Even three weeks after Valentine’s Day the phrase “French Romantics” may call to mind pleasant visions of strolling the Champs-Élysées arm-in-arm with one’s beloved. Tonight’s concert title, however, gives us still more to ponder about the term “Romantic” as we experience some remarkable, distinctively French music.
The “Romantic” era denotes the period from the late 18th century onward in which the sometimes constrictive “neoclassical” forms and styles dominant in the previous century give way to more free artistic expressiveness in many areas: symmetry gives way to more improvisatory forms and styles; reason and logic, to often extravagant outpourings of raw emotion; experience and age, to innocence and youth; and the problems of increasing technological urbanization to longings for the presumed purity of Nature.
Especially in tonight’s program we see another prominent feature of the Romantic vision: a strong interest in the relationship between the “Sacred and the Profane.” With an instrumental work based on that title in the middle of the program and surrounded by choral works exploring that theme in various ways, tonight’s exploration of Romantic French music climaxes in the bold synthesis of “the Sacred and the Profane,” the Gloria by Francis Poulenc.
“Les fleurs et les arbres” (“Flowers and Trees”) (op. 68, no.2) Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
The second in a set of two madrigals composed in 1882 and published in 1883, this work, according to Judith Blezzard, editor of the choral octavo, is “among the most evocative of the compositions for small choir. . . . [Saint-Saëns] wrote for this medium from the age of about 13 almost throughout his long and musically productive life. Although best remembered for his operas (chiefly Samson et Dalila) and orchestral and chamber pieces (including Le carnival des animaux [The Carnival of the Animals], written shortly after the two Op. 68 choruses), his songs, small choral and piano pieces are actually more numerous, and contain much that deserves greater exposure.”
Saint-Saëns was sometimes referred to as the most “German” of 19th-century French composers. Comparatively musically conservative, he was a friend of Liszt and teacher and friend to Fauré. Widely reputed to be the greatest French organist of his time as well as one of the greatest pianists, he was known for the technical virtuosity of his instrumental and orchestral works. But he was equally fond of simple, straightforward composition, as evidenced by this madrigal, which is particularly distinguished by the artful “fit” between the speaking/singing rhythms of the words and the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic structures of the music expressing that poetry. Indeed, the composer was also likely the author of the lyrics, for, like his German counterpart Goethe, Saint-Saëns was one of the great intellectual “Renaissance Men” of the era, interested and highly skilled in a wide variety of subjects, including philosophy and the sciences.
Les fleurs et les arbres, les bronzes, les marbres, les ors, les émaux,
La mer, les fontaines, les monts et les plaines consolent nos maux.
Nature éternelle, tu sembles plus belle au sein des douleurs,
Et l’art nous domine, sa flamme illumine le rire et les pleurs.
The flowers and the trees, the bronzes, the marbles, the golds, the glazes [of our visual impressions of nature],
The sea, the watersprings, the mountains, and the plains console our pain.
Eternal Nature, you seem more beautiful to the sorrowing heart,
And art reigns over us, its flame illuminates the laughter and the tears.
Quatre Motets sur des thèmes grégoriens Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986)
(Four Motets on Gregorian Themes) (sung in Latin)
Like Saint-Saëns another great figure in the line of organist/composers founded by César Franck, Maurice Duruflé remains highly regarded for his stirring and virtuosic works for the organ. (He gave the 1939 premiere performance of Francis Poulenc’s Organ Concerto, and advised the composer on the registrations for the organ part.) But he is equally well known for his choral works, notably his Requiem (1947) and this collection of sacred motets, published in 1960. (The Requiem and the Four Motets are indeed often performed together on concert programs.)
The inspiration for the Four Motets traces in large part to Duruflé’s youth, as a chorister in the Rouen Cathedral Choir School, where Gregorian chant was stock in trade. Each of the four motets takes the intonation (opening musical phrase) of a liturgical chant and then develops it for four-part a cappella mixed chorus (with the exception of the second motet, scored for three female voice parts). The theme/intonation for each motet is often sung to introduce the motet that follows. The simplicity and serenity of Gregorian chant remain paramount in each motet. The voice parts are themselves chant-like even as they combine in the polyphonic texture.
