Les Biches Suite
Born in Paris, January 7, 1899; died in Paris, January 30, 1963
Francis Poulenc had the good fortune to be born into a wealthy, cultured family and success came very quickly for him. His father was the manager of the large Rhône-Poulenc textile firm, while his mother was a very gifted amateur pianist, who taught her son to adore music, art, literature and the theater.
Since his father wanted him to have a solid classical education, Poulenc did not study at the Paris Conservatoire, as did most French musicians, but this hardly impeded his career. In his late teens, he emerged as one of Les Six: a trendy group of young composers who thumbed their noses at the classical establishment and happily borrowed from popular styles. Poulenc’s guru at the beginning of his career was the eccentric composer-aesthete Erik Satie, to whom he dedicated his first successful piece, Rapsodie nègre, written in 1917 when he was only 18 and inspired by his recent attendance at the premiere of Satie’s Parade.
Rapsodie nègre brought Poulenc’s name to the attention of both Sergei Diaghilev and Stravinsky, and after he had finished his military service, Diaghilev approached the young tyro for a ballet score for the Ballets Russes; the Russian impresario’s idea was for a plotless, modern-day version of the famous 19th-century ballet Les Sylphides. Poulenc saw it as “a sort of contemporary version of the Fêtes galantes [Watteau’s famous series of 18th-century romantic paintings] in which … anything one wishes may be seen or imagined.”
The result was Les Biches (“The Does”), with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska (sister of the legendary Nijinsky), which received its premiere on January 6, 1924 in Monte Carlo. Poulenc’s first work for full orchestra, it was a highly fashionable score—deliciously tuneful and light-on-its-feet both instrumentally and rhythmically—and it was an immediate hit. The scenario was minimal: three handsome young men, dressed as rowers, cavort in a large white drawing room — whose only furniture is an enormous, baby-blue couch—with sixteen beautiful young women (the “does”). The play between the various groupings seems innocent on the surface, but is also highly sensual and suggestive.
The music complemented this premise perfectly. Poulenc described himself accurately as “wildly eclectic,” and he happily steals like a magpie here from many sources: Tchaikovsky, Mozart, popular styles of the 1920s, Satie, and especially Stravinsky. Poulenc admitted that Stravinsky’s Pulcinella (which we’ll hear later in the “BSO Under the Big Top” series) was an important influence, and, indeed, both scores use a similarly bright, primary-color orchestra, though Poulenc’s is much larger than Stravinsky’s chamber ensemble. Moreover, Les Biches shares Pulcinella’s neo-classical orientation: music that evokes the 18th century, but with a witty, ironic contemporary gloss.
The ballet score contained nine numbers or dances. In 1939-40, Poulenc extracted five of the numbers and made them into the concert suite we’ll hear; he also polished up the orchestration considerably. Most striking of the Suite’s movement are the “Adagietto”—a beguiling mixture of languid sensuality and music-hall fun—and the “Rag-Mazurka,” which doesn’t really follow either of those dance styles. Instead, it contrasts a speedy, whirling tarantella in three beats with a strongly rhythmic dance in two beats and a light, slightly caustic cabaret style.
The Miraculous Mandarin Suite
Born in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary, March 25, 1881; died in New York City, September 26, 1945
Few people today would know one of Bartók's greatest scores, the pantomime-ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, if the composer had not abridged it in 1927 as a concert suite. So lurid was the ballet's scenario (by the Hungarian dramatist Menyhért Lengyel) that it caused a scandal at its premiere in Cologne on November 27, 1926 and was immediately withdrawn. But in the concert hall this vivid score—with its graphic dramatic power, rhythmic drive and virtuoso orchestral effects—has achieved the celebrity it deserves.
The music's intensity reflected this sensitive genius's response to a world turned upside-down. As the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed at the close of World War I, Hungary was thrown into political chaos, with a communist insurgency followed by right-wing reaction. Moreover, while drafting this music Bartók nearly died in the influenza pandemic. Mandarin was written in piano score between 1918 and 1919. Not optimistic that it could be staged, Bartók then laid it aside, returning only in 1924 to complete the orchestral score when a performance opportunity loomed.
