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Lise de la Salle
January 28, 2012, 8pm
NEC’s Jordan Hall
Notes on the program
Maurice Ravel
Miroirs (1904-05)
Born March 7, 1875 in Ciboure, France
Died December 28, 1937 in Paris
The Paris Conservatoire dismissed Ravel as a piano student in 1895, and when he returned as a
composer they ushered him out again in 1900. He applied for the Prix de Rome each year from
1900 to 1905, and his persistent rejections eventually became a minor public scandal. Rebuffed
by the establishment, Ravel banded together in 1902 with other artists and intellectuals in a group
they called “Les Apaches” (“The Hooligans”).
Ravel composed Miroirs (“Reflections”) in honor of his fellow “Apaches.” He completed the five
movements between 1904 and 1905, each dedicated to a particular colleague. Ricardo Viñes, the
Spanish pianist honored in the second movement, debuted Miroirs in January 1906. Ravel later
orchestrated the third and fourth movements.
Ravel dedicated the opening movement, Noctuelles (“Moths”), to the poet Léon-Paul Fargue. The
moth-like opening, with its darting, fluttering gestures, gives way to a slower contrasting section
marked “somber and expressive.” The two strains interact until the music floats off in a dreamlike haze.
Oiseaux tristes (“Sad Birds”) also mimics the natural world, with a chorus of bright birdcalls
supported by an oscillating background. Ravel described this movement, the first he completed in
the set, as trying to evoke “birds lost during the hottest summer hours in the torpor of a very dark
The third movement, Une barque sur l’océan (“A Boat on the Ocean”) moves from the forest to
the water, with drawn-out melodies awash in saturated arpeggios. Ravel orchestrated the
movement in 1906, one of many idiomatic piano works he transformed into orchestral
showpieces, including Pavane pour une infante défunte, Ma mère l’oye and Le tombeau de
Couperin. Ravel dedicated this movement to the painter Paul Sordes.
Ravel composed the fourth movement, Alborado del gracioso, in honor of the music critic M. D.
Calvocoressi. Alborado, the Spanish equivalent of the French Aubade, signifies a song of lovers
parting at daybreak, while gracioso indicates a clown or buffoon character from old Spanish
comedies. Ravel’s mother, of Basque origins and raised in Madrid, implanted an early love of
Spanish folksongs in her son’s ear, and he returned to those idiomatic melodies and rhythms
throughout his career, as in the bolero-like rhythm used in this movement.
Ravel dedicated the final movement, La vallée des cloches (“The Valley of the Bells”), to his
friend and composition student Maurice Delage. Bells enter in the form of octave G-sharps in the
upper registers, their tolling echoed by resonant chords and deep bass rumbles.
Claude Debussy
Selections from Préludes, Books 1 and 2 (1910-1913)
Born August 22, 1862 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France
Died March 25, 1918 in Paris
In most musical contexts, a prelude is a short movement that precedes an attached companion
work. The gold standard for such preludes in the keyboard literature are the two books of The
Well-Tempered Clavier by J. S. Bach, with each book containing preludes and fugues in all 12
major and minor keys. The Austrian composer Johann Hummel might have been the first to treat
preludes independently when he composed a set of 24 Preludes in 1815, but it was Chopin who
revolutionized the form with his own collection of 24 Preludes for piano, published in 1839.
Debussy’s two books of Préludes, published in 1910 and 1913, extended the Chopin tradition.
The 12 works in each book are short musical poems, most lasting two to four minutes each, and
labeled with descriptive titles. It was quite rare for preludes to have titles—most others were
identified just with the number and key—and Debussy softened the impact of his headings by
printing them in small typeface at the end of each movement. It is fitting that Debussy gave his
preludes labels that are poetic and visual, for his musical style was deeply indebted to the writers
and artists he circulated with. Debussy also abandoned the formal structure of cycling through the
keys in his preludes. By this point in his career, his approach to tonality was increasingly diffuse,
with key centers obscured by whole-tone scales and exotic chord structures.
Debussy titled two of the preludes with quotations. The first, No. 4 from Book 1, borrows a line
from the poem Harmonie du soir (Evening Harmony) by Charles Baudelaire: “Les sons et les
parfums tournent dans l’air du soir” (“The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening
air”). The music, marked “harmonious and supple,” captures the sensual languor of Baudelaire’s
line. The other quotation comes from a book that belonged to Debussy’s daughter: Peter Pan in
Kensington Gardens, by J. M. Barrie. Debussy used the quotation “Les fées sont d’exquises
danseuses” (“Fairies are exquisite dancers”) as a point of departure for the effervescent fourth
prelude from Book 2.
Des pas sur la neige (Footsteps in the Snow), No. 6 from Book 1, is melancholy and haunting. A
crunching rhythmic figure recurs throughout the accompaniment, like the footsteps in the title.
Footwork comes into play again in a very different selection, La danse de Puck (Puck’s Dance),
No. 11 from Book 1. This prelude, marked “capricious and light,” pays homage to the elfin
trickster from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The title of Voiles, No. 2 from Book 1, is ambiguous; without the gender specified, it could mean
“veils” or “sails.” The musical language is mysterious, too, with whole-tone passages and static
harmonies. The twelfth prelude from Book 2, Feux d’artifice (Fireworks), also uses irregular
modes and darting gestures to depict the unnatural brilliance of a fireworks display.