I. Ubi Caritas
One of the most ancient of hymns in the Roman Catholic Church, believed to predate the formalization of the Mass, Ubi caritas is regularly sung during the Mass at the Adoration and Blessing of the Sacrament, as well as on Holy (Maundy) Thursday during Holy Week, including stanzas sung at the ceremonial foot-washing, commemorating Christ’s humble service in washing his disciples’ feet. (It is perhaps also interesting to note a modern alteration of the opening line of the hymn. The 1973 Roman Missal changed the opening words to “Ubi caritas est vera, . . .,” changing “love” [amor] to open the hymn with “Where charity is true, . . . ”)
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor.
Exsultemus et in ipso jucundemur. Timeamus et amemus Deum vivum.
Et ex corde diligamus nos sincero.
Where charity and love are, God is there. We are gathered into one in the love of Christ.
Let us rejoice and be glad in this. Let us fear and love the living God.
And love one another from a sincere heart.
II. Tota pulchra es
Sung by female voices (often dividing into five parts, perhaps reflecting the sets of five joys of Mary in the rosary), the sprightliness of the setting befits both the youthful purity and innocence of Mary and the occasion of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception for which the hymn was intended.
Tota pulchra es, Maria, et macula originalis non est in te,
Vestimentum tuum candidum quasi nix, facies tua sicut sol.
Tu gloria Jerusalem, tu laetitia Israel, tu honorificentia populi nostri.
You are all beauty, Mary, and the defect of original sin is not in you.
Your garments are white as snow, your face like the sun.
You are the glory of Jerusalem; you, the joy of Israel; you, the honor of our people.
III. Tu es Petrus
The musical setting is almost as short as the text (in turn only half of the traditional text, which concludes “. . . and the gates of hell shall not overcome it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven”). The music is as vigorous as one might imagine Christ’s energetic declaration to the newly-renamed Simon, and ends in the only fortissimo passage in the collection. Additional energy makes itself felt in the rapid, imitative entrances of the separate voice parts, beginning (appropriately imitating the voice of Christ) in the tenor and bass.
Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam.
You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.
IV. Tantum ergo
This is another hymn often sung in the Mass at the time of the Blessing of the Sacrament. Duruflé carries forward a texture of imitative voice entrancing from the preceding movement but in this case the mood is quiet, and even drawn-out in its meditative, even mystical introspectiveness.
Tantum ergo Sacramentum veneremur cernui, et antiquum documentum novo cedat rituli.
Praestet fides supplementum sensum defectui.
Genitori, genitoque laus et jubilatio, salus, honor, virtus quoque sit et benedictio,
Procedenti ab utroque compar sit laudatio. Amen.
So great, therefore, a Sacrament let us venerate with bowed heads, and let the old ritual give way to the new rite.
Let faith supplement the failure of the senses.
To the Begetter and the Begotten be praise and jubilation, honor, virtue as well as blessing,
To the One [Holy Spirit] proceeding from Both [Father and Son] let there be equal praise. Amen.
Cantique de Jean Racine (Song of Jean Racine) Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)
This much-loved anthem has probably been sung by nearly every member of a chorus (sacred or secular) and heard
by even more members of their congregations or concert audiences. The use of the original French language of the song makes even more clear the beauty of the “total music.”
Jeff Counts, writing for the Utah Symphony, provides background: “Jean Racine was a 17th century French dramatist and poet who, among his many important contributions to western letters, created a French translation of several portions of the Roman Breviary in 1688. Among them was the Ambrosian hymn for Tuesday Matins Consors paternio luminous (“O light of light”). Fauré chose to name his piece after Racine rather than the medieval source material, possibly because the elegant and rather florid French version was quite a creative leap from the original Latin. The words form an entreaty to God for his heavenly gaze, fiery mercy and guidance toward the path of righteousness. It ends with an exchange of faith and grace between Christ and his gathered followers. Fauré treats the inspiring text with a gorgeously restrained and respectful charm that reflects his ten years of training at the liturgically-focused Niedermeyer School, the last four of which having been spent under the tutelage of Camille Saint-Saëns, . . . an artful economist himself as a composer [whose] subtle hand is evident in Fauré’s early pieces, including the Cantique. The piece was originally scored for chorus and organ alone but Fauré breathed new life into it . . . in 1906 with a small orchestra instrumentation.”
