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Claude Monet disrupted the art world when he introduced Impressionism at the end of the 19th century. October 4, step into the lush musical landscape inspired by the master’s luminous artistic style.

The concert dawns with Lili Boulanger’s One Spring Morning then rises onto Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun by Claude Debussy. Pianist Stephanie Cheng shines on Maurice Ravel’s jazzy piano concerto before the sun sets on Debussy’s stormy La Mer. The night ends with Ravel’s hypnotic crowd-pleaser, Boléro, for a thrilling finale!

Image: Claude Monet, Waterlilies or The Water Lily Pond, 1904. Oil on canvas; 34 ¾ x 36 in. (87.95 x 91.44 cm). Funds from Helen Dill bequest, 1935.14

Lili Boulanger
D’un matin de printemps 
(One Spring Morning)

Women composers, like other female creative artists, have to fight battles their male counterparts do not. Even today, a female visual artist, writer, or composer is sometimes evaluated on criteria that have little or nothing to do with her work, and everything to do with her gender, her appearance, or her life circumstances. Lili Boulanger was no exception.

The younger sister of composer and pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who taught composition to many of the 20th century’s most distinguished composers, Lili Boulanger revealed her enormous talent at a very young age. She was a musical prodigy born into a musical family; in 1913, at age 20, she became the first woman to win the coveted Prix de Rome, France’s most prestigious composition prize. Boulanger’s compositional style, while grounded in the prevailing impressionistic aesthetics associated with Claude Debussy, is nonetheless wholly her own. Her music features rich harmonic colors, hollow chords (open fifths and octaves), ostinato figures, running arpeggios, and static rhythms.

Along with her tremendous musical ability, Boulanger was born with a chronic, debilitating intestinal illness, probably Crohn’s disease. Today there are drugs and other therapies to manage this condition, but in Boulanger’s time the illness itself had neither name nor cure, and its treatment was likewise little understood. Throughout her short life, Boulanger suffered from acute abdominal pain, bouts of uncontrollable diarrhea, and constant fatigue; all these symptoms naturally impacted her stamina and her ability to write. Contemporary reviews of Boulanger’s work always emphasized her physical fragility, often in lieu of a thoughtful assessment of her music.

Despite illness, Boulanger continued composing, even on her deathbed. D’un matin printemps, the second half of a diptych that includes its shorter counterpart D’un soir triste (From a Sad Evening) are two of the last works she wrote. Both pieces treat the same opening melodic and rhythmic theme in different ways: in D’un soir triste, the tempo is slow and the mood elegiac, while the same melodic/rhythmic fragment receives a cheerful, puckish treatment in D’un matin printemps. Given the timing of its composition, D’un soir triste is both Boulanger’s de facto musical obituary, and an elegy for the soldiers lost in WWI, while D’un matin printemps sparkles with effervescence and youthful joy.

Image: Berthe Morisot, Boating on the Lake, 1892.

At a Glance
  • Composer: born August 21, 1893, Paris; died March 15, 1918, Mézy-sur-Seine
  • Work(s) composed: 1917-18. Boulanger made arrangements in multiple versions: for violin and piano, string trio, and full orchestra
  • World premiere: undocumented
  • Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, bass drum, castanets, cymbals, tambourine, tam-tam, timbales, triangle, celeste, harp, and strings
  • Estimated duration: 5 minutes
Headshot Image for Lili Boulanger

Lili Boulanger

(1893–1918)

Claude Debussy
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to “The Afternoon of a Faun”)

When Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was first performed in Paris in December 1894, it sent musical shock waves around the world. Some 50 years after its premiere, conductor/composer Pierre Boulez wrote, “The flute of the Faun brought new breath to the art of music; what was overthrown was not so much the art of development as the very concept of form itself.”

Claude Debussy’s revolutionary music is based on Symbolist writer Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem, Afternoon of a Faun, published in 1876. Both poem and music unfold without clear narrative; the kaleidoscopic nature of the text and music creates a succession of shifting moods and impressions, rather than a straightforward, linear tale. In Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and much of Debussy’s other music from this period, color and texture are the essential structural components of the music. When Mallarmé heard Faune for the first time, he exclaimed, “I was not expecting anything of this kind! This music prolongs the emotion of my poem, and sets the scene more vividly than color.”

