February WinterMezzo: Musique Française
Suite en Duo (1927) Jean Émile Paul Cras (1879–1932)
Danse à onze temps: Très animé
E Sonata for Flute and Keyboard in E minor, op. 40 Noam Elkies (b. 1966)
Sérénade, op. 30 (1925) Albert Roussel (1869–1937)
Piano Quartet No. 2 in G minor, op. 45 (1886) Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924)
Allegro molto moderato
Adagio non troppo
Jean Émile Paul Cras (1879–1932)—Suite en Duo (1927)
After finishing a composition, composers often put a note at the end of the score indicating the day the work was completed, sometimes adding their location as well. At the conclusion of Jean Cras’s Suite en duo, we read (in French), “On board the Provence, at Toulon, February 1–16, 1927.” Cras was no passenger, however; the battleship Provence was the flagship of the French war fleet, and he was her commander.
Despite his lifelong service in the French navy, Cras was a skilled composer, and had been commissioned by the harpist Pierre Jamet to write three pieces. During Cras’s 1926 tour of duty along the West African coast, he traveled with an upright piano in his stateroom. Ashore, however, he encountered the balo, or balafon, a type of xylophone with gourds used as resonators. The folk music performed on this unusual instrument inspired the Suite en duo for Jamet and the flutist René Le Roy, which opens with a very free “preamble” in the manner of the Guinea story-tellers Cras had heard. The subsequent movements are more rhythmic, resembling folk dances from various lands. The finale presents a special challenge to toe-tappers: it is written in an asymmetrical 11/8.
Albert Roussel (1869–1937)—Sérénade, op. 30 (1925)
Like his countryman Jean Cras, Albert Roussel started his career as a sailor-composer. Unlike Cras, however, Roussel resigned from the navy at age twenty-five, when the pull of full-time music-making had grown too strong. His serious studies progressed rapidly, and by 1902, the Schola Cantorum appointed him as one of its instructors. He mentored numerous younger composers, including Varèse, Satie, and some years later, Cras. Roussel’s success as a composer grew steadily, but his love of the sea never ebbed; by 1920, he was able to purchase a lovely estate, Vasterival, on the coast of Normandy. On his tomb, he had engraved the epitaph: “It is overlooking the sea that we shall end our lives and, slumbering, hear afar its eternal murmuring.”
Roussel’s naval service had led him to the Near East, and the culture and music of that region left a lasting impression. He experimented with unusual scales, sometimes-eerie harmonies, imbalanced rhythmic groupings, and repetitive ostinato patterns—all of which found their way into Sérénade, composed at Vasterival and dedicated to flutist René Le Roy (two years before Cras’s Suite en duo). Le Roy and his Quintette Instrumental de Paris premiered the Sérenade at a 1925 festival in Roussel’s honor.
Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924)—Piano Quartet No. 2 in G minor, op. 45 (1886)
In the nineteenth century, musicians all over Europe revered Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner—but after the Franco-Prussian war (1870–1871), when the French had lost Alsace-Lorraine, and even Paris had been occupied—many French composers wanted nothing more to do with those Germanic forebears. They founded the Société Nationale de Musique in 1871 in order to promote French music and young French composers; Gabriel Fauré was an early member of the society.
In the Piano Quartet No. 2, Fauré seems to have taken the four parts of a conventional German chamber-music framework—a brisk first movement, a scherzo, a slow movement, and a fast finale—and filled them with sounds reflecting the newly showcased French taste. There are modal shifts, taking us from minor to major and back again, and there are rhythmic instabilities, in which duple (two-beat) patterns struggle against triple groupings. Fauré also paid tribute to his French heritage during the “Adagio non troppo,” which conveys the ringing of bells he remembered from childhood, their sound carried from a distant village across the countryside by the west wind. Fauré unified the quartet by repeating earlier melodies during the finale, bring cohesion and artistic balance to the overall work.
Copyright 2017 by Dr. Alyson McLamore