La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair), No. 8 from Book 1, is one of the most
beloved and familiar of the preludes, with its melodic hook of falling and rising arpeggios. It
takes its title from a poem by Charles Marie René Leconte de Lisle that Debussy had previously
set for voice and piano in 1882.
Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest (What the West Wind has Seen), No. 7 from Book 1, closes this suite.
The thick and muscular movement, beginning at a tempo marked “lively and tumultuous” and
building to a “furious and rapid” pace, confirms the expansive emotional range of Debussy’s
prelude collection.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2 (“Moonlight”) (1801)
Born December, 1770 in Bonn
Died March 26, 1827 in Vienna
In 1801, Beethoven began to reveal his terrible secret to his friends: He was going deaf. That
June, he wrote to Franz Wegeler, a childhood friend from Bonn and a physician. Beethoven
confessed, “I am living a miserable life. For almost two years I have ceased to attend any social
functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf. If I had any other
profession it would be easier, but in my profession it is a terrible handicap. As for my enemies, of
whom I have a fair number, what would they say?”
Several months later, Beethoven wrote Wegeler again, reporting, “You can scarcely believe what
an empty, sad life I have had for the last two years. My poor hearing haunted me everywhere like
a ghost; and I avoided all human society. I was forced to seem a misanthrope, and yet I am far
from being one. This change has been brought about by a dear charming girl who loves me and
whom I love … and for the first time I feel that marriage might bring me happiness.
Unfortunately she is not of my class.”
The girl to whom Beethoven was referring was his piano student, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi.
Beethoven may have considered marriage, but as a 30-year-old freelance musician with uncertain
career prospects, he stood little chance of gaining the approval of her parents, given her tender
age (just shy of 17 at the time of that letter) and her noble rank.
Beethoven composed a pair of Piano Sonatas in 1801 that he published the following year as
Opus 27. Both works relaxed the strictures of sonata form in unique and original ways, a quality
that led Beethoven to give each the subtitle “Quasi una fantasia”—Italian for “like a fantasy.” He
dedicated the second of these sonatas, No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, to Giulietta. Beethoven did not
provide the descriptive nickname, Moonlight;
the music critic Ludwig Rellstab introduced that term in 1832 when he compared the sonata’s
first movement to the image of moonlight over Lake Lucerne.
Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata is a rightful favorite among the 32 sonatas that span 30 years of
the composer’s career. The opening movement, rolling forward in a slow Adagio sostenuto
tempo, casts its enchanting spell with the leanest of materials: ascending triads outlining the dark
minor-key harmony, a bass line that descends patiently, and a melody that revolves around a
single repeated note.
Instead of a typical slow movement in the center of the sonata, the brief Allegretto serves as a
palette cleanser, with the light, dancing figures in a lilting 3/4 meter providing respite from the
concentrated emotions of the outer movements.
The sonata’s finale, cast as a blazing Presto agitato, is the counterweight to the sparse opening
movement. As different as the two textures are, the raw materials for the two movements are
almost identical: rising minor triads, descending bass lines, and heavy emphasis on repeated
Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-flat Major, Op. 81a (“Les adieux”) (1809-10)
Born December, 1770 in Bonn
Died March 26, 1827 in Vienna
Napoleon’s army captured Vienna in the summer of 1809 and occupied the Austrian capital for
the second time in four years. Beethoven, unlike most of his friends and patrons, remained in the
city, and he passed the miserable season with little contact with the outside world.
The figure Beethoven may have missed most of all was the Archduke Rudolph (1788-1831), the
youngest brother of the Emperor Franz. Rudolph began taking piano lessons from Beethoven
starting in 1803 or 1804, at the age of 16. He was also, notably, the only student Beethoven ever
instructed in composition. Despite their differences in age and rank, the two formed a true
friendship that lasted the rest of Beethoven’s life. Rudolph was also a key patron: he and two
princes signed a guarantee in 1809 that ensured Beethoven a full salary and pension for as long as
he lived in Vienna.
Beethoven dedicated a number of important works to his young friend and patron, including the
Piano Sonata No. 29 (“Hammerklavier”) and the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos, as well as the
Missa Solemnis, Grosse Fuge, and “Archduke” Piano Trio. The most tender of all the works
dedicated to Rudolph was the Piano Sonata No. 26, composed during Rudolph’s leave from
Vienna, and subtitled “Lebewohl, Abwesenheit, und Wiedersehn” (“Farewell, Absence and
Return”). In French, the subtitle is rendered, “Les adieux, l’absence et le retour.”
Les adieux has stuck as the sonata’s common nickname, but it is worth keeping the original
German word Lebewohl in mind, because Beethoven actually inscribed its syllables over the first
three notes of the sonata’s Adagio introduction, a horn call figure that descends poignantly to a
minor chord. Groups of three descending notes, or, when inverted, three rising notes, appear
throughout the movement, recalling the farewell motto even in the lively Allegro passages.
The slow movement, Absence, moves to the bleak key of C minor, its main motive constructed in
dirge-like dotted rhythms. A lyrical contrasting theme marked cantabile (“singing”) provides
some relief, but it avoids ever settling comfortably in the major key. The dotted-rhythm figure
returns at the end, rising expectantly, until a crashing forte chord and flurry of arpeggios interrupt
to begin Das Wiedersehn—the Return. This extroverted movement saves its biggest surprise for
the coda, a series of humble arpeggios in a restrained, Poco andante tempo, capped by one last
explosive phrase.
© 2011 Aaron Grad.