The compositional style Debussy employed in Faune came to be known as Impressionism, after the style of the Impressionist painters. Essentially French in its conception, Impressionistic music was a direct challenge to the Germanic tradition, which emphasized formal structure and movement generated by harmonic progression.

Henri-Edmond Cross’ neo-impressionist painting, Faune, 1905–1906.

In the poem, Mallarmé’s faun whiles away the languid torpor of a summer afternoon in half-conscious reverie. His thoughts circle around the memory of two nymphs; did he seduce them, or only dream it? He also ponders the alluring power of music. Unlike Mallarmé’s lengthy, ruminative text, however, Debussy’s music is concise. At 10 minutes, it effectively distills and transforms Mallarmé’s dreamy imagery into subtle shadings of color and texture.

Debussy explained that the music connected “the successive scenes in which the longings and desires of the faun pass in the heat of the afternoon.” The closest Debussy comes to a direct depiction of Mallarmé’s images is the opening solo flute, a stand-in for the faun’s panpipes. Eighteen years after its premiere, Faune inspired dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, who danced the title role in his iconic 1912 ballet, The Afternoon of the Faun, with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

At the premiere, the audience reacted with such overwhelming enthusiasm that conductor Gustave Doret was forced to perform an encore. Unlike the audience, critics were slower to acknowledge the importance of Debussy’s innovations. “[The Afternoon of a Faun] has a pretty sound, but there is not the least truly musical idea in it; it is no more a piece of music than the palette on which a painter has been working is a picture,” scoffed the musically conservative Camille Saint-Saëns. In this instance, as in other revolutionary musical breakthroughs, the audiences’ intuitive embrace of Debussy’s radical sound proved prescient. From its premiere over 115 years ago to today, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune remains Debussy’s most popular and best-known orchestral work.

Image: Henri-Edmond Cross, Faune, 1905–1906.

At a Glance
  • Composer: born August 22, 1862, St. Germain-en-Laye, France; died March 25, 1918, Paris
  • Work composed: 1891-94
  • World premiere: Gustave Doret conducted the premiere at the Société Nationale de Musique in Paris on December 23, 1894
  • Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, antique cymbals, 2 harps, and strings
  • Estimated duration: 10 minutes
Headshot Image for Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy

(1862–1918)

Maurice Ravel
Piano Concerto in G major

“[The Concerto in G major] is a concerto in the truest sense of the word: I mean that it is written very much in the same spirit as those of Mozart and Saint-Saëns.” – Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel had an affinity for musical styles of bygone eras; this is reflected in several works, like his 1917 suite Le tombeau de Couperin, inspired by the music of French Baroque composer François Couperin. For the Piano Concerto in G major, however, Ravel sought to capture in his own music something more indefinable: the “absolute beauty” Ravel found in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s music. “What Mozart created for the enjoyment of the ear is perfect,” said Ravel. “I believe that a concerto can be light-hearted and brilliant and that there is no necessity for it to aim at profundity or big dramatic effects.”

Listeners might conclude from this remark that Ravel’s G major concerto is a superficial product, but it delivers in every sense, despite its author’s claims to the contrary. As biographer Madeleine Goss notes, “In none of his compositions is Ravel more completely master of his art than in this Concerto. It has been said to embrace all the essentials of his music: brilliance, clarity, elegance, originality; tenderness and simplicity in the middle part, and, in the last movement, daring vigor and brittle perfection.”

In 1928, after Ravel’s successful travels in America, he decided to write a concerto he could take on an upcoming European tour. Ravel intended to perform the solo part himself, but soon realized his failing health would keep him off the piano bench. “The concerto is nearly finished and I am not far from being so myself,” Ravel acknowledged. To perform the solo part, Ravel recruited his friend, Marguerite Long, who thrilled at the opportunity to premiere Ravel’s concerto.

The Allegramente begins with a slapstick snap and a jaunty piccolo, followed by an equally bright, bouncy trumpet. Although present in the background from the opening bars, the piano makes its first solo declaration with a languid, bluesy melody. Throughout the first movement, Ravel alternates these rapid-fire bursts of energy with rhapsodic, jazz-inflected episodes.

