Recognized for his “ability to create ambience, character, and drama in everything he performs,” Paul Merkelo has been Principal trumpet for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra since 1995. He has held the [...]
Tomasi, Desenclos, Jolivet: French Trumpet Concertos
They spoke about it
Brilliant solos that combine lustrous tone and spot-on technique.
— Montreal Gazette
Three works for trumpet and orchestra, each one written in France by a composer whose life did not exceed the span of the 20th century, and each heavily influenced by the idiom of jazz. The apparent similarities are many, but philosophically these works come from very different places. Alfred Desenclos’ rigorous compositional style made him a favourite of the academy, frequently composing competition pieces for the Paris Conservatoire. Henri Tomasi by contrast, was ever the pragmatist, eschewing systems and methods in favour of a popular aesthetic. Meanwhile André Jolivet belonged to a movement that valued the spiritual aspect of music, and sought to express something of the universally primal through his work. Through three unique lenses, the works presented here offer a nuanced perspective on French musical thought and the growing importance of the solo trumpet in 20th century music.
Born in Portel, France, February 7, 1912
Died in Paris, March 31, 1971
Incantation, Threne et Danse pour trompette et orchestre
The self-styled “Romantic” Alfred Desenclos belonged to a school of modern French composers whose careers were defined more or less by the same systems and institutions that had dominated music in that country during the 19th century. A product of the Paris Conservatoire, winner of the Prix de Rome in 1942 and frequent composer of the infamous conservatory competition pieces, Desenclos was sometimes disregarded as a “pedagogical” composer. His obscurity eventually became such that one of his most important large-scale works, the Messe de requiem, was erroneously attributed to another composer in its American première as late as 1999. A recent rebirth of interest in Desenclos’ oeuvre has come about, largely due to the growing recognition of his rigorous compositional technique, his characteristic treatment of melody and harmony and the significant influence of jazz, representing an important tendency in 20th century French music. Incantation, Threne et Danse pour trompette et orchestre is a leading example in the revival, presented here for the first time in a Canadian recording.
The “Incantation” opens with an energetic outburst from the orchestra, answered with equal energy in a disjunct and angular motive from the solo trumpet. A dialogue, or argument, develops as the orchestral interruptions become more insistent. Dissolving into a contrasting lyrical interlude in which soloist and ensemble are briefly reconciled, the trumpet shares melodic motives with the violins and flute. Rich, colourful orchestrations combined with 7th and 9th tinged harmonies, wildly syncopated orchestral accompaniment and a frequently rhapsodic solo trumpet contribute to a 1950s cinematic jazz aesthetic, but always in the context and form of a fully realized concerto. A solo flute floats over the opening lines of the melancholy “Threne”, a series of unresolved harmonies moving in parallel motion contributing to a misty and subdued atmosphere. The oboe mirrors an improvisatory solo trumpet line, creating a three-dimensional perception of distance and space through the echo effect. Melodic lines wander within a restricted radius as if aimlessly in this jazz ballad-inflected meditation. “Danse,” by contrast fairly jumps off the printed page with percussion off-beats and a spirited rhythmic and melodic dialogue between trumpet and orchestra. A solo cadenza shows off the full range and virtuoso capabilities of the trumpet in restless bursts of figuration before the reentrance of the orchestra. Driving rhythms in the percussion suggest repressed energy, leading to an extended lyrical section in which the most memorable melodic theme is explored in depth. The entire work drives to an exhilarating finish with a great thump from the orchestra.
Born in Marseille, August 17, 1901
Died in Paris, January 13, 1971
Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra
Born in Marseille to Corsican parents, Henri Tomasi spent many of his youthful summers on the Mediterranean island, where he became familiar with local folk songs and dreamed of becoming a sailor. It wasn’t until later, when his talents as a pianist emerged, that Tomasi attempted entry into the Paris Conservatoire. He was thwarted by the outbreak of the First World War but, demonstrating a pragmatism that would see him through his entire career, he supported himself during those years by playing and improvising in cafés, movie houses and even brothels. His pragmatism was also apparent in his approach to composition. Refusing to conform to any one system or style, Tomasi insisted, “I write for the public at large. Music that doesn’t come from the heart isn’t music”. Though he eventually did matriculate at the Conservatoire and won the Prix de Rome in 1927, Tomasi also served as a military band director during the Second World War and was a pioneer in the field of “radiophonic” music as conductor in the 1930s of the Orchestre radiosymphonique de la Radiodiffusion française.
The Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra, Tomasi’s best known work, is but one of 16 concerto compositions, many of which feature wind and brass instruments. It was composed in 1948 and first performed the following year. Written during a time of Tomasi’s great disillusionment with war, the concerto features many militaristic allusions, from the fanfare motive that dominates the first movement, to a pervasive snare drum accompaniment in the solo cadenza. Tellingly, the fanfare motive has a tendency to collapse tonally and rhythmically, becoming more lyrical and chromatically inflected. The first movement also ends in alienation with the trumpet slowly ascending its upper register and the orchestra hovering over an unresolved harmony. The “Nocturne” features a luscious harmonic plan over which the jazz inflected solo trumpet elaborates an expansive melody. A witty and frenetic “Finale” uses the full effects of the orchestra, relying on such contrasting combinations as xylophone and tuba, with a busy trumpet line dancing over top. High and low, serious and quirky are juxtaposed in this appealing conclusion to Tomasi’s concerto.
Born in Paris, August 8, 1905
Died in Paris, December 20, 1974
Concerto for Trumpet No. 2
André Jolivet’s formative years in Paris were guided by his conviction to rediscover something of the magical and primal in music which he was convinced had been lost in the abstract formal complexity of recent artistic trends. As the first European student of Edgard Varèse and a founding member of “La jeune France” along with Olivier Messiaen, Jolivet sought to express a spiritual style in his compositions. He defined himself in opposition to Neo-Classicism and Stravinsky, to whom he declared “French music owes nothing”. In the 1950s Jolivet turned to a tonally based style of composition, greatly influenced by jazz and the expanded possibilities that aesthetic could offer to the traditional orchestra.
The Concerto for Trumpet No. 2, written in 1954 and called “a ballet for trumpet” by the composer, shows the jazz influence in its scoring: with 14 different percussion instruments, prominent piano and saxophones, the orchestra takes on the quality of a symphonic dance-band. The importance of percussion is felt immediately in the opening measures with an ominous dirge-like motive in the percussion. A muted solo trumpet joins in before the orchestra takes over, accelerating the pace in a frantic push. The Grave second movement is characterised by pervasive rolled piano chords, atmospheric low brass and an expansive trumpet melody. The gradual addition of instruments leads to a full orchestral complement, the trumpet achieving a sense of dialogue with itself through the use of a mute to change characters. The third movement is a perpetuum mobile initiated in the piano: insistent repeated notes are passed through the various instrumental groups in the orchestra. A full section dedicated to percussion followed by hints at Harlem stride piano style places this work firmly in the realm of jazz. The plurality of timbres and styles overlay and combine, leading to a stylized near-cacophony in a hectic conclusion.