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The French Connection

It’s a tenuous connection, I suppose, but in a programme devoted entirely to French and Russian composers we can hardly avoid it. In the Eighteenth Century, the German-born Catherine the Great wilfully infected the Russian aristocracy with her “francophilia”, dragging Russian culture out of the dark ages and into enlightenment. It wasn’t all plain political sailing between the nations - in the early 1800s, Napoleon didn’t exactly top the guest list for your average Russian aristo’s Ball. Yet, by the time Glinka “fathered” Russian music, Catherine’s French incense had permeated the life-blood of Russian art. The quality of Russian music as we know it partly arises from tension between this entrenched Gallic infusion and emergent nationalism: if the “acquired” was glycerine, the “genetic” was nitric acid - a fairly potent brew! 

It might seem strange to start with music by Jakob Eberst - until we remember he was born in Offenbach. He was a perfect specimen of this “French connection”: his music sounds more “French” than many a native. If our concert’s composers are “graphic artists” then Jaques Offenbach [*], in his scandalously saucy satire Orpheus in the Underworld, tops the lot. Anyone can bask in its preludial party, interstitial idylls, infernal interlude and winsome waltz - but having heard this overture once, what gentleman can listen again without getting impatient for that naughty can-can, and its attendant graphic images of the feminine underworld? There’s more than a glimpse of stocking - is that shocking? No, my friends - it’s art

Take “saucy”, discard “fun”, add “faune”, and Offenbach becomes Debussy. His Prélude à l'Après-Midi d'un Faune was inspired less by Mallarmé’s poem than by desire to realise the poet’s hopes for its “scenic value”. The music’s rapturous reception (1894) has been submerged by the ballet’s riotous reception (1902). Some, it seems, felt that Nijinsky’s fantasising faune overplayed the eroticism. Judging by the music, I’d have thought that unlikely! Mallarmé’s “faune” languishes in the heat, his feverish mind filling with erotic fantasies. Debussy’s luminous colours and cloying harmonies evoke the sultry shimmering to a “T”. However, that’s not all, because any self-respecting faune can stand the heat. Somehow, Debussy makes the very notes of his harmonies seem to deliquesce, reflecting oppressive humidity - and that’s what’s floored the faune. 

Far from being musical “twins”, Debussy and Ravel were as different as chalk and cheese. Orchestrally, they shared only supreme graphic artistry, yet even here their brushes made different strokes. Much of Ravel’s allure comes from cohabitation of ancient and modern. Ancient - especially dance - forms and modern styles are molecularly bonded via the valence of incisive instrumentation. The Piano Concerto in G’s first movement gives a jazz beat to the Bransle, whilst the astonishingly beautiful second pares to the bone the “Hellenic” style of his teacher, Fauré, almost making a Blues of it. In the third movement jazz beats the hell out of Couperin, so to speak! As if it weren’t enough that these parallels of subject and treatment enabled such stark contrasts without rupturing the structure, there’s the sheer sound - which is out of this world! 

Either too busy to compose, too fastidious when composing, or a lazy so-and-so, Lyadov’s inability to deliver the goods cost him the chance of a lifetime - he was Diaghilev’s first choice for The Firebird! Yet, when he bothered to put pen to paper his aural imagination was second to none. Blessed with Rimsky-Korsakov’s flair for conjuring colours by the simplest means (no mean feat!), Balakirev’s knack of line and structure, and Mussorgsky’s feeling for the grotesque, he contrived to become the greatest “Might Have Been” that ever graced the world of music. Hence you might weep as you listen to Baba-Yaga, both a graphic impression of a singularly nasty piece of work who chews children’s bones, and a graphic illustration of the frisson generated by rubbing “rough” Russian nationalism against “smooth” suavité Français

Mussorgsky was the wild man of the Mighty Handful. The correspondingly rough-hewn quality of his music was, in his day, considered a Bad Thing. Unfortunately, the bequest of his boozy lifestyle and early demise was an “incomplete mess”. The well-intentioned “improvements” in Rimsky-Kosakov’s and Glazunov’s completions ironed out what they saw as flaws. Nowadays, we’re busy putting the “flaws” back in. 

On the death (1873) of his friend, the artist Victor Hartmann, Mussorgsky paid tribute with this astonishingly graphic suite. Being for solo piano - and completed! - it evaded his friends' ministrations. Pictures at an Exhibition thus preserves the unsettling earthiness of the real Mussorgsky. It’s a classic of the virtuoso piano repertoire, an epic of such grand conception that its orchestral potential was immediately obvious. Yet Rimsky-Korsakov, that orchestral magician par excellence, considered it “untranslatable into any other medium”! Apparently, with his unparalleled understanding of tone colour, he appreciated why Mussorgsky had chosen the piano -  for example, consider the palpable desperation of even the finest pianist tackling the coda! 

Why, with oodles of extant orchestrations, are we hearing “the Ravel” yet again? Well, it is arguably the finest: a true orchestration, meddling minimally with the notes, and a prodigious feat of instrumental imagination, its colours vividly harmonise with the images, whether romantic, raging, fleet, ponderous, humorous, or downright ugly. If it has a fault it is, according to Stokowski, that it’s “too French”, simply too refined to truly reflect the rude original. In echoing Rimsky-Korsakov's and Glazunov's general misconception, the French sophisticate supreme locks horns with Russia’s roughest nationalist, and our “French connection” comes to a head. 

The layout resembles a stroll round the exhibition: the recurring “promenade” represents Mussorgsky's reflections on the exhibits - and his lost friend. This makes it particularly significant that after Limoges the skies suddenly darken. “Strolling” becomes fevered progression, through limbo and lurid nightmare into “desperate” incandescence. Mussorgsky traverses mourning, communion with his dead friend’s soul, a fearful encounter with that bone-crunching crone, to a cathartic vision of assailing the “Pearly Gates” with his friend - and maybe a bottle of vodka? 

[*]In case you haven’t guessed, this was the name adopted by Jakob Eberst, for exactly the same reasons of “image enhancement” as many a latter-day film actor and pop singer!

Note originally commissioned by the Vancouver Symphony for a concert given on 21 February 2004

© Paul Serotsky
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