The exquisite serenity of the Adagio assai belies the tremendous effort it required from both composer and pianist. Long wrote, “I told Ravel one day how anxious I was, after all the fantasy and brilliant orchestration of the first part, to be able to maintain the cantabile of the melody on the piano alone during such a long slow flowing phrase …‘That flowing phrase!’ Ravel responded. ‘How I worked over it bar by bar! It nearly killed me!’”

A snappy snare drum roll announces the Presto, a return to the jazzy energy of the Allegramente. At just under four minutes, the soloist drives the music forward with a modo perpetuo full of vivacious power, and the music’s effect on the ear is as crisp and effervescent as a sip of dry champagne.

Image: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Woman at the Piano, 1875–76.

At a Glance
  • Composer: born March 7, 1875, Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, France; died December 28, 1937, Paris
  • Work composed: 1929-31
  • World premiere: Ravel conducted the Lamoureux Orchestra at the Salon Pleyel in Paris on January 14, 1932, with pianist Marguerite Long
  • Instrumentation: solo piano, piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, trombone, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, slapstick, snare drum, triangle, wood block, harp, and strings
  • Estimated duration: 21 minutes
Headshot Image for Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel

(1875–1937)

Claude Debussy
La mer (The Sea)

“You’re unaware, maybe, that I was intended for the noble career of a sailor and have only deviated from that path thanks to the quirks of fate. Even so, I’ve retained a sincere devotion to the sea,” wrote Claude Debussy to a friend in 1903, as he began work on La mer. Debussy’s connection to the ocean began in his childhood when he made several extended visits to Cannes. Interestingly, when he commenced the writing of La mer, the sea’s allure worked so powerfully on Debussy that he took himself off to the mountains near Burgundy, safe from ocean’s siren call. “I have innumerable memories,” Debussy continued in his letter, “and those, in my view, are worth more than a reality which, charming as it may be, tends to weigh too heavily on the imagination.”

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa

Debussy’s publisher, Jacques Durand, when describing Debussy’s study, recalled, “I … remember a certain colored engraving by Hokusai [a renowned Japanese artist; Durand is referring to Hokusai’s famous woodblock print, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa], representing the curl of a giant wave. Debussy was particularly enamored of this wave. It inspired him while he was composing La mer, and he asked us to reproduce it on the cover of the printed score.”

“From dawn to noon on the sea” reveals the effects of sunrise over the ocean. Despite the linear quality suggested in the title, Debussy’s interest was in evoking the changes of light as the sun grows stronger, rather than a depiction of time passing. In “Play of the waves,” we see/hear the ocean in different guises: calm and glassy, with sunlight shimmering on its surface; and a sudden, mercurial shift to turbulence, as whitecaps churn the water. The “Dialogue of the wind and the sea” illuminates the two natural forces of wind and water and how they interact; the movement ends with a burst of sunlight. Debussy’s penchant for Asian pentatonic (five-note) scales, rather than the conventional Western scales of European music of the time, provides an additional layer of “otherness” to the sound world he created.

Although considered a standard of the orchestral repertoire today, La mer received decidedly mixed reactions at its 1905 premiere. The negative reaction of the audience, however, had little to do with the music; rather; they hissed and booed Debussy in outrage over his scandalous private life, which had resulted in the very public suicide attempt of his wife. Camille Chevillard, who conducted the premiere, was also responsible for its poor reception. Although praised by many, including Debussy, for his abilities with established works, such as the music of Beethoven, Chevillard had little interest in or aptitude for new music. (During rehearsal for La mer, according to Simon Tresize, “Debussy complained of [Chevillard’s] lack of artistry and suggested he should have been ‘a wild beast tamer.’”) To make matters worse, bad weather on the day of the premiere kept many concertgoers away.

Critical reception also varied; La mer’s rich sonorities captivated some, while others were baffled by its lack of traditional form. Debussy subtitled the work “Three Symphonic Sketches,” but they are clearly finished movements, each with its own character. One critic wrote, “For the first time in listening to a descriptive work of Debussy’s I have the impression of beholding not nature, but a reproduction of nature, marvelously subtle, ingenious and skillful, no doubt, but a reproduction for all that … I neither hear, nor see, nor feel the sea.” In contrast, an admirer wrote, “Never was music so fresh, spontaneous, unexpected, novel rhythms; never were harmonies richer or more original; never has an orchestra possessed more voices and sonorities with which to interpret compositions overflowing with such a wealth of fantasy.”

