Christina Petrowska Quilico and composer/conductor Pierre Boulez. Photo: André Leduc
All three French composers on this album were visionaries of their time. They shared an interest in Eastern music and were inspired by written art, especially the structures used by French poets Mallarmé, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud, novelist James Joyce, and other writers.
Preludes Book | Claude Debussy
In a letter dated September 3, 1907 to Jacques Durand, Debussy wrote, “I am more and more convinced that music, by its nature, is something that cannot be poured into a rigid and traditional form. It is colors and time, in rhythm.” His Préludes Deuxième Livre for piano, written at intervals between 1911 and 1912, masterfully exemplifies Debussy’s concept of music. Debussy, like Messiaen and Boulez, was an exceptional painter of musical sounds, discovering new combinations of color, form, and line for every poetic idea he was expressing in his music. His connections with poets and authors Stéphane Mallarmé, Maurice Maeterlinck, Charles Baudelaire, and Edgar Allan Poe are reflected in Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un faune and Pelléas et Mélisande, to name just two. In a letter to Edgard Varèse in 1911, Debussy proclaimed, “I love pictures almost much as music.” However, he disliked being called an “Impressionist.” A glance at the composer’s scores shows precision, fastidious detail, and numerous dynamic markings, not the blurring of some impressionist painters. Debussy creates tonal color, atmosphere through motifs, distinctive harmonies, exotic scales such as pentatonic and whole-tone, chromatic and unresolved chords. Nothing was the same in 20th century music after Debussy.
Preludes, Book Two by Debussy was published in 1913, three years after the publication of Book One. Book Two consists of 12 short pieces, each bearing a descriptive title.
No.1. Brouillards (Mists)
Music as evanescent and insubstantial as its title. Mere wisps of sound, repeated arpeggios, are blurred by the use of the pedal. The piece uses neither theme, counterpoint, accompaniment, development, diatonic harmony, nor chromaticism, but juxtaposes the white keys against the blacks to create polytonality. In this harmonic mist, short melodic phrases appear briefly. Like a fog, the piece lacks a defined ending, but is suddenly gone as a complex chord hangs in the air at the conclusion.
No. 2. Feuilles mortes (Autumn Leaves)
Debussy indicated that this evocation of autumn should be played with “melancholy.” One hears the leaves slowly falling, one by one. The gray mood suggests regret over the departed summer and foreboding of the winter to come. The spacing of the sonorities underlines the air of resignation that pervades this prelude, full of poignant expression of autumn’s bittersweet melancholy. The final major chord does hint at a hopeful yearning.
No. 3. La Puerta del vino (The Wine Gate)
The Wine Gate is one of the entrances in the many walls surrounding the 13th-century Alhambra Palace in Granada. Debussy, who never visited Spain, was supposedly inspired by a picture postcard of the site that he received from Manuel de Falla. The music alternates between passion and languor, superimposed on the insistent rhythm of the habanera.
No. 4. Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses (The fairies are exquisite dancers)
The title is derived from a line in James Barrie’s Peter Pan. The music is a sonic equivalent of Walt Disney’s shimmering “pixie dust,” all gossamer and sparkle. The fairies dance without their feet ever touching the ground. A dreamy, slow waltz in the middle leads to the fluttering and dizzying trills and reminiscences of the opening. The prelude concludes with a citation of the horn melody from the Oberon Overture by Weber, a composer much admired by Debussy.
No. 7. La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (The terrace for moonlight audiences)
This prelude had its title drawn from L’Inde sans les Anglais by Pierre Loti. Its opening ironically quotes from Debussy’s earlier Clair de lune, inspired by Jean Corot’s famous canvas. The imaginative, widely spaced sonorities using the extreme registers fully realize what Debussy once said: “Music alone has the power to evoke, at will, those imaginary sites and that fantastic but indubitable world which is secretly at work in the mysterious poetry of the night, in the thousand anonymous noises of the leaves, caressed by the rays of the moon.”
