Claude Debussy (1862 — 1918)
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Debussy described his Prelude as “a very free illustration of (Stéphane) Mallarmé’s poem . . . to evoke the successive scenes in which the longings and desires of the faun pass in the heat of the afternoon.”
Lili Boulanger (1893 — 1918)
D’un Soir Triste
This was one of the very last works written in Lili’s own hand — started in the spring of 1917, and largely finished by January 1918. Lili’s alterations and messy manuscripts were a sign of her physical deterioration.
The music weaves a combination of anger, desperation, confusion, anguish and other emotions, connecting listeners its composer’s humanity. The final tempo marking expresif resigné (expressive, resigned) leaves us wondering if Boulanger found acceptance, resignation, or some combination of both in her what would be some of her final, fateful notes.
Maurice Ravel (1875 — 1937)
Concerto for Piano in D Major (left hand)
Writing a concerto for a pianist with only one hand is challenging, but as Ravel explained, “The fear of difficulty, however, is never as keen as the pleasure of contending with it, and, if possible, of overcoming it. That is why I acceded to Wittgenstein’s request to compose a concerto for him.”
He certainly set a challenge for Wittgenstein, a concert pianist who had lost his right arm in WWI. Struggling to learn it, Wittgenstein complained to Ravel, “What’s with the jazz-infused rhythms and harmonies? This is classical music. And this long piano solo as my entrance? If I’d wanted to play without the orchestra, I wouldn’t have commissioned a concerto!”
The concerto sets a sombre tone with a yearning theme coloured by contrabassoon and basses. The orchestra builds massively from darkness to light, until the piano enters, asserting itself in the long solo passage of which Wittgenstein complained. By turns reflective and triumphant, the piano’s somewhat pentatonic melody is anchored by great bass chords so apt to the left hand.
Florent Schmitt (1870 — 1958)
The Tragedy of Salome
American conductor JoAnn Falletta calls Florent Schmitt the most important French composer you’ve never heard of. “Rhapsodic, brooding and startlingly beautiful, Schmitt’s language is deeply personal – passionate yet extraordinarily detailed, sophisticated, and elusive,” Falletta says.
La Tragédie de Salomé was conceived as a ballet, though it is usually performed as a symphonic suite. Its Prelude depicts an Orientalist sunset in Herod’s palace overlooking the Dead Sea, a brooding Biblical landscape. After this evocative introduction, there’s Herodias contemplating her jewels and silks; Salome dancing with her mother’s veils, Herod watching in frustration. His attempt to seize and undress Salome is foiled by John the Baptist. Herod sentences him to death. Madness, lust, fearful visions and a ferocious Rite-like dance of terror follow.