Introduced to music at a very early age, Valérie Milot studied the piano for several years before choosing the harp at the age of ten. Although, to most people, the harp evokes romanticism and [...]
They spoke about it
“A watercolour is not a story, it’s the translation of a sensation, a memory, a state of mind.” (Hugo Pratt)
With its ability to delicately suggest, obliquely seduce, and transport us to an “elsewhere” whose quaint, old-fashioned colours have nevertheless lost nothing of their power, is not the harp the perfect instrument to transform beloved works from the piano and symphonic repertoire into a series of elusive tableaux? Harpist Valérie Milot answers a definitive “Yes!” with several interpretations of works by Satie, Smetana, Debussy, and Liszt.
Published in 1888 but not gaining real popularity until 1910, Satie’s three Gymnopédies are highly unusual and flout many of classical music’s rules. Inspired by Flaubert’s Salammbô, these ethereal dances are part of an Ancient Greek theme that runs through Satie’s entire oeuvre.
Composed two years after Satie’s triptych, Debussy’s “Claire de lune” (from his Suite bergamasque), with its fluidity reminiscent of spoken language, likely takes its inspiration from a poem of the same name by Verlaine. A masterwork of Impressionism, the piece alternates subdued passages with sections of great emotional power, giving the impression of having captured an ephemeral moment in time.
This perpetual motion is also conveyed in Smetana’s “The Moldau,” the second of six tone poems in the cycle Má Vlast (My Country), which suggests both the river itself and the landscapes and scenes encountered along its banks, before it ultimately empties into the Elba: a forest hunt, a country wedding, or nymphs frolicking in the moonlight.
Liszt’s Liebesträume (Dreams of Love) No. 3 was written both to accompany a poem by Ferdinand Freiligrath, the sentiment of which is part of its duration (“O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst,”or “love as long as you can”) and as an independent piano work. The sweeping melody line seems to be borne along by a breath that regenerates itself throughout the work’s three sections.
“The watercolours of this goldsmith-poet seem to be washed with a rutilant glow, the patina of the treasures of One Thousand and One Nights” (Edmond and Jules de Goncourt)
A versatile instrument, able to move from refined elegance to tempestuous boldness, the harp also manages to elude stereotypes. With a few deft musical phrases, it can evoke poetic narratives whose power often goes beyond the words, images or places that inspired them.
Composed in 1950 and dedicated to harpist Phia Berghout, Pour le tombeau d’Orphée by Marius Flothuis encompasses the very essence of the Dutch composer’s style: a search for purity and balance but also a union of form and content, as practiced by his musical influences, Mozart and Debussy. With a multitude of short motifs that he varies almost infinitely, Flothuis brilliantly conveys the sense of wandering inherent to the story of Orpheus, who goes to save his Eurydice but who does not return unscathed.
A student of Martenot and Hasselmans (whom he succeeded at the Paris Conservatory), Marcel Lucien Tournier contributed enormously to expanding the harp’s harmonic and technical palette and trained an entire generation of harpists. While he composed extensively for orchestra, piano, violin, cello, and voice, his most interesting works are those dedicated to his own instrument. Composed in 1932, his Suite No. 4 Images offers three evocative tableaux: the captivating “Volière magique,” “Cloches sous la neige,” with its interplay of registers, and the ethereal “Danse du moujik,” with its multiple glissando effects.
Légende, the first large-scale work by Henriette Renié, was written in 1901 after the poem Les Elfes by the Parnassian Leconte de Lisle. The following year, it would appear on the program of all her concerts with the Orchestre Lamoureux. The poem tells the story of a knight riding through the forest to his betrothed. The Elf Queen tries to seduce him, but he resists, explaining that the love of his life awaits him. Angry, the Queen lays a hex on him. He escapes only to encounter a ghost on the road. Believing it to be a demon, he curses it (“Out of my way, despicable ghost / For I am off to marry my sweet-eyed beauty”), only to realize, too late, that the phantom is, in fact, his beloved. “Oh my dear husband, the eternal grave / Shall be our wedding bed,” she replies. Realizing his mistake, he chooses to join her in the grave. Renié’s treatment of the text (which includes a ritornello repeated seven times) is essentially Romantic yet daring in its handling of the melodic and harmonic material, the work’s virtuosity emerging subtly through effects of register and timbre, which deftly expand on the poet’s words.
Many composers have attempted to extract a sound, a colour, or an inspiration from the fertile ground of Spain, cradle of flamenco; few have succeeded better in conveying its diversity than Isaac Albéniz. In Zaragoza (Saragossa), taken from his second Suite española, he sketches a portrait of the city, primarily by way of traditional Aragon jotas. While his penchant for wide chords and flamboyant colours is evident, the exuberant crowds and the bustle of public celebrations are also palpable in the folksong-like harmonies.
© Lucie Renaud
Translation : Peter Christensen