No. 8. Ondine (Water nymph)
Debussy, that supreme tone-painter of waterscapes, here describes the mythical Naiad as she swims and splashes, leaving glittering sprays of notes in her wake. Ondine, the soulless water nymph who lures innocent fishermen to their destruction, fascinated numerous artists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Debussy suggests the flowing water and the darting of fish with rapid arpeggios and tremolos. The interval of the tritone is emphasized to create a feeling of nebulousness.
No. 11. Les tierces alternées (Alternate thirds)
More an “etude” than a “prelude,” this is a piece of pure pianism, a cheerful toccata in which the fingers are kept busy and the ears are kept entertained. It anticipates Debussy’s Études of 1915. It is the only prelude without an extramusical title. Using almost exclusively major and minor thirds alternating between the hands, Debussy relishes the technical limitations and manages to give the material a Latin American flavor with the appearance of the tango rhythm near the end.
No. 12. Feux d’artifice (Fireworks)
A virtuosic evocation of the July 14 Bastille Day celebration in Paris. Pinwheels, Roman candles, and skyrockets are delineated by repeated figures and exploding arpeggios and scales. The combined glissandos, pounding chords, and octave passages are all reminiscent of Liszt and rare in Debussy’s music. The opening, though, hearkens back to the atmosphere created at the beginning of Brouillards, and the athematic, atonal static character fully demonstrates Debussy’s mature approach to music creation. As the brilliant display ends, a strain of La Marseillaise is heard in the distance.
Vingt Regards Sur L’Enfant Jésus | Olivier Messiaen
Olivier Messiaen has composed much of the most significant sacred music of the 20th century, heralded for the deeply felt mysticism that underlies nearly all of his work. This mysticism includes a love of the natural, and in particular, his great admiration for bird songs, which occur in fantastic representations, in both so many of his piano compositions and large-scale orchestral works, among them Oiseaux éxotiques and Chronochromie. It also underscores Messiaen’s non-goal-oriented time (called “moment time” by the late theorist/composer Jonathan Kramer in The Time of Music), in which the present does not require linear development to create musical meaning. This concept influenced several of the most important composers of the second half of the last century. Messiaen became Professor of Harmony at the Paris Conservatory and several years later Professor of Analysis, Aesthetics, and Rhythm. This latter course included the study of Greek metres, Hindu rhythms, and birdsong. His Analysis class gained a worldwide reputation among young musicians. His students included Yvonne Loriod (later his second wife), Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, and Canadian Gilles Tremblay. One might further note that Messiaen had an active interest in Asian music (like Debussy), from which he made good use of the palindromic rhythms that he adopted from his study of East Indian music. This is not the music of an ascetic, but, somewhat paradoxically, of a sensualist. In this he achieves a greater kinship with Asian traditions of mysticism than with western religious traditions. Nevertheless, one can still hear the repetitious and subdued organ-like support in the left hand (against which flit the rapid birdsong figures in the right hand) in the opening of Première communion de la Vierge. These works leave no doubt that the origins of his spirituality are embedded in the nave of a cathedral and in nature. His love of French poets like Mallarmé, Baudelaire, and Arthur Rimbaud also shows the cultural bond between Debussy, Messiaen, and Boulez.
Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus
The immense cycle dates from 1944 and describes in music the way God, Mary, Angels, Wise Men, and Shepherds gazed upon Jesus in the manger. The “gazes” of more impersonal entities are also depicted: The Star, The Cross, The Heights, Time, The Word, Silence, The Church of Love, and the Spirit of Joy. The following comments are excerpts from Messiaen’s own detailed preface to the score.
No. 4: Regard de la Vierge (Gaze of the Virgin)
“Innocence and tenderness…the Pure Woman, the Woman of the Magnificat, the Blessed Virgin contemplates her Child.”
