The Romantic Era in France, part 1

I must admit I have been looking forward to these next few entries for several weeks. Some of my all-time favorite music comes from Romantic-era France. Many music scholars paint a grey but significant line between “German-Style” and “French-Style” music as general categories. Even music from other countries such as Spain, Italy, the Scandinavian countries and the British Isles are fitted loosely into either one category or the other.

A professor at my own university, quoting someone else, would always joke about the difference between French and German style music being this:

German music is profoundly superficial, and French music is superficially profound.

I looked up the actual source of this quote and it is by the American composer Ned Rorem. Here are more excerpts from the preface from which this quote is taken.

“…The entire universe is torn between two aesthetics: French and German. Virtually everything is one or the other. Blue is French, Red is German…No is French, Yes is German. The moon is French, the Sun is German…If French is to be profoundly superficial, like Impressionism, which depicts a fleeting version of eternity, then German is to be superficially profound…”

Ned Rorem

It’s quite literary and perhaps a overdone, but this small joke from my professor has stuck with me and I’ve pondered it often ever since. This is indeed a great introduction to French music, since we have given it little attention here in the blog until this point.

It’s difficult not to put Monet’s hazy-lensed watercolor in the same category as nearly any French composer from the 19th century onward. Most composers assigned the title “Impressionist” hated it and disagreed with the association. Debussy didn’t like the term, and Ravel liked it even less. Besides, I hear this “fleeting” aspect to French composition in works beyond the Impressionist period in France, both before and after. It must be an independent and more timeless element, intrinsic to music only, that makes French music French.

So let’s take a chronological look at the composers who spearheaded the Romantic French sound, and get an idea of this “French” sound.

Camille Saint-Saëns

An organist, pianist, conductor and composer, Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was a busy man, his legacy being equally significant in performance as in composition. His works have snuck into modern popular culture too. If you’ve seen the movie Babe, you’ve heard Saint-Saëns as the end credits. If you have heard Carnival of the Animals (especially The Swan!), that’s also Saint-Saëns. Let’s look at a few other works of his too, and see how even “pre-Impressionist” French music had a certain unique quality from all the other music we’ve discussed around Romanic-Era Europe so far.

Danse Macabre

This work is for solo violin and orchestra, and I’m sure you’ve heard this tune at least once, if not many a time! In its short introduction and quick dance sequence it illustrates a dance with death itself. The subject matter is already that of fleeting mortality, which reflects to the “Frenchness” we discussed above, even though this was pre-Impressionism. Saint-Saëns’ draws on Spanish dance to evoke a feeling of exotic, unknown territory, and even has the violin soloist tune their instrument with a tritone between strings. This interval is jarring, and was literally associated with the devil since the Middle Ages.

The A section of the the dance is spirited and sardonic, with rhythmic excitement and loud, brassy instrumentation. The B section, meanwhile, is seductive, romantic and has almost no rhythmic motion (review of A and B themes here). This side to the Dance of Death, along with the Spanish-dance style, also gives itself away as a very “French” composition to me. Its two emotions are spritely lightheartedness and seductive intrigue, despite being about a very scary topic!

Piano Concerto no. 5, “Egyptian”

If there’s another giveaway aspect to French-style music aside from the contrast between lighthearted and sensuous character, for me this aspect would be the idea of the “foreign.” Many French composers in the 19th century were absolutely fascinated with the music of non-European cultures, due in large part to Paris hosting an annual convention to showcase global art and music from the countries in which France was colonially involved.

This piano concerto is gorgeous, so I hope you enjoy a full start-to-finish listen. The first movement introduces a very simple theme in the piano, which has skittering, fleeting scales up and down the piano and in the accompanying strings. This alternates with another more sombre theme that is also very simple melodically. This simplicity in themes is classic aspect to Saint-Saëns’ writing. The entire movement feels light, even in the subdued B theme, and melancholy is never too present. This might also be considered “French,” since meanwhile in Germany and Austria (even Italy) composers were dealing with personal, heart-wrenching subject matter or heroic operatic writing.

The second movement is the musical center of the work, and the reason for the “Egyptian” subtitle. Saint-Saëns experiments with instrumentation, range, and harmony to evoke his trip down the Nile which inspired this piece. The exciting start to the movement outlines a harmonic minor scale, which in other words is strongly associated with non-western harmony. The slower section to follow is apparently based on a Nubian love song that Saint-Saëns heard on his travels down the Nile. He uses a huge range between the left and right hands of the piano part to evoke exoticism in the cadenza-like middle section. The end of the movement is supposed to emulate the crickets chirping on the bank.

If the second movement is a meditation on the banks, listening to the songs and crickets around us, the third is a frivolous jaunt back on the boat. The low, incomprehensible beginning to the movement is supposed to be the propellors of the boat starting up again. The rest of the movement is a fun adventure; I can imagine hitting some obstacles, splashes and perhaps even a crash, as well as the fun Saint-Saëns must have had despite it all.

Earnest Chausson

Here is a composer that may be a new name for you. Even among professional musicians, Earnest Chasson (1855-1899) isn’t a household name. Had he not died tragically at the age of 44 in a bicycle accident, just as his career as a composer was taking off, Chausson’s name might well be as recognizable now as Debussy’s. It’s a pleasure to discover his music for this entry, and a shame that we have so little of what might have been.

Chausson’s music is evocative, sensuous and atmospheric, but down-to-earth at the same time. His harmonic style reminds me of some of the German composers working in this time period, such as Strauss, and this gives the sound a sense of groundedness that perhaps Debussy’s hyper-atmospheric sound lacks. Still, the language is distinctly “French” in subject matter, sound quality (muted strings, waves of sound in loud/soft contrast) and orchestration.