Verbe égal au Très-Haut, notre unique espérance, jour éternel de la terre et des cieux,
De la paisible nuit nous rompons le silence: Divin sauveur, jette sur nous les yeux.
Répands sur nous le feu de ta grâce puissante; oue tout l’enfer fuie au son de ta voix;
Dissipe ce sommeil d’une âme languissante qui la conduit à l’oubli de tes lois!
Ô Christ! sois favorable à ce peuple fidèle, pour te bénir maintenant assemblé;
Reçois les chants qu’il offre à ta gloire immortelle, et de tes dons qu’il retourne comblé.
Word of God, one with the Most High, in Whom alone we have our hope, everlasting light of heaven and earth,
We break the silence of the peaceful night; Savior Divine, cast your eyes upon us!
Pour on us the fire of thy mighty grace, that all hell may flee at the sound of your voice;
Banish the slumber of a weary soul, that brings forgetfulness of your laws!
O Christ, look with favor upon your faithful people now gathered here to praise you;
Receive their hymns offered to your endless glory, and may they return your abundant gifts.
Danses sacrée et profane (Sacred and Profane Dances) Claude Debussy(1862-1918)
Freely-accessible scholarship at the website of Millennium Records provides background to this piece, as well as to the particular ways in which the interrelations between the “sacred” and the “profane” fascinated Romantic composers and artists in general.
Throughout the eleven years he spent as a student at the Paris Conservatory and for the rest of his career as a composer, Debussy was considered a revolutionary. His unorthodox harmonies and sense of musical form antagonized both his teachers and fellow students and would inevitably stir up great controversy among those fortunate enough to be able to witness the premieres of his compositions.
Debussy loved to experiment with music, and his sense of adventure was no doubt ignited by the prospect of composing tonight’s offering, which was commissioned in 1904 by the Pleyel Company. Founded in 1807 by the esteemed pianist Ignaz Pleyel, the firm was quite prosperous well into [the 20th] century. However, the reason for this commission was to herald what was potentially a revolutionary new instrument that had been invented by the company’s chief director, Gustave Lyon, a chromatic harp.
The standard harp used in orchestras . . . is known as the double-action harp. It has only forty-six strings but possesses a range of six and a half octaves. Simply stated, this harp cannot play all of the possible chromatic (half step) intervals at the same time. To make all of the pitches available, seven pedals are provided which can be raised or depressed in order to give the player three possible pitches on every string. Lyon wanted to solve this problem by giving the player a string for each chromatic note, and he did this by building the harp with two intersecting rows of strings.
For a brief period, harpists were interested, but they found that the extra strings sacrificed the resonance and tone of the instrument, and they soon abandoned the chromatic harp.
The harp was a favorite instrumental color among the Impressionist composers, probably because of the special effects possible on it, especially the ability to play crystalline passages as well as musical rustles or blurs.
The Danses sacrée et profane were written during the period that Debussy was composing his most ambitious orchestral work, La Mer, and a few years after the opera Pelleas et Melisande.
The Danse sacrée with its pastel transparency, modal harmonies, and aura of antiquity mark it as being related to the opera. It begins with a quiet but stately unison melody to which the harp responds with a theme of arpeggiated chords. Thereafter, the harp and strings meander peacefully through landscapes of parallel harmonies quite typical of Debussy, pausing here and there to refer back to the initial themes.
The Danse profane is written in a pronounced triple meter, which gives this movement a much more stable foundation. Nevertheless, the interplay between harp and strings is much more capricious than in the first dance, particularly in the ebbs and flows of the themes and dynamics that mark this section as a close relative of La Mer. As such it reflects the designation “profane,” not as in the sense of profanity or obscenity, but profane in the sense of a love of nature and earthly existence. (http://www.newmillenniumrecords.com/classroom/notes/sacree.html)
Gloria Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
This is the third major Gloria presented by Griffin Choral Arts, the others being those by Vivaldi (March last year) and by John Rutter (Christmas concerts in 2007 and 2012). In each case, the traditional text is an assemblage of praise acclamations and prayers for mercy, following the Angels’ proclamation at the birth of Christ in Luke 2: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will.” The full Gloria hymn has existed in the Mass since at least the 5th century, but had been sung in Matins (Morning Prayer) since the 4th century.
