her original, unaltered reading of the text occupies the first two minutes of the recording; the remainder captures Berio’s deconstruction. Much like Joyce, who experimented deeply with the sound and syntax of the English language, Berio fragments the audio into phonetic bits and pieces. Even today, almost seventy years later, our ears are hardly accustomed to the novelty of the effects Berio produces, and a genuine aesthetic response to Thema remains challenging.

About five years before the Majestic dinner in 1922, several of the luminaries present collaborated on a unique project. The initial concept probably originated with Jean Cocteau, poet, playwright, and visual artist. Cocteau had already befriended other Parisian writers (primarily Proust and Gide), as well as Apollinaire, Picasso, Mogdiliani, Diaghilev, and the composer Erik Satie (1866-1925).
Among fans of modernism, particularly French modernism, the name of Satie conveys wit ranging from wry and glib to caustic and - for its time - completely radical. But for most music lovers, Satie remains synonymous with his three instrumental Gymnopédies (1888). Cocteau had heard more esoteric works by Satie and desired to prepare a ballet around them for Diaghilev’s famous Ballets Russes company. Rather than recycle existing material, Satie insisted on creating a new original score. So, while dividing his time between the Western Front and Paris, Cocteau oversaw the emergence of Parade, a new ballet for Diaghilev with music by Satie, choreography by Massine, assisted by Apollinaire, and sets and costumes by Picasso. The riotous premiere took place in May 1917, for which performance Apollinaire lauded the work and coined the term “surrealism.”

The scenario for Parade is simple. Various circus performers step outside their tents to lure paying customers into the full show. Parade broke new ground by bringing street theater and so-called “low brow” spectacle onto the stages of high society. But that was precisely Cocteau’s intent, as one critic aptly noted: “Parade relies on the confusion in the minds of the audience between the foretaste and the feast to come, between the sideshow and the main event, between the exterior spectacle and the interior one.” The work intentionally removed barriers, broke the proverbial fourth wall between audience and performers; Picasso’s curtain apparently did little to hide the public’s view of what was going on “backstage.”
What about Satie’s music? He opens Parade with a grandiose, brass-heavy Chorale theme in best Wagnerian vein - tongue firmly planted in cheek, of course. This short section yields to a mysterious passage for strings and a fugue. Barely one minute into the work, we have already heard from Wagner, Stravinsky, and Bach. One might as well get used to such rapid stylistic contrasts, for they are all in service of the music-as-spectacle element, voicing the vibrant panoply that is a Parisian circus. Satie throws in every conceivable audible oddity, from the click of a roulette wheel and the clack of a typewriter to sirens, pistol shots, and hauntingly lyrical solo flute melodies. The last section of Parade, titled Final, witnesses a massive ten-car pileup of ideas heard previously in the ballet and a coda to the coda. Satie is in typically fine form here, thumbing his nose at conventions, ending with a final chord that seems only to set the stage for more antics to come.


Before World War I, all the latest trends in art and music seemed to reside in Paris. Radicals of every heritage settled on the banks of the Seine, and cultural events were as likely to culminate in ovations as they were to devolve into fist fights. Russian émigré Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was not yet living in Paris before the war, though that city would witness his explosion into global fame. Stravinsky’s rise began with The Firebird (1910) commissioned by the newly-formed Ballets Russes. Petrushka followed in 1911 and The Rite of Spring in 1913, cementing Stravinsky’s place among the darlings of modern music. In his long career, he would go on to compose many other works that helped to define the shape of 20th century music. Even so, the ballets of these early years and their immediate impact on people both inside and outside the music world remain Stravinsky’s defining legacy.

After the success of Firebird, Diaghilev approached Stravinsky about repeating their collaboration for the 1912 season. Stravinsky agreed and immediately related a vision he had about a sacrificial rite set to music; the beginning concept for The Rite of Spring. However, he soon diverged onto another project involving a puppet come to life. Diaghilev was quick to realize the visual elements this could support, though the composer originally envisioned Petrushka as an instrumental work, without a related scenario or ballet. The initial composition proceeded quickly during the winter of 1910-1911, and at the first performance Fokine’s choreography was stunningly realized by the great Vaslav Nijinsky. Petrushka centers on a love triangle between three commedia dell’arte figures: a clown, his adored ballerina, and her beloved Moor—a Pagliacci for puppets overlaid with a tinge of Othello. Petrushka’s love for the ballerina goes unrequited, and the poor hero hastens his demise by challenging the powerful Moor.

