Program Notes: French Winds

Written by Ronald Comber

Fanfare to La Peri
Paul Dukas (1865-1935)

Although Paul Dukas is mostly remembered today as the composer of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, he was much more than that during his lifetime. He was a major music critic for all of his adult life, a celebrated composer, and an influential teacher as well. At a time when French music was bifurcated into reactionary and revolutionary camps, Dukas chose his own course, maintaining friendships with composers on both sides. There was a problem with posterity, however…

A perfectionist, Paul Dukas destroyed almost all of his compositions while at the height of his powers and then lapsed into silence for the final twenty- three years of his life. La Péri, his last major surviving work is a ‘danced poem’ originally intended for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russe, but given instead to N. Trouhanova, who premiered it on April 22nd 1912. The actual Ballet is preceded by this glorious Fanfare for brass, in ternary form, written largely to get the audience seated and paying attention.

Petite Symphonie
Charles Gounod (1818-1893)

A composer can be immensely talented, popular, and prolific, but if the times are against him…. Charles Gounod was born in 1818 into a musical and generally artistic family. Showing real musical talent from an early age, the young Gounod was enrolled in the Paris Conservatoire at the age of sixteen, where he thrived,, eventually winning the Prix de Rome. Two years of study in Rome followed, and then a year in Austria and Germany, where he met Felix Mendelssohn and was introduced to the music of Bach. Upon his return to Paris, Gounod considered joining the priesthood, but in the end he decided that he could write music for the Church (which he did for the rest of his life) and create secular works with a clear conscience as well.

Gounod wrote in many forms, from songs to symphonies to operas. As an opera composer, he struggled with clunky librettos in his first few attempts, but after several relative failures he hit his stride with the production of his masterpiece Faust in 1859. After that, triumph followed triumph until the start of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Gounod took his family to live in London, sending them back to Paris the next year. He, caught up in entanglements in London, only returned to Paris some three years later.

Everything had changed while he was away. A younger generation of composers had studied his work, and they had moved on. He had become an elder statesman of music while he was still in his prime. He took his new role well, and he continued to write with undimmed enthusiasm. He never really had a big popular success again, though wrote as well as ever. Musical fashions were changing at breakneck speed, and his music captured a moment that had passed.

The Petite Symphonie was written in 1885 at the behest of Paul Taffanel, a virtuoso flautist who had founded the Société de Musique de la Chambre pour Instruments à Vent (Chamber Music Society for Wind Instruments) in 1879 to celebrate wind music. A nonet, comprised of two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, and two horns with a flute riding on top, the light-hearted work shows the hand of a great master. The four movements are wonderfully assured, and the formal structure perfect.

Suite Française
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Few composers have had as great a gift for writing melodies as Francis Poulenc. Clever, memorable and sometimes downright Mozartian in its crystalline purity (when it suited his artistic purposes), Poulenc’s music can be charming or deeply moving with little sign of effort.

Of course Poulenc took great pains to create that apparent ease. Although his talent was prodigious, he was basically self-taught, relying on the music theory that he had picked up as a piano student well into his twenties. Lessons with Charles Koechlin then gave him the impetus to develop his art.

Poulenc was inspired early in his career by neo-classicism, as exemplified in works like Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, and he devised his own version of neo-classicism, culminating in his brilliant Concerto for Two Pianos, written in the summer of 1932 for performance at a party that fall.

The immediate success of that work brought Poulenc a commission in 1935 to write the incidental music to a new play by Edouard Boudet about the wife of Henri of Navarre, La Reine Margot. For a play about the intrigues of the sixteenth century, Poulenc decided that the best thing to do was to explore the music of the sixteenth century, using the music of Claude Gervaise found in Le Livre de danseries. He chose seven short works, which he then developed for winds, drum and harpsichord or harp. Generally maintaining Gervaise’s harmonies, Poulenc re-voiced them in new, modern ways, adding the occasional seventh or ninth cord or ‘wrong note’ to add to the harmonic tension.

Each movement carries with it a special mood, from the cheery Bransles through the gaily martial Petite Marche Militaire, from the joyous Carillon to the tender, almost plaintive Pavane, Complainte and Sicilienne.

The Victoria Symphony performs on the traditional lands of the Lekwungen peoples and acknowledges with respect the Songhees, Esquimalt and WSÁNEĆ peoples whose historical relationships with the land continues to this day. We extend our appreciation for the opportunity to live, create, and perform on this territory.