25 July 2021

The Great 20th Century Impressionists 2
Debussy & Copland

C. Debussy La Mer (The Sea)

arr. Iain Farrington for Chamber Orchestra

Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)

“The sea has been very good to me,” wrote Debussy to his publisher Jacques Durand shortly before he finished La Mer. “She has shown me all her moods.”

Debussy had begun the score at least as early as 1903. On September 12 of that year he wrote Andre Messager (who had recently conducted the premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande) that he was working on “three symphonic sketches entitled:

1. Mer belle aux îles sanguinaries

2. Jeux de vagues

3. Le vent fait danser la mer

under the general title La Mer. You do not know, perhaps, that I was intended for the fine career of a sailor and that only the chances of life led me away from it. Nevertheless, I still have a sincere passion for it.”

A rough draft of the orchestral score was finished (according to the notation on a manuscript at the Eastman School in Rochester) on Sunday, March 5, 1905, at 6 o’clock in the evening. Details of orchestration took some months longer, the finishing touches added during the summer of 1905 at the English seaside resort of Eastbourne.

La Mer was introduced at one of the Concerts Lamoureux in Paris on October 15, 1905, under the direction of Camille Chevillard. Debussy had kept only one of the original titles of the three movements.

Soon after the first performance, Debussy, again writing to Durand, said: “Here I am again with my old friend, the sea; it is always endless and beautiful. It is really the thing in nature which best puts you in your place. But people don’t respect the sea sufficiently. To wet in it bodies deformed by daily life should not be allowed. Truly, these arms and legs which move in ridiculous rhythms—it is enough to make the fish weep. In the sea, there should be only sirens, and how do you suppose those estimable persons would consent to return to waters frequented by rather low company? [And again later he speaks of] the sea which is stirred up, wants to dash across the land, tear out the rocks, and has tantrums like a little girl, singular for one of her importance.”

I. From Dawn Until Noon on the Sea

Low, sustained strings, including harps, give an impression of the immense resting power of the ocean at dawn. Gradually the waters seem to awaken: a lazy wisp of foam is cast aloft. A simple two-tone figure from ‘Sirenes’ is the starting point of a development of astonishing imagination and mastery. An English horn and one muted trumpet announce, very softly, a theme which will return in the last movement in the approach to its great climax:

Debussy is less concerned with conventional melody than with the play of minute fragments of rhythm and harmony, with the ever-changing reflections of sky, clouds and sunlight on his flashing, tossing orchestral sea. Toward the end, the depths themselves are set in motion with a quiet but impressive chorale phrase, which will return to cap the climax of the last movement:

II. The Play of The Waves

The ocean, from the most delicate beginnings, lashes itself into a sportive fury. Rainbow colorings appear and vanish in the fountains of spray. Debussy’s instrumental palette is of the utmost delicacy and subtlety, fading at the end almost imperceptibly into silence.

III. Dialogue of The Wind and The Sea

A deep, threatening voice, as of approaching storm, opens the Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea. A shiver of anticipation runs through the orchestra; there is a swift gathering of forces and the tempest seems about to break. Instead, there is an abrupt silence; then suddenly, as from afar, we hear a nostalgic call, like the siren song of Debussy’s imagination:

The call is repeated, more insistently, by oboe, English horn and bassoon. It is answered by Tritons’ horns; the clamor grows and in the depths of the orchestra, cellos, double basses and bassoons take up the first theme quoted above. At last the first-movement chorale returns in an exultant climax and the sharply dissonant sound of trilling brass ends the never-ending tale of the sea.

In its full orchestration by Debussy, La Mer is scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, kettledrums, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, glockenspiel (or celesta), 2 harps, and strings.  In this sensitive and transparent chamber version created by Iain Farrington, the orchestra is reduced to single winds and brass, a single harp and reduced percussion and strings.

A. Copland Appalachian Spring (Ballet for Martha)

Original version for 13 instruments

Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990)

October 30, 1944, was a fruitful evening for the dance theater and for three, distinguished, contemporary composers when Martha Graham produced, choreographed; and herself danced, in three entirely new works created with three new scores which had been commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge.

These were Mirror Before Me (Hindemith’s Herodiade, based on the famous poem of the same name, which occupied Mallarme for most of his life), Imagined Wing (Milhaud’s title: Jeux du printemps), and Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.

It was a memorable evening for those who were in the tiny Whittall Auditorium of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Memory would have to search back as far as Serge Diaghilev to find a dance impresario whose impact on contemporary composers had been equally fruitful. For Graham was, even then, an impresaria as well as choreographer and a great dancer. However much she may have grown since, she seemed then at the very peak of her art.

The following spring Graham and her company presented Appalachian Spring in New York (May 14, 1945). That same year Appalachian Spring received both the Pulitzer Prize for music and the award of the Music Critics Circle of New York for the outstanding theatrical work of the season 1944- 1945.