No. 11: Première communion de la Vierge (First communion of the Virgin)
“A tableau in which the Blessed Virgin is represented kneeling, bowed down in the night, a bright halo encircling her womb. Eyes closed, she worships the fruit hidden within her. This takes place between the Annunciation and the Nativity. It is the first and greatest of all communions.”
No. 16: Regard des prophètes, des bergers, et des Mages (Gaze of the prophets, shepherds and Wise Men)
“A chorale melody represents the prophets, while the Magi from the East and the piping of the shepherds are,” Messiaen writes, represented by “exotic music-tam-tams and oboes-an enormously reedy concerto.”
No. 2: Regard de l’étoile (Gaze of the star)
“The impact of Grace; the star shines guilelessly, surmounted by a cross.”
No. 14: Regard des anges (Gaze of the Angels)
“Flickering, explosions, powerful blasts by immense trombones. Then the song of the birds which descends from the blue, and the amazement of the angels increases, for it is not with them but with the human race that God is united.”
No. 8: Regard des hauteurs (Gaze of the heights)
“Glory in the highest. The heights descend to the manger like the song of a lark. Birdsong: nightingale, thrush, warbler, finch, chaffinch, goldfinch, Cetti’s warbler, canary and above all, the lark.”
No. 13: Noel (Carol)
“A carillon. The Christmas bells repeat with us the gentle names of Jesus, Mary, Joseph.”
Première Sonate | Pierre Boulez
Pierre Boulez cited Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune as a major turning point for new music. In his words, “the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music: what was overthrown was not so much the art of development, as the very concept of form itself.” The way the music floats and its unique colors had an influence on Boulez’s First Piano Sonata. The sound was more curved and not as angular and dry as some of his later works. Olivier Messiaen, who taught Boulez, would say of him that, underneath it all, he was simply a poet. Like Debussy and Messiaen before him, Boulez was inspired by poets and authors such as Mallarmé, Rimbaud, E.E. Cummings, and James Joyce. He, too, was inspired by Eastern music, which had already had such a transformative effect on Debussy and Messiaen. In his early Première Sonate (1946), he stylistically raises the pitch concerns of dodecaphonic (12 tone row) sensibility into an exquisite flow of musical gestures that are evocative of a poetic monologue, with references that simultaneously move forwards and backwards, vertically and horizontally anticipating such later compositions as Pli selon Pli. This is music that resonates with an incandescent cold, like the Canadian Arctic under a blinding sun, shimmering with clarity of purpose. This performance was coached by the composer himself, hours before this recording was made (when he was awarded the Glenn Gould Prize in 2002). Recordings of Boulez conducting his works reveal the utmost clarity and depth, but also contain the brilliance of a charged energy that he wanted, and which he indicated he had received in this live performance.
Troisième Sonate pour piano | Pierre Boulez
The Troisième Sonate arose from Boulez’s interest in literary Modernism, particularly as represented in the works of Mallarmé and Joyce. Boulez was attracted to a musical revolution and sought a way to adapt written ideas and structures into a compositional process. This Troisième Sonate is an “open work” and has remained a “work-in-progress” that was never finished. It is a musical labyrinth, incorporating nonlinear design, performer-based decisions, and notions of form itself as a principal aesthetic. It is very much like a map of a city, where the performer can choose different paths in the score, while at the same time obeying certain traffic rules. It is difficult to perform, requiring enormous preparation in terms of organization and practice. Christina Petrowska Quilico was fortunate to have had personal advice and input from Pierre Boulez on the performance of this piece. She had created a visual set of drawings based on serial techniques and received Boulez’s approval to use his music in her art. “I have seen the graphics of Christina Petrowska-Brégent* using very ingeniously my printed score and I agree definitely that she can use my score for showing these graphics, very inventive as they are, for any visual purpose.”
* Christina Petrowska Quilico had been married to her late husband, composer Michel-Georges Brégent, during this time
— Christina Petrowska Quilico, edited by Linda Litwack
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