The Music

Notes on music at “Outré”

Posted by SoundBox

March 25, 2016

REBEL  Chaos, Tambourin I & II, Caprice from Les élémens
PÉROTIN  Sederunt principes (The Princes Sat)
MESSIAEN  Couleurs de la cité céleste (Colors of the Celestial City)
RAVEL  Pièce en forme de Habanera
SAINT-SAËNS  Molto allegro from Oboe Sonata in D Major, Opus 166
MILHAUD  Concerto for Percussion and Small Orchestra, Opus 109
MILHAUD  Excerpt from Scaramouche



REBEL  Chaos, Tambourin I & II, Caprice from Les élémens  1737   |  14 mins

The avant-garde becomes de riguer in this evening of provocative French music. Jean-Féry Rebel’s Les élémens, a work about Creation, launches us literally in to chaos. Listen for the banging of tone clusters—groups of notes in close harmony that are played simultaneously—sounds rarely, if ever, heard in the 1700s, when this piece was written. Rebel wrote, "The introduction to this Symphony was natural; it was Chaos itself, this confusion which reigned between the Elements before the instant when, subject to invariable laws, they took their prescribed place in the order of nature. I dared to combine the confusion of the Elements with harmonic confusion. I tried to make heard all the sounds mingled together, or rather all the notes of the octave together in one chord.” The score further elucidates the organic nature of the music: The four core elements are represented through various musical figures, with the bass representing Earth; the flutes, by lines that move up and down, imitating the murmur of running Water; Air depicted by long held notes followed by trills on the small flutes; finally the violins, by means lively and brilliant, representing the activity of Fire. The other pieces in Les élémens, which were composed a few months before Chaos, use some of the same devices, with the violin/oboe part in Tambourin I depicting Water.

As we listen with twenty-first century ears, we might consider the tone clusters and harmonic activity as thoroughly modern. Bear in mind that the composer sought not to change the course of music, but rather he was attempting to depict in precise terms utter chaos. If Rebel were to hear the remarkable similarities between modern works and this eighteenth-century masterpiece, he may well have laughed.


PÉROTIN  Sederunt principes (The Princes Sat)  1199  |  12 mins

We’re used to seeing guesswork dates for artists from the early Renaissance, but go back to Pérotin and we’re not even sure of his nationality and origin. This was the height of the Gothic era in medieval Europe, when the ubiquitous “Anonymous” was just beginning to assume an individual identity here and there. The best-guess consensus is that the composer and chorus master we know by the name of Pérotin was French and flourished around 1200 as a pioneering musician in the employ of the majestic Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, which was still in the process of construction at the time.

The significance of Pérotin is that he is credited with the authorship of some pieces that have been preserved in the medieval compilation of liturgical music titled Magnus Liber Organi (“The Great Book of Organum”). This collection represents one of the great turning points in Western music: the shift from the single, unaccompanied line (known as monophony) of the plainchant that had served its purpose for centuries to polyphony. With its plural voices unfolding simultaneously, polyphony opened the door to unimagined possibilities for filling musical space and for stimulating the intellect and emotions alike.

Sederunt principles (The Princes Sat) represents one of two organa quadrupla (polyphonic compositions with four voices) preserved in the Magnus Liber—the earliest such pieces in the history of Western music to have survived. If the scenario proposed by scholars is correct, Pérotin composed this imposing motet for a celebration of the Feast of Saint Stephen (celebrated December 26), the first Christian martyr, in 1199. It has been suggested that the occasion also marked the opening of a new wing of the cathedral that was then in progress. Sederunt principes would likely have been sung as a processional, echoing through the grand cathedral spaces.

The foundation is supplied by the tenor line, which makes the Latin etymology understandable: “tenor” is from tenere (“to hold”), and this line serves as the cantus firmus, or foundational structure, on top of which the other lines move with great intricacy. The line itself is an almost absurdly elongated version of a familiar Gregorian chant, but spaced out so that it almost imperceptibly shifts over time. Above this Pérotin has added three more lines: together they weave a web of much faster-changing harmonies and rhythmic patterns from the brief text (taken from Psalm 118). It’s no coincidence that, in terms of musical sociology, so to speak, it was around this time that singers began to professionalize and collect substantial fees for their art. Set against what had come before it, this music must have seemed avant-garde and overwhelmingly complex to its earliest performers and listeners.




DEBUSSY  Syrinx  1913  |  4 mins

Syrinx is the Greek name for the widespread folk instrument made of end-blown reeds, more commonly known as panpipes. Both names come from the Greek myth about the nymph Syrinx, who escaped the pursuit of the lecherous satyr Pan by turning herself into a bunch of reeds. Pan, hearing the sound of the wind blowing through the reeds, turned them into the instrument associated with him. Debussy seemed to identify with the lustful, half-man, half-goat deity he previously portrayed musically in the song La flûte de Pan and his famous Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

The short flute solo Syrinx was composed in 1913 to accompany a scene in Gabriel Mourey’s play Psyché, in which Pan dies. It became a flute repertory standard when Louis Fleury, the flutist who played the part in the original production, became enamored of the piece and performed it frequently in concert.


