Thursday, July 30, 2020

A Perfect Antidote for the Dog Days of Summermusic: Piano Duets by Ravel and Poulenc

"This week’s dose of great music features Ravel’s enchanting Mother Goose Suite and Poulenc’s playful Sonata for Piano Four-hands, which were performed in Summermusic 2012 by Stuart Malina and Ya-Ting Chang. Composed in 1910 and 1918, respectively, these works reflect a momentous post-WW I cultural shift from opulence of the Belle Époque to rough-edged exuberance of modernism. Enjoy!" – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts.
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The perfect antidote to heat frustration, Dog Days or not: indoor, air-conditioned concerts with great music and great music-making! And with all the news this summer, perhaps a little innocence and playfulness might take our minds off the Real World while we sit and wait in our own homes.

Of course, a piano duet – two pianists at one piano sharing a bench (or at least, in the old days when a piano bench was long enough to accommodate them both) – is very difficult to pull off with social distancing unless, of course, you just split them up between two pianos. That, however, as you'll see from the very start of the Poulenc, eliminates a good part of the fun. And the whole point of piano duets originally was basically "social music-making."

There was a time when the "piano duet" or "piano four-hands" was one of the major forms of home entertainment, back in the days before TV and in-house sound systems (much less such outmoded technology like CDs and radio) provided all the entertainment a family needed at the time. Rather than sit around staring at each other waiting for television to be invented, people made their own music.

And composers like Franz Schubert cashed in on this vast "amateur audience" by providing them with all manner of pieces, whether serious or light-hearted in nature, original pieces or arrangements, technically challenging or suitable for beginners, whether music for social dancing or to show off marriageable daughters to prospective husbands. More people would've heard Beethoven Symphonies in four-hand arrangements played in somebody's living room than would ever have heard them at an orchestra concert.

figuring out the logistics...
Stuart Malina, conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony, and Ya-Ting Chang, member of the Mendelssohn Trio and executive director of Market Square Concerts, will be performing two piano duets in today's dose, originally recorded in July of 2012 – the saucy and often tongue-in-cheek if not always nose-thumbing Sonata that Francis Poulenc wrote in 1918, apparently full of post-war joie de vivre, one of his earliest works, preceded by a piece better known as an orchestral suite but originally written for piano duet, Maurice Ravel’s Ma mère l'oye, or “Mother Goose.”

Having played a fair bit of four-hand piano in my day, I can attest to the fact that pairs who “fight like cats and dogs” (especially over who controls the pedal or hissing under one's breath “keep your elbow out of my face!”) are not well-suited to the social camaraderie behind the nature of piano duets. So it is a delight to point out, whatever it says about someone's personality, Maurice Ravel was a Cat Person – and Francis Poulenc was a Dog Person. Now, there's something I would like to have seen: Ravel and Poulenc playing piano duets!

Here, meanwhile, is our piano duet team of Stuart Malina and Ya-Ting Chang playing Ravel and Poulenc at Market Square Concert's Summermusic 2012:

recorded July 20th, 2012, at Market Square Church by the church's audio technician, Newman Stare.
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Ravel's “Mother Goose” was written not only for children to listen to, as you might expect from a piece inspired by fairy tales, but in this case specifically for children to perform. Friends of Ravel's had two gifted children and so he composed five short “pictures” for them. Mimi Godebski was 6 and her brother Jean was 7 when he began working on the piece, adding to it over a couple of years and completing it in 1910.

Ravel never seemed to have lost touch with his inner child. He was fascinated by clock-work toys (his father was an inventor and toy-maker) – one famous story has him picking up a wind-up bird and holding it out to a friend of his, saying “Listen! You can hear its heart beating!” When he’d get bored at friends’ parties, he often would sit on the nursery floor and tell the children stories. You can imagine Cyprian and Ida Godebski suggesting he turn some of those stories into music for their children.

When the work was given its first public performance, it was played by other children – but both under the age of 10. Immediately, colleagues saw its choreographic potential, so by the time he was done with it, he had orchestrated it (adding a prelude and some interludes) for use as a ballet. It then became a regular visitor to concert halls around the world.

It opens with a dreamy, slow dance, the “Pavane for the Sleeping Beauty.”

The winding patterns in the second piece (at 1:43) recall the paths through the dark and eerie woods where Tom Thumb wandered. Not to be confused with the American circus star – in French, he's Petite Poucet (a.k.a. Hop o’my Thumb) – he's not the only child in fairy tales to get lost in the woods and leave bread-crumbs on the path to find his way back only to discover they’ve all been eaten by birds (appearing at 3:25).

The middle piece (at 4:38) is the exotic “Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas,” speaking of clock-work toys, full of pentatonic music bringing to mind the Far East. These pagodas come to life and dance for her. Musically, theorists talk a lot about Ravel’s use of “quartal harmonies” (chords built on fourths rather than thirds like traditional major and minor chords) but what he’s really doing is much simpler: you can get the same effect by just playing only the black keys of the piano! That’s the “sound” of the piece but the texture is more specifically inspired by the Javanese (or Balinese) Gamelan which Ravel may have heard in Paris – the first time one had performed there was in 1889 and it was an ear-opening experience for Claude Debussy. Listen to this clip of some authentic gamelan music.