The four scenes or tableaux of Petrushka take place in Saint Petersburg in the context of a traditional pre-Lenten festival, Shrovetide. Stravinsky opens onto a lively scene of street-hawkers cries. This opening movement can hardly contain its own excitement, and we whirl around through various melodies under the watchful gaze of the magician/puppetmaster. Some of these tunes are genuine Russian folk songs; others present Stravinsky’s own pseudo-folk music. The carefree atmosphere comes to a halt with a dramatic drumroll, signaling the crowd’s fixation on the puppets. Inanimate at first, they spring to life at the magician’s touch and perform their vigorous Russian dance.

In the second movement, Chez Petrushka, we glimpse inside the puppets’ private worlds. Framed as a scene inside his personal room, the movement becomes a chance to peek inside the tragic hero’s mind. Unceremoniously booted into the room, Petrushka’s emotions range from fearful cowering under the watchful eye of the all-powerful puppet master to reverential brooding over the ballerina. Stravinsky’s score likewise ranges from biting dissonant outbursts to more tender gestures. The defining sonority, henceforth called the “Petrushka chord,” features superimposed triads that are a tritone apart; in this case, C major and F-sharp major. (One can mimic this sound by playing only white keys in the left hand and only black keys in the right.) Stravinsky wrote this material before anything else, and the original concept was to be a concertino for piano and orchestra.

Another striking drumroll carries us away to the “Moor’s cell,” where more exotic sounds greet our ears. Angular gestures and colorful melodic snippets - plus tambourine in the original orchestration - all attempt to evoke the Moor’s desert homeland. His darkened cell brighten’s with the arrival of the Ballerina, placed there by the Magician and accompanied by a memorable new tune (played on trumpet in the orchestral version). Much to Petrushka’s dismay, she dances a waltz with the Moor on themes borrowed from Austrian composer Joseph Lanner (1801-1843). Petrushka tries to break up the seduction as the music devolves into chaos.

The final tableau returns to the Shrovetide festivities, and Stravinsky ushers in several new themes and characters. All the turmoil of the puppets’ quarrel is momentarily forgotten as we marvel at the “Wet-Nurses’ Dance,” a dancing bear, and various other revelers. However, in the ballet’s great psychological turn, Petrushka bursts onto the scene - fully animated for all to see - desperately fleeing the incensed Moor. The crowd watches in stunned disbelief as Petrushka is struck down, dead. Attention turns to the Magician/Puppetmaster, who remonstrates that this is mere play; these are puppets, after all. Later, the revelers having dispersed, Petrushka’s ghost arises to torment the brutal Puppetmaster. His leitmotif has allowed us to follow his lifestory at each stage. And after thirty minutes of scintillating music, Petrushka closes with the quietest of endings.

Tonight’s performance offers the world premiere of Petrushka in a new, specially-commissioned arrangement for two pianos and percussion made by Peter White and Brian Smith. White and Smith offer the following thoughts about their new work:

In this new arrangement, we are continuing the approach we took in our two piano + two percussion arrangement of The Rite of Spring (2019). With Petrushka, our goal was to create a chamber music version of the score with the same range of color, complexity, and drama as the full orchestral work. Hewing closely to Stravinsky’s 1947 revised score for reduced orchestra, we transcribed and incorporated much of the contrapuntal and harmonic content from the full orchestral score that is absent from Stravinsky’s four-hand piano arrangement—some content omitted for practical reasons and some missing simply because of when the four-hand version was produced (1911). Much of this newly incorporated content is notated in Stravinsky’s four-hand arrangement but unplayable by the performers. In our adaptation, we chose an expansive two piano orchestration rather than the range-restricted four-hand format. For the percussion, we included all of the orchestral parts—normally covered by four players—and arranged for them to be covered by only two players . . .The end result, based on significant research and an intense commitment to the spirit and character of Stravinsky’s unique voice, translates the richly colorful and powerful large-scale version of this 20th century masterpiece to an intimate chamber music context.

© Jason Stell, Brian Smith, and Peter White, 2023

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