MESSIAEN  Couleurs de la cité céleste (Colors of the Celestial City)  1963  |  16 mins

Synesthesia is a neuropsychological phenomenon in which one type of sensory stimulus evokes the sensation of another. Concerning his particular brand of synesthesia, "chromatic audition" (the visual perception of colors when certain sounds are produced), Olivier Eugène Prosper Charles Messiaen explained, "When I hear music, and also when I read a score, I see internally, with the mind's eye, colors that move with the music." An important aspect of Messiaen’s compositional process—indeed, one central to Colors of the Celestial City—is his association of colors with different sonorities. Messiaen appeared to link distinct hues to aggregates of tone, and he went so far as to state, somewhat epigrammatically, that "the color violet and G major make an absolutely frightful dissonance!" But he also admitted that simple chords or single notes were less useful to his palette than his own complex and carefully wrought harmonic constructions.

In the preface to the score of Colors of the Celestial City, Messiaen explains the seminal role that his chromatic acuity plays in his conception of the work: “The form of this piece depends entirely on colors. The themes, melodic or rhythmic, the complexes of sounds and timbres, all evolve like colors. In their perpetually renewed variations, one can find by analogy warm and cold colors, complementary colors influencing their neighbors, colors shaded by white or toned down by black.” Messiaen labels certain slow-paced chorale or hymn-like sections with specific hues at various points throughout the score. Although we may not perceive these colorations, Messiaen included them “in order to communicate the vision to the conductor, who will, in turn, transmit this vision to the players he is conducting; it is essential, I would go so far as to say, that the brass ‘play red,’ that the woodwind ‘play blue,’ etc. . .."

The "celestial city" of the title is the Holy City of Saint John the Divine’s vision in the Book of Revelation; Colors of the Celestial City is correspondingly replete with apocalyptic imagery. Curiously, the eschatalogical tone of the work arose from a criterion of the commission. Heinrich Strobel had originally requested a work for three trombones and three xylophones. Messiaen had misgivings about composing for an ensemble of such restrictive specifications but agreed when it occurred to him that "trombones had an apocalyptic sonority." An initial idea had thus been established, and a subsequent search through the Book of Revelation yielded the following five citations, which serve to reinforce the symbolic intent of the work:

. . .and there was a rainbow round about the throne . . .. (Rev. IV, 3)
And the seven angels had seven trumpets . . .. (Rev. VIII, 6)
. . .and I saw a star fall from heaven: and to him was given the key of the abyss. (Rev. IX, 1)
. . .the light of the Holy City was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal. (Rev. XXI, 11)
And the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, a chalcedony; the fourth, an emerald; the fifth, sardonyx; the sixth, sardius; the seventh, chrysolite; the eight, beryl; the ninth, a topaz; the tenth, a chrysoprasus; the eleventh, a jacinth; the twelfth, an amethyst. (Rev. XXI, 1920)

In addition to the color-labeled chords that represent the brilliant precious stones of the Holy City's walls, Messiaen uses a variety of other characteristic materials—Gregorian chant, birdsong, and complex rhythmic formulae—to realize his conception.




RAVEL  Pièce en forme de Habanera  1907 |  3 mins

French composer Maurice Ravel was in a Spanish frame of mind in 1907. His friend Manuel de Falla, the great Spanish composer, noted that “Ravel’s was a Spain he had felt in an idealized way through his mother. She was a lady of exquisite conversation. She spoke fluent Spanish, which I enjoyed so much when she evoked the years of her youth, spent in Madrid. . . Then I understood with what fascination her son must have listened to these memories. . ..” Falla further said that “when [Ravel] wanted to characterize Spain musically, he showed a predilection for the habanera, the song most in vogue when his mother lived in Madrid. . . . That is why the rhythm, much to the surprise of the Spaniards, went on living in French music although Spain had forgotten it half a century ago.”

Ravel’s Vocalise-étude en forme de Habanera is a short work wrapped in sounds of pungent mystery. The composer marks the music presque lent et avec indolence (Almost slowly and with indolence), and the laziness comes built in to the languid phrasing, revealing a sense of ambivalence. A slow, insistent habanera rhythm provides the scaffolding upon which he unrolls his sinuous melody, putting the performer through a variety of technical demands that include trills, rapid scales, arpeggios, staccato, portamento, and nuances of articulation and dynamics.