Here is a summary of the plot in Bartók's own words. “Three apaches [thugs] force a beautiful girl to lure men into their den so they can rob them. The first is a poor youth; the second is no better off; the third, however, is a wealthy Chinese. He is a good catch, and the girl entertains him by dancing. The mandarin's desire is aroused, he is inflamed with passion, but the girl shrinks from him in horror. The apaches attack him, rob him, smother him in a quilt, stab him with a sword—but their violence is of no avail. They cannot cope with the mandarin, who continues to look at the girl with love and longing in his eyes. Finally, feminine instinct helps, and the girl satisfies the mandarin's desire; only then does he collapse and die.”
The Suite contains the ballet's music only to the midpoint of the story, ending before the thugs attempt to murder the mandarin. It opens with a scene of urban cacophony: winds impersonating honking car horns over whirling, clashing ostinato patterns. This is the corrupt, dehumanized world of the thugs, where the individual counts for nothing. Three times the thugs send the girl to the window to lure potential victims; her seductive movements are described by a sinuous clarinet. These dances are interrupted twice by responding customers. First, an old man hobbles up (violins clattering with the wood of their bows); his ardor is voiced by the English horn. The second customer is a shy youth (solo oboe); he attracts the girl and they dance together, first hesitantly, then passionately. Finally, the mandarin appears; his mystery and otherworldliness is expressed by eerie glissandos in strings and woodwinds and an exotic pentatonic tune in trombones. Though frightened, the girl begins a seductive dance for him (opening slowly with ripples of celesta and piccolo). The mandarin responds with frenzied passion, and the Suite ends in a wild chase as he attempts to embrace her.
Born in Honfleur, Normandy, France, May 17, 1866, died in Paris, July 1, 1925
Erik Satie was one of the great originals in classical music. Igor Stravinsky called him the oddest man he’d ever known, and indeed, Satie’s eccentricities were remarkable even for the radical French artistic circles of the early 20th century: the painters, poets and composers who were regulars at the Café Chat Noir (Black Cat) in Montmartre. He wore the same grey velvet suit every day (he owned 16 identical sets). For nearly 30 years, he lived in an obscure suburb of Paris in a spartan room furnished only with a chair, a table and a hammock, heated beneath in winter by a row of bottles filled with hot water.
Satie entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1879, but won no gold medals; in fact, he was eventually dismissed from his classes for failing to meet standards in harmony and piano. Nevertheless, by 1888, he wrote his most famous pieces, the three Gymnopédies for piano (later orchestrated by his close friend Debussy): hauntingly lovely and chastely elegant pieces that show the ultra-refined side of his aesthetic sensibility. But during the first decade of the 1900s, he was forced to earn his living as a café pianist while mainly creating songs for the popular music hall and incidental music for theatrical productions. These two influences—extreme refinement and a penchant for wittily vulgar music of the street—combined brilliantly in Parade, the scandalous ballet that made him instantly famous.
A rugged individualist who opposed the established musical styles of his day, including impressionism, Satie was appalled when a group of young renegade composers, Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud among them, began to form around him. “THERE IS NO SCHOOL OF SATIE,” he thundered. “Satieism could never exist. I would oppose it. There must be no slavery in art.” And posthumously, he became a model and inspiration to the mid-century avant garde, especially to that arch-iconoclast John Cage.
Parade was yet another creation for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and it brought together a remarkable ensemble of talents: Satie for the music, the poet and provocateur Jean Cocteau for the scenario, Pablo Picasso (in his theatrical debut) for the set and costumes, and Léonide Massine for the choreography. Its title is best translated from the French as “Show,” and it also bore the subtitle “A Realistic Ballet in One Scene.” Cocteau referred to it as a “Cubist ballet,” for it was inspired by the principles of Cubist painting, then at its zenith under Picasso. It was a “succcès de scandale” at its premiere on May 18, 1917 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris—causing almost as much of an uproar as had The Rite of Spring four years earlier.