The term perhaps most often associated with the music of Francis Poulenc is “playful.” The man, his life, and his music are more complex than that, but Poulenc remains among the most surprising of modern musical masters, in the French tradition or any other. The last of his major religious compositions, the Gloria (completed in 1959 and premiered in 1961) expresses the quintessential Poulenc.
In a 17 January 2013 article, Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout commemorates the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death in praising Poulenc as deserving of consideration among major composers:
Perhaps not surprising, the critics of Poulenc’s day were thrown off . . . by his apparent
inconsistency of tone. [His] obituary spoke of “the quilt of contradictions that masked his music and his
life.” “I am half-monk, half-bounder,” he would say, and his friends would add that he was also a cultured
vulgarian, a moody wit, a seedy dandy—a puzzle. He wrote flippant music and sacred music, funny, jazzy profane music. . . the Poulenc puzzle has become his epitaph—as though his critics and colleagues would rather cherish their confusion than resolve it.
Was he a great composer? If you equate “greatness” with sheer originality, Poulenc is bound to come up short—and he knew it. More than most artists, he had a clear-eyed sense of his own limitations. “I am well aware that I am not the kind of musician who makes harmonic innovations, like [Stravinsky], Ravel, or Debussy, but I do think there is a place for new music that is content with using other people’s chords,” he told a friend in 1942. “Was this not the case with Mozart and with Schubert?”
This is an impressively honest self-appraisal. . . . Poulenc himself aspired to being nothing more than (as he put it) “an almost great composer.” What he ended up being was France’s last indisputably major classical composer, a full-fledged master who was capable of effortlessly expressing the full range of human emotion without lapsing into grandiloquence.”
Specifically of the Gloria, London Symphony program annotator Christopher Cook provides succinct overview of the origins and major stylistic effects of the work:
The work was commissioned from the Serge Koussevitsky Music Foundation. They had hopes for a symphony and then a new organ concerto, but Poulenc had other ideas. He would please himself and write a Gloria in seven movements for solo soprano, mixed choir, and orchestra. However, as he worked on the piece through 1959, the sacred kept tripping over the secular. “I had in mind those frescos by [Italian Renaissance painter] Gozzoli where the angels stick out their tongues. And also some serious Benedictine monks I had once seen reveling in a game of football [soccer].”
After wrestling with the shape of the piece Poulenc settled for six rather than seven movements, all of which display the composer’s particular gift for writing melodic tunes that bathe in the same southern sunlight as Vivaldi’s famous Gloria, which seems to have provided Poulenc with his model . . . [for] the thematic material in the second movement, “Laudamus te.” The opening gesture of the work is a steal too, this time from Stravinsky’s Serenade for piano. But the borrower, as always, makes it his own. The third movement, “Domine Deus,” is set for solo soprano with a simple four-part harmony in the orchestral introduction that always seduced Poulenc, while the noble “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei” . . . seems to have been liberated from [Poulenc’s major opera] Dialogues of the Carmélites. Nowhere is Poulenc more himself than in the final movement, “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris,” playfully profound . . . before the final shimmering Amen.”
The work was premiered almost simultaneously in 1961, in January by the Boston Symphony under Charles Munch and in February in Paris by l’Orchestre National under Georges Pretre. Tonight’s performance uses a special reduction for chamber orchestra and organ.
Poulenc’s image as an elegant jokester is both well-established and justified, though only to a point. The “profane” nature of his style—in the same sense as that quoted for Debussy above, as being unreligious more than anti-religious—sometimes overlooks the deeply religious aspects both of his life and his music. A particularly traumatic moment in his life was the 1936 death of a close friend in an auto accident, a gruesome beheading, which quite possibly inspired the climactic guillotine scene in The Dialogues of the Carmélites (begun in 1953 and first performed in 1957). Poulenc’s recovery from this loss seems to have been a renewing of his faith after a visit with a friend to the chapel of the Black Virgin of Rocamadour, and after which Poulenc immediately composed his thoroughly devout choral work the Litanies à la Vierge noire.
