Known for his virtuosity and probing musicianship, violinist James Ehnes has performed in over 35 countries on five continents, appearing regularly in the world’s great concert halls and with many of [...]
They spoke about it
In nineteenth-century Paris, the majority of musical genres were influenced to a high degree by opera, its exotic themes and attractive melodies. But music lovers of this time and place also doted on highly gifted soloists, and had a considerable appetite for displays of technical prowess as well as musical expression.
Perhaps the most well-known violinist of the era is Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840), rumoured to have been possessed by the devil. He was followed by the generation of Henry Vieuxtemps (1820-1881) and Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880), both of whom had extensive connections to Russia as well as the rest of Europe. The latter is credited with a high-pressure bowing technique referred to as the “Russian” bow grip. The richness of the resultant timbre was probably not to the liking of Pablo Sarasate (1844-1908), whose talent reportedly lay in producing a superb, silvery, high register, as well as in composing adaptations of Spanish dances for the concert hall and salons. Last but certainly not least, was that great defender of contemporary music,
Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931).
Like most composers of his generation, Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) had a great desire to write opera, an ambition that was completely thwarted after the premiere of his first work in this genre. Nonetheless, his gift for musical representation and drama permeate his concert works. Berlioz also came into regular contact with the virtuosi of his day. He praised and admired the compositions of Vieuxtemps, and dedicated Romeo and Juliet to, and composed Harold in Italy for Paganini. Berlioz’s love of opera and knowledge of virtuosic writing are combined in the Rêverie et caprice, which is an arrangement of a cavatina that was cut from Benvenuto Cellini. A testament to Berlioz’s genius for brilliant orchestration, Le Corsaire evokes the emotional but adventurous flux of a Byronesque hero’s life against the backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea.
Berlioz’s friend, Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) bewitched audiences as a gifted piano virtuoso long before he became an extremely productive and popular composer, or even contemplated his most famous work, the opera Samson et Dalila (1868-77). It is perhaps this experience that taught him how to write concert music for soloists that would satisfy artists, audiences, and even some critics. Saint-Saëns was acquainted with George Bridgetower (who premiered Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” sonata), and moreover a longtime friend of Sarasate, to whom the Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso is dedicated. Certainly Saint-Saëns may be counted among the virtuoso’s converts to Spanish-inflected music: several of his works show signs of this influence, for instance, the Rondo Capriccioso, and four other pieces were directly inspired by Iberian folk music, including the Havanaise. In the former work, a slow introduction followed by trills in descending sequences usher in the Spanish rondo theme, consisting of a flirtatious, syncopated melody teased out over marching staccato strings. Throughout the piece, recurrences of this dance-like rondo are followed by a more lyrical melody.
This is not the case for the Havanaise. While clearly modelled on the Cuban dance, and featuring frequent returns of a main melody, it communicates a greater sense of nostalgia through long passages of uninterrupted lyricism, subtle dynamic play, and gradual ascent into the altissimo register of the violin near the end of the work. Here Saint-Saëns presents a more sentimental memory of the dance, rather than a vivacious representation of it—an ephemeral melody that eventually liquifies and evaporates against the faltering beat of a grounding tympani.
More than a decade later, Claude Debussy also produced a dance from a more southern clime. Like the works of Saint-Saëns and Milhaud, Debussy’s Neapolitan Tarentelle Styrienne exudes energy through a spirited rondo form, and a brisk tempo. A titillating coupling of different rhythms is here clothed in the additional timbres of Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of 1923.
Darius Milhaud needed no conversion to Spanish-type music. Following a trip to South America, he conceived a work to accompany one of Charlie Chaplin’s silent films, here the Cinéma Fantaisie. This piece was eventually integrated into the spectacle named after a Brazilian song, Le Bœuf Sur le Toit. In his autobiography, Milhaud described the piece as an arrangement of, “a few popular melodies, tangoes, maxixes, sambas, and even a Portuguese fado… with a rondo-like theme recurring between each successive pair.” The music is fast-paced, frenetic at times, a French avant-garde take on what Saint-Saëns would have considered exotic material indeed.
Best known today for the opera Manon Lescaut, Jules Massenet (1842-1912) was an extremely productive composer. He was connected to several of the composers presented on this compact disc—he and Saint-Saëns were part of the Parisian Wagnerian circle, and Ernest Chausson was his student. Massenet’s ability to write for vocal virtuosos finds a different voice in the Méditation from the opera Thaïs.
Framed with sublimely lyrical sections, this interlude portrays Thaïs’s inner conflict, or, in the historic words of Ernest Newman, “the contest that goes on within her, in those long night hours of lonely musing, between old passions and present regrets and aspirations.”
It should come as no surprise that Ernest Chausson’s (1855-1899) Poème has become a great favourite in the violin repertory. First, it was written for Ysaÿe. Second, it is a highly evocative work, based on Turgenev’s short story, Le Chant de l’amour triomphant, with harmonies and melodies that tell the tale of a musician’s unrequited love, exotic travels to the Far East, and the heady intoxication of a full-bodied Shiraz wine. Third, it was inspired by one of Ysaÿe’s own compositions, the Poème Élégiaque. Needless to say, it became an instant success—Chausson’s first.
This symphonic poem has five uninterrupted sections, dominated by two recurring melodies. The first is introduced after some quiet orchestral ruminations by the solo violin, immediately reiterated by the orchestra. It then recurrs in the third and final sections of the work. Highly lyrical in nature and written in a singing triple meter, this first melody seems to clearly represent a young lover’s song. Incomplete and developing sections of another melody begin to emerge in the second, more brisk, section which does not congeal into a recognizable musical entity until the fourth section, where the luscious strokes of the harp, followed by a menacing entry of the trumpets foretell the work’s impressive climax. The 6/8 (dance-like) meter of the second motive conveys a strong sense of motion, stilled in the quiet trills and descent from the violin’s upper register that close the work.
© Catrina Flint de Médicis, décembre 2000, pour Traçantes, Service de rédaction de la Société québécoise de recherche en musique.