Writes Satie biographer Alan M. Gillmor: “Parade is a ballet of the Paris streets, incorporating in a kind of Cubist collage the music hall, ragtime, themes from American cinema, the circus and variegated sound effects ranging from a steamboat whistle and sirens to pistol shots and a typewriter.” The plot is very simple. The scene is a circus midway; outside the tent, three managers try to entice onlookers to buy tickets to their attraction with come-ons of three of the acts: the Chinese Conjuror, the intrepid “Little American Girl” (patterned after contemporary movie heroines such as Mary Pickford) and the Acrobats. But their increasingly frantic pitch (which musically includes a chaotic reprise of the themes of the three attractions in quick cuts) doesn’t work, and the crowd merely watches the advertisement and refuses to buy tickets. The whole effort ends in failure: to use today’s lingo, the crowd is more interested in the promotional sizzle than the steak itself.
Parade has become famous for its hyperactive percussion section and the crazy array of sound effects they produce. But actually, these were mostly Cocteau’s idea and not Satie’s, who disliked them intensely and managed to eliminate most of them from the premiere performance. They shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow the subtle beauties of Satie’s score, such as the pensive fugue that accompanies the raising of “Le Rideau rouge” (revealing Picasso’s immense, red painted backdrop), the mesmerizing blend of exoticism and cabaret comedy for the Conjuror, the whimsical circus waltz for the Acrobats, and the frenzied rhythmic and harmonic chaos of the managers’ last sales pitch. Said Cocteau, “Our wish is that the public may consider Parade as a work which conceals poetry beneath the coarse outer skin of slapstick.” Thanks to Satie, there is plenty of poetry in Parade, as well as a hint of the tragic sadness of the circus clown.
Billy the Kid Suite
Born in Brooklyn, New York, November 14, 1900; died in North Tarrytown, New York, December 2, 1990
A century after his birth and two decades after his death, Aaron Copland remains the most popular of American classical composers. Uncannily, he managed to create music that seems more quintessentially American than that of any of his peers. As he once said, he saw his mission as expressing “the deepest reactions of the American consciousness to the American scene.”
Copland's 1938 ballet Billy the Kid became one of his most enduring hits and crystallized the “Wild West” orchestral idiom to this day. When dance impresario Lincoln Kirstein asked Copland to compose a cowboy ballet for his Ballet Caravan, Copland remembered: “I was wary of tackling a cowboy theme… When I suggested that, as a composer born in Brooklyn, I knew nothing about the Wild West, Lincoln informed me that [the] scenario for Billy the Kid was based on the real life story of William Bonney, a notorious cowboy who had been born in New York!” Kirstein gave Copland some volumes of cowboy songs, and the composer headed off to Paris—of all places!—to absorb and recreate the cowboy spirit.
The ballet's scenario tells Billy's story from his arrival at age 12 with his mother in a frontier town, her accidental death in a street celebration gone bad, his stabbing of her killers in revenge and then his later outlaw career, his capture and escape and finally his death on the prairie, hunted down by Sheriff Pat Garrett.
In 1939, Copland compressed the ballet score into a suite of six continuous sections, which he described simply and vividly:
“An introductory prelude, ‘The Open Prairie,’ presents a pastoral theme harmonized in open fifths that gives the impression of space and isolation. The second section, ‘Street in a Frontier Town,’ is lively and full of action; for western flavor I used quotations from ‘Great Grand-Dad,’ ‘The Old Chisholm Trail,’ and ‘Git Along Little Dogies’ (but not in traditional harmonies and rhythms), a Mexican dance featuring a theme in 5/8 [time] and ‘Goodbye, Old Paint’ introduced by an unusual 7/8 rhythm. The third [slow and quiet] section, ‘Card Game at Night,’ has a sinister sound … and segments of ‘Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.’ ‘Gun Battle,’ the fourth movement, makes generous use of percussion … rhythmic action instead of simulated gunfire … The fifth, ‘Celebration After Billy's Capture,’ depicts the townspeople rejoicing in the saloon, where an out-of-tune player piano sets the scene. ‘Billy's Demise,’ the final section of the Suite, makes use of material from the introduction, but with different coloration to convey the idea of a new dawn breaking over the prairie.”
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2010
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