This particular fairy tale, by the way, may not be familiar to American children brought up on Walt Disney. It’s based on a French tale that mixes a bit of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Beauty & the Beast” – cursed by an evil fairy who’d not been invited to the party celebrating the princess’ birth, the little girl is turned into the “ugliest girl in the world” and whisked off to a magic kingdom ruled by a Green Serpent. Eventually she falls in love with the serpent-king and discovers he is, in fact (naturally), a handsome prince and her own beauty is also restored. “Laideronette” may sound like an exotic name for a princess, but it really means “Ugly Little Girl” in French, for those of you who have any little princesses in your house who might be looking for an out-of-the-ordinary alter-ego…

The fourth piece (at 7:50) picks up on this Beauty & the Beast story more specifically: it’s a very genteel conversation between the two with Belle answered (at 8:48) by the Beast. As you would expect, he is transformed (at 10:25) with an upward glissando, his low rumbling theme now played in the piano’s upper register. (It’s easier to hear in the orchestral version where the Beast is played by the contrabassoon before he is transformed into a handsome violinist.)

The final piece (at 11:33) is not based on any specific fairy tale: “no one seems to know where this fairy tale came from,” writers love to say, but it’s fairly obvious, if you can imagine Ravel sitting on the nursery floor telling children these tales, whether in words or in music, how he would bring all of the characters together in his own story as if saying good-bye after a party in the garden (proving Ravel had more imagination than many writers about music).

Ravel & Mouni
Even if he doesn’t identify who’s in this “Fairy Garden,” is there any more magical happy ending than this?

Ravel was attracted primarily to Siamese cats – though he was also known to rescue stray cats – so when he moved into a new home in the early-'20s, he shared it with a whole family of Siamese kittens. In this photo, Ravel is holding his favorite cat, Mouni. Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, the violinist Ravel composed the Violin Sonata for in the 1920s, was named Mouni's godmother and Ravel wrote to her, “Your godson is in good shape, but his brother has so gorged himself that he is suffering from gastritis. This doesn’t prevent them from playing jungle on the lawn.” He ended his letter with a typical cat-like gesture as farewell: “I lick the tip of your nose.”

Poulenc, on the other hand, had a passion for terriers, and his favorite was Mickey. Here's a photo of Poulenc playing a piano duet with Mickey.

Poulenc & Mickey
The Sonata for Piano Four-Hands by Francis Poulenc (beginning at 15:10 – note the placement of the hands at the very opening!!) is in three brief movements, starting off with a bustling Prelude which might remind you of a Friday night on the Champs-Élysées near where Poulenc grew up. The second movement (at 17:18) is a gentler, song-like amble (with its own occasional acerbic outbursts) which he labeled Rustique, followed by a lively finale (at 19:01), with its jaunty motor-like motive that constantly winds itself up (ooh, there's that opening chord from the 1st movement at 19:50) before one last playful tweak in that final jazzy chord (at 20:44), hardly a resolution with that unexpected twist.

His father, an owner of the pharmaceutical company Poulenc Frères, was a pious Roman Catholic who prescribed a traditional upbringing for his son. His mother was a worldly Parisienne with a wide interest in the arts including, in addition to Mozart and Schubert, a love for what Poulenc later called “adorable bad music.” Considering he was often taken for walks as a child along Paris' bustling main street, the Champs-Élysées, when he should have been studying his catechism, it would seem his mother's side won out in the development of his own personality. One critic said of him he was “half monk and half naught boy” – “y a en lui du moine et du voyou,” where voyou has no standard English equivalent, somewhere between “naughty boy,” “ragamuffin,” and “hooligan.” At 14, he was greatly impressed by Stravinsky's new ballet, The Rite of Spring.

The sonata – such a pretentious title for so light-hearted a work – is listed as No. 8 in his catalogue, written in 1918: keep in mind he'd only made his compositional debut with the first work of his to be given a public performance, his Rapsodie negre, in 1917. Those dates mean, however, that he wrote them during the final years of the 1st World War.

In January of 1918, the 19-year-old Poulenc was drafted into the French Army and sent to the Franco-German Front for the last months of the war – Armistice Day is November 11th, 1918 – and, considering the overall mood of this music, you might be surprised to learn it was composed that June on a piano at the local elementary school in Saint-Martin-sur-le-Pré, along with his Trois mouvements perpétuels, both premiered in Paris that December 21st after the war ended. He dedicated it to his childhood friend and pianist, Simone Tilliard, who “took part in several concerts featuring first performances of the young Poulenc's works,” so I am inferring from some vague references here and there that Mlle. Tilliard shared the bench that December with the composer.

While the sonata didn't make much of an impression on its original audiences, however, Stravinsky was impressed enough to make arrangements to have this “new kid on the block” published by his own publisher at the time, Chester in London. As Poulenc later wrote in Moi et mes amis “all those little beginner's works, rather faltering, were published thanks to the kindness of Stravinsky, who was very much a father to me.” Twenty years later, as World War II began, he decided to revise it.

Not bad for a 19-year old beginner?

In an earlier post, I'd written a good deal about Poulenc's life and the background to his Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano which was included in our first “Weekly Dose” waaaaay back in mid-March: you can read it here, but scroll down past the Mozart. And don't forget to check out two more photographs of Poulenc and Mickey!

- Dick Strawser

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