Tonight’s program features music by Gabriel Fauré, his student Maurice Ravel, and the Belgian virtuoso violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, one of the masters of what is known as the Franco-Belgian school of violin playing. Their lives intersected at various times in the vibrant musical life of Paris.
Gabriel Fauré was born in 1845 in Pamiers, Ariege. His father, Toussaint-Honore, was from minor nobility. In 1849 the family moved to Montgauzy where his father became director of a Normal School. Young Gabriel spent hours playing the harmonium in the school chapel. When he was eight years old, a visiting archivist heard him play and encouraged his father to enroll him in the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse in Paris. After deciding that this training would both foster his son’s natural talent and prepare him for a job as organist and choirmaster, Toussaint-Honore enrolled his son in the school in October 1854.
Fauré spent the next eleven years at the school. Most of the instruction was geared toward church music. His studies included plainsong, Renaissance polyphony, harmony, counterpoint and fugue, composition, and the piano. In 1861 Camille Saint-Saens took over the piano class and, eventually, the composition class at the school. Saint-Saens went off-syllabus and introduced his students to the contemporary works of Liszt, Schumann, and Wagner.
After graduating in 1865, Fauré held a number of organist positions in different places before moving to Paris in 1870. He also served in the infantry for 6 months during the Franco-Prussian War. In 1871 he became a regular at Saint-Saens’ salon gatherings which evolved into the National Music Society, an organization devoted to the performance of music by young composers. Fauré was to remark years later that…“before 1870 I would not have dreamt of composing a sonata or a quartet. At that time a young musician had no chance of getting such works performed. It was only after Saint-Saens had founded the National Music Society in 1871 ..that I set to work.”
The Piano Quartet in c minor, opus 15 was begun in 1876 and completed in 1879. Fauré himself performed the piano part in the premier at the National Music Society in 1880. Based on reactions he got from his friends, he chose to revise the Finale. The version we now play was completed in 1883.
The piece begins with a modal melody for unison strings which reappears throughout the movement. The development section builds to a climactic section of ascending scales before returning to the original themes and ending with a gentle coda. The second movement, a scherzo, flips back and forth between scurrying piano passages accompanied by pizzicato strings and long melodic gestures. The trio section pairs a rich chordal melody in the strings with cascading piano writing. The texture reverses with the violin providing the perpetual motion fleeting accompaniment to the melody now played in the piano. This trio section returns seamlessly to the original scherzo.
The third movement Adagio is the centerpiece of the work. It is built in a large A-B-A form. The first section begins with a six note ascending scale gesture and closes with another gesture spanning six notes which falls, rises, and drips back down. The middle section uses long singing lines presented in unified harmonic sweeps and in canon. When the original material returns, it is now accompanied by optimistic rolling arpeggios in the piano.
The Finale seems to recall material from all of the other movements. There are fragmentary ascending motifs, tight driving dotted rhythms, and delicate scales and arpeggios in the piano writing underneath rich string melodies. The work ends with a brilliant coda racing headlong to the end.
Eugène Ysaÿe was born in Liege, Belgium in 1858. His father was a violinist and conductor and started teaching Eugene the violin when he was just four years old. He entered the Liege conservatory at age seven and did very well before leaving the school in 1869 because he was not making enough progress. The reason for this lack of growth was probably because he was already (at age eleven!) working in two orchestras to raise money to support his cash-strapped family. He was eventually readmitted to the conservatory in another violin studio and thrived, winning a scholarship to the Brussels Conservatory in 1873.
He studied with Henryk Wieniawski for two years in Brussels before moving to Paris to continue his studies with Henri Vieuxtemps. By 1879 he was appointed the concertmaster of the Bilse Orchestra in Berlin (soon to be renamed the Berlin Philharmonic). He began touring Scandinavia and Russia with Anton Rubinstein in 1882. Ysaÿe was already an idol to a generation of violinists for his exquisite playing.
By 1883 Ysaÿe was back in Paris and forming close relationships with Saint-Saens, Fauré, Chausson, Franck, and Debussy. He was a great champion of these composers’ music and was rewarded by having many significant violin and chamber works dedicated to him.
In 1886 he returned to Brussels where he began teaching at the Conservatory and founded the Concerts Ysaÿe, an orchestra devoted to promoting the contemporary French and Belgian music. He both conducted and played the violin in these concerts. His international fame was growing steadily. In 1894 he made the first of what would be eight American tours. He held the position of conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony for 1918-22.
The Sonata for 2 violins of 1915 was written while Ysaÿe was living in England having fled there in 1914 just ahead of the invading German army. The piece was dedicated to his dear friend and student, Queen Elizabeth of Belgium. It is an amazing example of tour-de-force violin writing. The use of double stops and rolling chords often creates the impression of much larger forces. It is a stormy, romantic, musical ride from the first stark four note unison figure that dramatically begins the piece to the firecracker double stop scale flourishes that end it.
Maurice Ravel was born in 1875 in Ciboure, France near the Spanish border. His father was an engineer, inventor, and manufacturer. His mother had grown up in Madrid and her Basque-Spanish heritage would later have a strong influence his music.
The family moved to Paris when Maurice was an infant. It seems he did not receive any formal schooling when he was young and was taught by his father. At age seven he started piano lessons. At age twelve he started studying harmony and counterpoint. In 1889 he entered the Paris Conservatory. He initially did well but was not a stand out. In 1895 he was expelled for not advancing. Two years later he was readmitted to Gabriel Fauré’s class. Fauré greatly valued Ravel’s talent and effectively guided him as he developed his very individual musical voice.
Ravel was at the center of a political firestorm in 1905 when he was eliminated from the prestigious Prix de Rome composition competition in the first round. The French press took up the cause and eventually the director of the Paris Conservatory, Theodore Dubois, was forced to retire. Fauré was appointed by the French Government to completely reform the way the Conservatory operated.
Ravel made several attempts to enlist in the French army when the Germans invaded France in 1914. In 1915 at age forty, he was finally assigned as a truck driver. Some of his duties entailed making munitions supply runs under enemy fire. He suffered various ailments including frost-bite in the course of his service.
La Valse was written immediately following the war. The piece was requested by the ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev. As early as 1906 Ravel had made sketches for a waltz to celebrate the music of Johann Strauss. Now, after the horrors of the War, the waltz he ultimately created became an ironic and bitter dance whirling out of control. When Ravel played the work for Diaghilev, he rejected it saying that the work was a masterpiece but only a “portrait of a ballet”, not a real ballet. The two never collaborated again.
Ravel went ahead and published the orchestral score as well as his arrangements for solo piano and piano duet. He described the piece as a ‘poème chorégraphique’ and included this preface in all versions:
“Swirling clouds afford glimpses, through rifts, of waltzing couples. The clouds scatter little by little; one can distinguish an immense hall with a whirling crowd.
The scene grows progressively brighter. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo.
An imperial court, about 1855.”