SAINT-SAËNS  Molto allegro from Oboe Sonata in D Major, Opus 166  1921  |  3 mins

Saint-Saëns was “probably the most awesome child prodigy in the history of music.” At age 10, he concluded his debut piano recital by offering to play any of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas as an encore, from memory. He entered the Paris Conservatory at age 15, and at age 22 was appointed organist of La Madeleine, a post he held for 20 years. Liszt said that Saint-Saëns was the finest organist he had ever heard. Berlioz opined that “He knows everything but he lacks inexperience.” He did everything: piano, organ, composing, conducting and teaching. As a composer, he was prolific and versatile, writing symphonies, concertos, chamber works, operas, vocal music and solo works for piano and organ. Saint-Saëns’s long life spanned the transition from Romanticism to Modernism. A revolutionary in his early years, he seemed an archconservative as an elder. At age 85, he wrote to his former student Gabriel Fauré that, at his age, “it was one’s right to say no more – and probably one’s duty.” Then he changed his mind and, in the year that he died, wrote sonatas for clarinet, bassoon and oboe. It’s good that he changed his mind. These sonatas “remain faithful to his Romantic sentiments and even reach back to the Classical era for their basic structure and simple musical lines." Unlike the usual fast-slow-fast pattern, the tempos of this sonata increase successively. They give the performer “a gratifying match between technical challenges and melodic expression."


MILHAUD  Concerto for Percussion and Small Orchestra, Opus 109  1930  |  7 mins

Having heard a Darius Milhaud work that had been produced in Brussels, the Belgian timpanist Theo Coutelier asked the composer for a concerto for a single percussionist. According to the composer's account, Coutelier "wished to use this piece for his examinations [at his percussion class in Schaerbeeck near Brussels]. The idea seduced me, and this is how I came to this concerto. The school at Schaerbeeck had only a few orchestral musicians: two flutes, two clarinets, one trumpet, one trombone, and strings. The concerto consists of two linked parts. It is a work of dramatic character. Given that when I composed it (between 1929 and 1930 in Paris) jazz was enjoying a decisive influence on musical composition, I wanted at all costs to avoid the possibility that anyone might think it that kind of work . . . . "

When Milhaud began his career as a musician, about the best one hoped for in an orchestral percussion player was an ability to count rests and some discretion and tact in dynamics and tone, though there were occasional composers, Wagner notable among them, who entertained expectations of real artistry. The appearance in 1913 of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps changed all that: Percussionists now had to be virtuosos and artists, and in the twenties and thirties, important composers like Stravinsky, Milhaud, and Bartók began to create a significant repertory in which percussion carried a central part of the musical discourse.

One wonders, however, what M. Coutelier and his pupils made of Milhaud's concerto, for the technique required to play, for example, the timpani double stops at the beginning was not at all standard. To render accurately all the notes Milhaud has written, a player must often use two sticks in each hand, an idea virtually unheard of then.


MILHAUD  Excerpt from Scaramouche  1939  |  3 mins

Milhaud's Scaramouche takes its name not from the fictional character created by Rafael Sabatini, but from the Théâtre Scaramouche, headed by Henri Pascar. The Théâtre Scaramouche specialized in productions aimed at children; in May 1937 Milhaud contributed some music to Charles Vildrac's adaptation of Moliérè’s Le medécin volant (The Flying Doctor). That same summer Milhaud was under pressure to produce a number of works for the Paris International Exposition; among them was a request for a piano duo for Marguerite Long and Milhaud's old friend Marcelle Meyer. Milhaud recycled two of the cues from Le medécin volant to form the outer movements of the suite, and for the slower middle movement extracted a piece written for Jules Superville’s 1936 play Bolivar. The finished structure is as follows: 1. Vif, 2. Modéré, 3. Brazileira (Mouvement de Samba). Milhaud was quite facile at assembling pieces in this way, and was unnerved to note that the suite wasn't falling into place as easily as he'd hoped; Milhaud later remarked “it gave me enormous trouble.”

Nonetheless, Scaramouche was ready in time for Marcelle Meyer and Marguerite Long to play it at the Paris Exposition. To Milhaud's dismay, it attracted immediate attention, and the publisher Deiss approached Milhaud with hopes of securing the rights. Milhaud at first resisted, thinking it too slight to merit publication, but Deiss persisted, and Milhaud finally caved in. A 78rpm record of Meyer and Long playing Scaramouche was made and helped spread the word, and Meyer programmed the work at concerts given in Paris in 1943 during the German occupation.

As time went on, Scaramouche became something of a bête noire for Milhaud; it proved so popular over time that he found himself returning to it repeatedly in order to create new arrangements for publishers. The bright, tumbling opening to Vif pricks up the ears right from the start; it resembles an out-of-tune Parisian street piano. The Modéré is graceful and understated, with a gentle, falling motion reminiscent of much popular music. The Brazileira is like an outtake from Milhaud’s Saudades do Brasil of 1921, and is so close to that folk idiom that it could easily be mistaken for the “real” thing. Programmers of classical radio programs resort to the charms of the Scaramouche often; it grabs your attention, delivers the goods, and gets out the door—all in just a few minutes.


From notes by Ronald Gallman, Thomas May, and Jeanette Yu