A concert dedicated to Debussy to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth, and to two other important composers who would co-forge the alluring and typically French ‘sound’ of the early 20th century: Maurice Ravel and Gabriel Fauré.
(1862-1918) is one of the key composers in the emergence of modern music. The host of innovations which he gradually introduced into his compositions would radically undermine Classical and Romantic tonality, and included pentatonic and whole tone scales, as well as structural elements including early forms of montage using harmonically disparate musical material, and dynamics which seem to stem from non-musical references. His Little Suite, which was originally written for piano duet, is one of his most seductive and melodic works. His Danses sacrées et profanes also reveal the composer’s interest in musics beyond the classical canon: medieval chant, ancient Greek music and folk traditions.
(1875-1937) is another fundamental figure in early 20th-century European music. A member of Eric Satie’s circle in his youth, he was also clearly influenced both by Debussy, who was 13 years his senior, and by the Russian composers Mily Balakirev (in terms of his piano writing) and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (in terms of his orchestration). Ravel developed a European style which, though clearly less radical than Debussy’s, still broke new ground in its frequent use of modal melody, its lush, dense harmonies and its foregrounding of timbre. The Pavane pour une infante défunte, which was originally written for piano, is an example of Ravel’s masterly use of the orchestra and of his era’s interest in Spanish music (‘infanta’ means ‘princess’ in Spanish). Ravel served as an ambulance driver on the Thessaloniki front in 1917, and the experience fed into Le Tombeau de Couperin, a piece which is both a meditation on the French music of the 18th century and a lament for those last to the horror of the trenches in World War One.
(1845-1924), another great melodist, exerted an important positive influence on French musical life both through his compositions, which made some first steps towards combining tonal and modal writing, and through his contributions to the French music education system, in which he served in a number of key posts including director of the Conservatoire after 1905. He shared Ravel’s interest in old forms—we will be hearing his Pavane in this concert—as well as his ability to mould a fluidly elegant melodic idiom. Despite encroaching deafness after 1903, Fauré’s later works, like his String Quartet, his last composition, are outstandingly dense.