Program Notes: La mer

This weekend’s concerts provide opportunities to exercise our imagination. We’re also afforded the chance to experience the beauty and power of the sea. We begin with tales from Mother Goose, then journey to three locales on the Iberian Peninsula. From there, we board a boat to the Hebrides Islands—before embarking on an even more adventurous experience of the ocean.

Suite from Ma Mere l’Oye (Mother Goose)

Maurice Ravel
(Born 7 March 1875 in Ciboure, France; Died 28 December 1937 in Paris)

Composed: 1908-10

Last MSO Performance: January 2009; Gilbert Varga, conductor

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), 2 horns, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, tam tam, triangle, xylophone), harp, celeste, strings

Approximate Duration: 16 minutes

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite began its life as a set of “Five Children’s Pieces for Piano Four Hands.” Composed between 1908 and 1910, it was premiered by the child pianists Jeanne Leleu (aged six) and Geneviève Durony (a year older) on 20 April 1910. The following year, Ravel transcribed the five-movement suite for orchestra and also expanded the instrumental score into a ballet.

It’s not uncommon to hear Ravel’s music described as “exquisite,” and this suite is no exception. Refined, colorful, exotic, radiant, moody, ecstatic might also accurately typify this music. The opening Pavane is only 20 measures long and entirely consonant, but its simplicity is evocative and powerful. From there, we travel to a forest, where various songbirds make a meal of Tom Thumb’s trail of breadcrumbs. Laideronenette takes a bath while being serenaded with musical walnut shells and almond shells. Here, Ravel uses the pentatonic scale and bell-like timbres to depict the Chinese setting. This Beauty and her Beast are no Disney version: Ravel acknowledged this movement’s debt to Satie’s Trois Gymnopedies (1888). Following the slow waltz that depicts Beauty, the basso-profundo growls of the contrabassoon characterize the Beast. He is transformed into a handsome prince, though, and this leads into a joyous, hymn-like paean to nature in the final movement. Its incandescent orchestration is Ravel at his most inspired.

Recommended Recording: Charles Dutoit, Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal (Decca)


Nights in the Gardens of Spain

Manuel de Falla
(Born 23 November 1876 in Cádiz, Spain; Died 14 November 1946 in Alta Gracia, Argentina)

Composed: 1915

Premiere: April 9, 1916; Madrid

Last MSO Performance: November - December, 1996; George Manahan, conductor; Alicia de Larrocha, piano

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (cymbals, triangle), harp, celeste, strings

Approximate Duration: 23 minutes

Manuel de Falla is one of the few Spanish composers across the centuries to gain international renown. Though his music remained rooted in the folk music of his native country, he learned much from his French colleagues, particularly Debussy and Ravel. Their influence is immediately recognizable in Nights in the Gardens of Spain. We might also detect a whiff of the Russian nationalists, particularly the instrumental colorings of Rimsky-Korsakov. Originally begun in 1909 as a set of three nocturnes for solo piano, Falla ultimately scored the work for piano and orchestra. Along with the ballets El amor brujo (“Love, the Magician”) and The Three Cornered Hat, it remains one of his best-known works.

The composer called this set of three evocative pieces “symphonic impressions.” Though the piano solo is eloquent and sometimes virtuosic, it does not behave in the manner of a piano concerto. Instead, it is part of the overall texture, weaving its lines in and out of the orchestral fabric. The opening movement is set in the Generalife, the gardens surrounding the summer palace at the Alhambra. The elegant music depicts the elegant locale, and we hear echoes of a flamenco guitar. For Distant Dance, the sensual and dramatic second movement, the garden is unnamed. In the Sierra de Cordoba, there’s plenty of drama—as well as crystalline, guitar-inspired phrases and expressive romantic passsages for piano and strings. As the music quickly fades, we’re left with the nostalgic memory of an idyllic locale.

Recommended Recording: Alicia de Larrocha; Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, London Philharmonic Orchestra (Decca)


The Hebrides Overture, Op. 26 (“Fingal’s Cave”)

Felix Mendelssohn
(Born 3 February 1809 in Hamburg, German; Died 4 November 1847 in Leipzig)

Composed: 1830

Premiere: May 14, 1832; London

Last MSO Performance: September 2012; Gilbert Varga, conductor

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings

Approximate Duration: 10 minutes

In the summer of 1829, the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn and his friend Karl Klingemann went on a walking tour of Scotland. They also traveled to the Hebrides Islands, off the country’s west coast, and later to Fingal’s Cave on the Island of Staffa. It is said that, after seeing the breathtaking scenery there, Mendelssohn composed the opening bars of his overture and sent them to his sister Fanny, writing, “In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there." The composer completed the overture’s first draft in Rome, late in 1830. Unhappy with this initial endeavor, he worked on the piece over the next few years. It was premiered in London in 1832, then further revised before its publication in 1833.

Set in sonata form, the overture does not tell a story, but rather evokes the sea and the scenery that Mendelssohn encountered. The undulating rhythmic pattern, an arpeggiated fragment in B minor, depicts the sea’s ebb and flow. Dramatic crescendi and forzandi represent the crashing waves. The second theme, set in D major, first appears in the cellos and bassoons. It is unfettered and more expansive, deemed “the greatest melody Mendelssohn ever wrote” by the ever-quotable Sir Donald Francis Tovey. At the end of our voyage, the clarinet offers a wistful statement of the opening motive, then defers to the flute, who has the last word with its ascending B minor arpeggio above hushed pizzicato strings.

Recommended Recording: George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra (Sony)


La mer

Claude Debussy
(Born 22 August 1862 in Sainte-Germain-en-Laye, France; Died 25 March 1918 in Paris)

Composed: 1903-05

Premiere: October 15, 1905; Paris

Last MSO Performance: April 2012; Edo de Waart, conductor

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, tam tam, triangle), 2 harps, strings

Approximate Duration: 23 minutes

“We must agree that the beauty of a work of art will always remain a mystery. In other words we can never be absolutely sure ‘how it’s made.’” These words by Debussy seem especially appropriate when considering his set of three “symphonic sketches,” La mer. Neither a “normal” symphony nor a complete disavowal of the form, it nevertheless is a brilliant opus in the orchestral repertoire. (The Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter named it one his top three favorites, along with Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Wagner’s Ring cycle.) These pieces are not programmatic in a traditional sense. That is, they don’t tell story that follows a normal time line—though Debussy’s friend Eric Satie wryly quipped that, in “From Dawn to Noon on the Sea,” he “particularly liked the bit at a quarter to eleven.” In this work, “the story” is all about color, texture, and nuance.

In the opening segment, as the morning progresses, listen for the sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle, changes in lighting and atmosphere. In “Play of the Waves,” notice the shimmering surface of the water, feel the rocking of the waves and unexpected shifts of the current. “In Dialog of the Wind and the Sea,” there’s a storm a-coming. The orchestra swells in great washes of sound as air and water collide. Ultimately, though, the sun breaks through the clouds. Calm is restored.

Recommended Recording: Jun Märkl, Orchestre National de Lyon (Naxos)

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.