This post was written in preparation for our September 2016 summer program.
“The Secret Life of Barns (Cedar)” by Ellie Harold, 2016 Collaborating Artist
For our Summer Fantasies concert, we invite you to join us in a colorful journey for the imagination as we visit the themes of summertime and all of its fantastical elements. In this series of brief articles, you can learn more about the pieces on the program; the composers who penned them and the events that inspired them.
Within our Summer Fantasies concert program, there are three pieces I’ve dubbed reveries. I refer to them this way primarily because reverie is an intentional nod to their French origins, but also because each was inspired by or intended to evoke a dream-like fantasy.
— Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937)
Though he was a talented and very active musician and composer in his day, much of the compositional output of Gabriel Pierné is seldom performed (at least internationally). Like many composers whose works bridged the late-Romantic and 20th century (e.g. Jacques Ibert), he wrote for many different genres and types of ensembles and this is perhaps why he never received long-lasting notoriety for any particular accomplishment.
His colorful Pastorale, composed around 1886, is a vivid example of Pierné’s mastery of the colors within the wind quintet. Beginning with a lyrical if not somewhat plaintive solo from the oboe, we’re guided into the warm and lush pastureland of the French countryside. This theme is passed about freely between flute, oboe, and clarinet, while the horn and bassoon provide the unmistakable voice of the bagpipe’s drone.
This is a journey across fragrant and sunny pastures or even the Lake Michigan coastline, guided not by a particular sense of destination, but merely a yearning to wander and to feel the warmth of the sun and the embrace of a fleeting breeze that comes and goes.
— Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Certainly a contrast from the nearly obscure Pierné, Claude Debussy is no stranger to concert programs. Although Debussy disliked the label of “Impressionist” being applied to his works, it is perhaps his association with this movement and his fascination with the musical elements it contained that has given most of his works lasting influence.
Much like the painters who were classified as impressionists, composers who became associated with impressionism often used moods and emotions as themes for their works. Similar to an artist skillfully using their pallete, a composer uses stark contrasts of color, texture, and timbre to blur the traditional framework of “melody vs. harmony” or “foreground vs. background”. The effect causes the viewer or the listener to focus attention on a larger perspective rather than small details.
Debussy dedicated his solo piano suite, Children’s Corner (1908), to his three-year-old daughter. Each movement is inspired by toys from Claude-Emma’s toy collection. For our concert, we’ve selected the final movement, “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk”, transcribed for wind quintet by Tom Kennedy.
On the surface, this is a colorful dance movement with very abrupt dynamic and tempo changes. But there are deeper historic and musical details within this seemingly simple movement.
When the movement was composed, Golliwogg dolls were very much in fashion due to the popularity of the series of children’s books written by Florence Kate Upton (1873-1922). Golliwoggs were stuffed black dolls with red pants, red bow ties, and wild hair — a mimicry of black-face minstrels. Perhaps due to the fact that Upton did not trademark her Golliwogg character, the later free use of these characters as menacing villains and garish icons in literature and advertising has led to the modern perception of Golliwoggs as overtly racist against people of African descent.
A most detailed history of Golliwoggs can be found here — as part of the ongoing work of Dr. David Pilgrim at Ferris State University. When examining the Golliwogg character from an historic context, it’s difficult to see its beginnings as anything but racially insensitive at best. Debussy’s music being associated with a character that became purposefully demeaning to people of color is certainly unfortunate.
Meanwhile, the cakewalk itself is a product of black minstrel shows. Beginning somewhere in the mid-1800s, the dance was a parody of upper-class whites performed by black dancers as entertainment for white audiences. At the conclusion of the dance, the most elaborate dancer would be awarded a prize — a hoecake wrapped in a cabbage leaf. Gradually, the dance became a popular sensation regardless of the race of the dancers.
Debussy also embedded a bit of satire into the music by quoting Richard Wagner’s love-death leitmotif from the opera Tristan und Isolde. Each time this quote appears it is immediately followed by distinct banjo imitations — an immediate contrast between drama and mirth.
Despite negative associations and undertones of darker themes, Debussy’s piece has remained a concert favorite. At least the murkier side of its origin has provided important discussion for students, teachers, and historians. Personally, rather than imagining the demeaning, clown-like dance of a Golliwogg, I imagine the energetic, boisterous play of children during a performance of this piece; what I imagine Debussy himself likely intended.
Our unique challenge as a quintet is to perform this piece with the precision of a single pianist’s 10 fingers rather than the 50 fingers belonging to the 5 individuals we are! The contrasts and abrupt changes are enough to make any ensemble flex their muscles.
— Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)
While there are certainly more renowned French composers, it was Gabriel Fauré’s scholarship and teaching philosophy that freed French art music from its stubborn rut, paving a clear path between the Romantic era and the 20th century. When he was appointed head of the Paris Conservatoire in 1905, a crowning achievement of his life’s work, he rocked the boat considerably by broadening the curriculum of study — extending it well into ancient times as well as into very modern works which had been completely banned previously. His appreciation for a wide variety of music and intuitive compositional technique enlivened future generations of composers (e.g. Maurice Ravel & Nadia Boulanger).
Originally written for piano and chorus in the late 1880’s, the orchestral version of Fauré’s Pavane was premiered in 1887. During this period, his career as a composer was beginning to bring both modest income and (gasp) the extra-marital romantic entanglements which would delight, inspire, and torment him.
Appropriately, the choral lyrics lament the romantic helplessness of man. Fauré described the work as “elegant, but not otherwise important” little realizing it would become one of his most performed pieces, inspiring similar works by Debussy and Ravel. The orchestral version is often performed with or without chorus and can also include dancers.
Manitou Winds’ performance of Fauré’s Pavane is based on the orchestral version of the work arranged for wind quintet by Tracy Jacobson. An unavoidable challenge facing wind players is the sheer necessity of breathing without interrupting Fauré’s long, enticingly chromatic phrasing. This breathing difficulty is complicated by the tendency for most orchestras to perform this work at a tempo much slower than the composer intended. The memory of these inspired performances tempts us to play more slowly than our lungs will allow. Meanwhile, we invite you sigh along with us, getting lost in Fauré’s light-hearted romantic daydreams.
The reverie-themed paintings in today’s article are from our collaborating artist, Ellie Harold’s studio. For more information about Ellie’s home studio and gallery and to view many more examples of her work, visit www.EllieHarold.com.