Meanwhile Copland arranged an Orchestral Suite from his ballet which was given its first performance by the New York Philharmonic on October 4, 1945 in Carnegie Hall under the direction of Artur Rodzinski.

In a program note for this occasion Copland described the genesis of his ballet:

The music of the ballet takes as its point of departure the personality of Martha Graham. I have long been an admirer of Miss Graham’s work. She, in turn, must have felt a certain affinity for my music because in 1931 she chose my Piano Variations as background for a dance composition entitled Dithyramb. I remember my astonishment, after playing the Variations for the first time at a concert of the League of Composers, when Miss Graham told me she intended to use the composition for dance treatment. Surely only an artist with a close affinity for my work could have visualized dance material in so rhythmically complex and esthetically abstruse a composition. I might add, as further testimony, that Miss Graham’s Dithyramb was considered by public critics to be just as complex and abstruse as my music. Ever since then, at long intervals Miss Graham and I planned to collaborate on a stage work. Nothing might have come of our intentions if it were not for the lucky chance that brought Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge to a Graham performance for the first time early in 1942. With typical energy, Mrs. Coolidge translated her enthusiasm into action. She invited Martha Graham to create three new ballets for the 1943 annual fall Festival of the Coolidge Foundation in Washington, and commissioned three composers—Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud and myself—to compose scores especially for the occasion.

After considerable delay Miss Graham sent me an untitled script. I suggested certain changes to which she made no serious objections. I began work on the music of the ballet in Hollywood in June 1943, but didn’t complete it until a year later in June 1944, at Cambridge, Mass.

The premiere took place in Washington a year later than originally planned—in October 1944. The principal roles were danced by Miss Graham, Erick Hawkins, Merce Cunningham and May O’Donnell. Isamu Noguchi designed the architectural setting. Edith Guilfond supplied the costumes and Louis Horst conducted. Needless to say, Mrs. Coolidge sat in her customary seat in the front row, an unusually interested spectator (she was celebrating her eightieth birthday that night.) The title ‘Appalachian Spring’ was chosen by Miss Graham. She borrowed it from the heading of one of Hart Crane’s poems, though the ballet seems to bear no relation to the text of the poem itself.

The preface to Copland’s published score of his Orchestral Suite from Appalachian Spring summarizes the action of the ballet in the words of Eric Denby’s Herald Tribune review (May 15) of the New York premiere of the ballet.

The action, he wrote, concerns: “… a pioneer celebration in spring around a newly-built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the last century. The bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, their new domestic partnership invites. An older neighbor suggests now and then the rocky confidence of experience. A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end the couple are left quiet and strong in their new house.”

Copland’s original ballet score was for a tiny chamber orchestra consisting of flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano, 2 first violins, 2 second violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, and one string bass. The sound of this ensemble seemed intentionally lean, clean, beautifully clear and suited to the musical and choreographic thought.

Copland’s program note for the concert premiere of the Suite listed the following sections of the ballet, which are linked in a continuous whole:

  1. Very slowly. Introduction of the characters, one by one, in a suffused light.

2. Fast. Sudden burst of unison strings in A-major arpeggios starts the action. A sentiment both exalted and religious gives the keynote to this scene. [The principal theme of this section, and indeed of the entire ballet, is hinted several times before it takes on this typical form in a gleaming trumpet sound]:

3. Moderate. Duo for the Bride and her Intended—scene of tenderness and passion.

4. Quite fast. The revivalist and his flock. Folksy feelings—suggestions of square dances and country fiddlers.

5. Still faster. Solo dance of the Bride—presentiment of motherhood. Extremes of joy and fear and wonder.

6. Very slowly (as at first). Transition scenes reminiscent of the introduction.

7. Calm and flowing. Scenes of daily activity for the Bride and her Farmer-husband. There are five variations on a Shaker theme. The theme, sung by a solo clarinet, was taken from a collection of Shaker melodies compiled by Edward D. Andrews, and published later under the title The Gift to be Simple. The melody I borrowed and used almost literally is called “Simple Gifts.”

‘Tis the gift to be simple,
‘Tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down
Where we ought to be.
And when we find ourselves
In the place just right
‘Twill be in the valley
Of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d
To turn, turn will be our delight,
‘Till by turning, turning we come round right.

8. Moderate. Coda. The Bride takes her place among her neighbors. At the end the couple are left “quiet and strong in their new house.” Muted strings intone a hushed, prayer-like passage. We hear a last echo of the principal theme sung by a flute and solo violin:

The close is reminiscent of the opening music.

The Suite from Appalachian Spring is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, kettledrums, xylophone, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tabor (long drum), claves, woodblock, glockenspiel, triangle, harp, piano, and the usual strings.