In the end, Poulenc is a perfect blend of classicist, postmodernist, and paradoxically serious and jocular musical poet both of the sacred and of the profane. His classicism is evident in all his works in clarity and transparency and even in form: portions of his Concerto for Two Pianos sound indistinguishable from Mozart. In the Gloria the neoclassical penchant for symmetry–though with a modernist twist–is evident in the very opening chords in the orchestra, featuring G major in the treble with the root of B minor in the bass. These tonal relationships continue through the work as important harmonic touchstones. The very end of the work brings these tonalities full circle, with the soprano soloist singing alone on a D, a pitch compatible with both the tonal G major (this time in the bass) with B major tonality above—a purposefully climactic reversal of the relationship between bass and treble from the opening. Neoclassicism is also evident in the contrast between movements—even though the perhaps infamous “angels with tongues sticking out” surprise of Movement 2 is also the most shockingly “modern.”
The final movement is indeed the true masterpiece of balance between sacred and profane, between classicism and postmodernism, and between shared beauty and private introspection. The movement starts out with the loud, proclamatory G major in which the piece began, though this time in the chorus. But the orchestral opening rhythmic motif soon re-enters, this time with the tonic G in the bass with B minor chords above. Soon follows a striding bass allegretto, eventually undergoing some unsettling key changes. Poulenc’s irrepressible wit plays with both text and music, most notably in the passage about the Son’s sitting at the right hand of the Father, even while the shifting, unsettling harmonies are doing anything but “sit.” (A similar bit of comic irony occurred back in the opening movement when the words “peace to all people of good will” are being sung in decidedly unpeaceful, difficult passages for the singers.) At an extremely loud, dissonant chord the music abruptly changes to a much slower, “extraordinairement calme” conclusion in which chorus and soprano soloist share in some of the most ravishing Romantic music ever produced, worthy of and equal to the most radiant passages by Debussy or Ravel. The Sacred clearly returns after the Profane. The soprano soloist has the final, extremely quiet “Amen,” doubly reinforcing the “You alone” of the text and possibly also representing the extremely private introspection of the composer himself.
Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to all of good will.
II. Laudamus Te
Laudamus te. Benedicimus te. Adoramus te. Glorificamus te. Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam.
We praise you. We bless you. We worship you. We glorify you. We give thanks to you for your great glory.
III. Domine Deus
Domine Deus, Rex caelestis, Deus Pater omnipotens, Gloria.
Lord God, King of the heavens, God the almighty Father, Glory.
IV. Domine Fili Unigenite
Domine Fili unigenite, Jesu Christe. Domine Deus unigenite Jesu Christe.
Lord the only-begotten, Jesus Christ. Lord God, the only-begotten, Jesus Christ.
V. Domine Deus, Agnus Dei
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris. Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Domine Deus, Rex caelestis, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostram.
Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father. [You] who take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lord God, King of the heavens, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
[You] who take away the sins of the world, receive our prayer.
VI. Qui Sedes ad Dexteram Patris
Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis. Quoniam tu solus Sanctus, Tu solus Dominus.
Tu solus altissimus, Jesu Christe, cum Sancto Spiritu, in Gloria Dei Patris. Amen.
[You] who sit at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us. For only you are holy, you alone are the Lord.
You alone are the most high, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father. Amen.
Program notes and translations by Bill Pasch. All portions not otherwise attributed in context or found in multiple sources of general information (e.g., Wikipedia) are copyright 2013.
All works on the program are performed under ASCAP blanket license.
Kristi Pass, harp
Steven K. Leonard, concertmaster, violin 1
Michele Mariage-Volz, violin 1
Sinisa Ciric, violin 1
Shawn Pagliarini, principle, violin 2
Elizabeth Alvarez, violin 2
Mirna Ogrizovic-Ciric, violin 2
Tania Clements, principle, viola
Patti Gouvas, viola
Martin Georgieuv, principle, cello
Cynthia Sulko, cello
Lynn Deramus, bass
Jeana Melilli, flute
Ann Lillya, oboe
Kenneth Long, clarinet
David McCurley, horn
Clayton Chastain, trumpet
Richard Brady, trombone
Butch Sievers, timpani