Poème de l’amour et de la mer, op. 19 

This is a song cycle, meaning a collection of works related in subject matter for solo singer, with orchestra accompaniment. There are two songs, separated by an orchestral interlude, which add up to about 25 minutes of music. The songs are both based on poems written by Chausson’s friend, Maurice Bouchor. Here are the poems:

The Flower of the Waters
Maurice Bouchor 

The air is filled with the ravishing perfume of lilac
That flowers from the top of the wall to the bottom
Replete with the fragrance of golden tresses.
The sea in the sun is all ablaze
And, over the sand that it comes to kiss,
It rolls with dazzling waves. 

Oh sky that reflects the tint of her eyes;
The breeze that sings to the lilacs in flower
To return with everything scented;
Streams that moisten her dress,
Oh footpaths of green,
You that quiver beneath her dear little feet,
Make me see my belovèd. 

And my heart was uplifted this summer morning;
For, there on the beach, was a beautiful child
Turning to me those full, clear eyes
And smiling with an air tender and wild. 

You who would transfigure my youth and my love
Appeared thus to me then as the depths of my soul;
You accepted my heart as it flew to your side
And the heavens were opened to rain roses upon us. 

What wild appalling sound
Will ring the hour of departure!
The sea rolls over the strand,
Mocking and caring little
That the time to part has arrived. 

The birds are passing, wings are open
To almost joyous despair;
The sea is green in the sun
And, in silence, I bleed
Watching the bright shining skies. 

I bleed whilst watching my life
Move away on the waves;
Only my soul made me happy
And the dull sound of the waves
Covers the noise of my sobs. 

Who knows whether this cruel sea
Will restore her again to my heart?
My gaze is fixed upon it;
The sea sings and the mocking wind
Scoffs at my anguish of heart. 

The Death of Love
Maurice Bouchor 

Soon, that blue and joyous island
Will appear among the rocks;
The isle on the silent waters
Floating like a lily. 

Across the amethyst sea,
The ship glides quietly by;
Both happy and sad shall I be
That soon will this be memory. 

The wind drove the dead leaves;
My thoughts
Drove like dead leaves
In the night. 

Never so gently from that black sky had
A thousand golden roses fallen like dew!
A frightening dance and crushed leaves
That returned a metallic sound, waltzed,
Seeming to groan beneath the stars and spoke
The inexpressible horror of love passed away. 

Tall silver beeches that kissed the moon
Were as ghosts: and all my blood had turned to ice
On seeing my beloved smiling strangely.
Like the brows of death our complexions paled,
And, leaning mutely towards her for the fatal word
That in her open eyes was written, I read: oblivion. 

As you listen to each of the songs, keep the words in mind, as they will help you hear the orchestration, harmony and even word painting that Chausson employs. The sea is a very “French” subject, signifying how small we are as people and individuals, eternity, the circle of life, and literally going with the flow. The heartbrokenness of the narrator is evident by the dark, melancholy sounds that Chausson chooses. The Interlude, for example, features a bassoon solo and cello solo, and both of these instruments are considered dark sounds. Enjoy this gorgeous work which so closely evokes the character and words of the poetry it depicts.

Piano Quintet in A Major, op. 30

Once again I get a mixed sense of “nationality” when I hear this beautiful work of Chausson. The beginning almost sounds like a folk tune from the British Isles, or even somewhere very far east of Europe. I’m very curious about this sound that I can’t place on any particular part of the world. Surely this transience is about as French as it gets, in Ned Rorem’s eyes.

The character of this quintet is entirely different from the song cycle above; the melancholy is largely gone and things sound much more similar to Debussy, who would have been in contact with Chausson as a younger colleague during this time.

The piano writing especially sounds more akin to the wide-range, harmonically nebulous writing I’m used to in the more well-known names of French music. The strings are also frequently either playing individually or in unison, so that when they do play chords together, it sounds more dramatic by contrast. This liberal use of unison and solo part writing gives a joyous, carefree character to the sound. It would become a typical technique in Debussy’s and Ravel’s chamber music, too.

The “tres calme” movement begins with a viola solo, which I certainly appreciate. Using unusual instruments to present themes is also a technique seen more in French music than in German. Perhaps French-style composers are more concerned with color than ideal range of the instrument, so being willing to showcase less-heard instruments gives them more colors to work with.. I have the impression that, in general, this is not the case for German writing, and instruments tend to be used to serve their best-sounding purpose. This means that the most audible (the highest) play tunes and the less audible are responsible for less audible roles, such as harmony or rhythm. This is a broad generalization, but having played the viola in plenty of German and French works of chamber music, I am more nervous to perform French works because of how intricate, and heavily featured, the middle parts can be.

The third movement is a “scherzo,” but even so it is still delicate, slow and refined. All of the stringed instruments are featured with melodic importance, as they were in the previous movement. Finally, the fourth movement is energetic, buzzing with excitement, and back to the style of unison playing in the strings, with chordal contrast. There is counterpoint too, but it’s mostly imitative, so it is easy to follow. The contrast of mood to the B theme is seamless, impressive for how different in character the two themes are. The themes from other movements make a return here; see if you can hear them all! Restating all of the themes puts us in a mysterious and confused harmonic place, but the first movement’s A theme comes to the rescue and takes us back to A Major in a stylish coda.

Enjoy the French Romantic sound so far; we have a long list of composers in this category left to cover next time!

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