Image: Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, c. 1829–1833.

At a Glance
  • Composer: born August 22, 1862, St. Germain-en-Laye, near Paris; died March 25, 1918, Paris
  • Work composed: 1903-05; Debussy wrote the date he completed La mer on the manuscript, “Sunday, March 5, 1905, at 6 o’clock in the evening.”  He also arranged La mer for piano four-hands in 1905 and later revised the orchestral version in 1909. Debussy originally dedicated La mer to his lover, Emma Bardac, “For la petite mienne (small mine), whose eyes laugh in the shade.” The scandal surrounding Debussy’s private life, and his desire to shield both himself and Emma from public scrutiny, may explain why he ultimately chose to dedicate the score to his publisher, Jacques Durand.
  • World premiere: La mer was first performed in Paris on October 15, 1905, with Camille Chevillard conducting the Concerts Lamoureux
  • Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 cornets, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, orchestra bells, tam-tam, triangle, 2 harps, and strings.
  • Estimated duration: 23 minutes

Maurice Ravel
Boléro

From the snare drum’s opening pulses, even before its infamous melody begins, we instantly recognize Boléro. It has entered modern pop culture through various media: the 1979 film 10, numerous television commercials, and figure skating, via the gold medal-winning performance by ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics.

Maurice Ravel himself would not have been surprised by Boléro’s popularity outside the concert hall; while he worked on it, he commented, “The piece I am working on will be so popular, even fruit peddlers will whistle it in the street.” This is an interesting contrast to Ravel’s initial fear that orchestras would never program Boléro because of its “musico-sexual” elements.

Boléro was originally a ballet commission from Ida Rubenstein, formerly of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska, sister of Vaslav Nijinsky, Boléro featured a Gypsy woman dancing on a table in a Spanish tavern, who gradually works her audience into a sexual frenzy.

Ravel’s melody, which he described as having “an insistent quality,” is sinuous, while the snare drum lays down a repeating “come hither” rhythm underneath it. The ballet was successful, but Boléro’s lasting fame came in the concert hall, most notably in a controversial performance conducted by Arturo Toscanini in 1930. Not all were seduced by it, however. One critic described Boléro as “… the most insolent monstrosity ever perpetrated in the history of music … it is simply the incredible repetition of a single rhythm … and above it is the blatant recurrence of an overwhelmingly vulgar cabaret tune.” In response, Ravel wrote a letter in 1931 to the London Daily Telegraph: “It [Boléro] is an experiment in a very special and limited direction, and it should not be suspected of aiming at achieving anything different from, or anything more than, it actually does achieve. Before the first performance, I issued a warning to the effect that what I had written was a piece … consisting wholly of orchestral texture without music – of one long, very gradual crescendo … I have done exactly what I have set out to do, and it is for listeners to take it or leave it.”

In 2012, the science podcast Radiolab presented an episode titled “Unraveling Bolero,” which posits an intriguing idea: Ravel might have been experiencing early symptoms of frontotemporal dementia, a degenerative brain disease involving the frontal lobe of the brain, when he composed Boléro. One aspect of this disease manifests as an obsessive need for repetition; this would explain the total lack of development of both the melody and rhythm of the music. Six years after he wrote Boléro, Ravel began to forget words and lose short-term memory. By 1935, two years before his death, he could no longer write or speak.

Image: Anne Adams, Unraveling Bolero, c. 1994.

At a Glance
  • Composer: born March 7, 1875, Ciboure, France; died December 28, 1937, Paris
  • Work composed: 1928
  • World premiere: Originally written as a ballet for Ida Rubenstein, which premiered November 22, 1928, at the Paris Opèra, conducted by Walter Straram. Ravel first presented Boléro as a concert work with the Lamoreux Orchestra in Paris on January 11, 1930
  • Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, oboe d’amore, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, snare drum, tam-tam, celesta, harp and strings.
  • Estimated duration: 14 minutes

© 2019 Elizabeth Schwartz

These program notes are published here by the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra for its patrons and other interested readers. Any other use is forbidden without specific permission from the author, who may be contacted at www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com.