Alessio Bax / Lucille Chung, piano duo

Concert Streaming Premiere

Sunday, January 24, 8:15 PM ET

Program notes listed below

Debussy & Stravinsky

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Program

Claude Debussy (arr. Maurice Ravel): Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (for piano four hands)
 
 Igor Stravinsky: Petrushka (complete original version for piano four hands)
      Scene I
        The Shrove-Tide Fair
        Russian Dance
      Scene II
        Petrushka
      Scene III
        The Blackamoor
        Waltz (Blackamoor and Ballerina)
      Scene IV
        The Shrove-Tide Fair (Towards Evening)
        Wet-Nurses’ Dance
        Peasant with Bear
        Gypsies and a Rake Vendor
        Dance of the Coachmen
        Masqueraders
        The Scuffle (Blackamoor and Petrushka)
        Death of Petrushka
        Police and the Juggler
        Apparition of Petrushka’s Double

Program Notes:
(by Dr. Natalie Wren, 2020)

Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune……………….………….................................Claude Debussy

Arr. Maurice Ravel

 


“I have just come out of the concert, deeply moved. The marvel! Your illustration of the Afternoon of a Faun, which presents a dissonance with my text only by going much further, really, into nostalgia and into light, with finesse, with sensuality, with richness. I press your hand admiringly, Debussy.


Yours, Mallarmé”

 

While Symbolist poet Stéphane Mellarmé was at first skeptical of having his 1865 poem
Afternoon of a Faun adapted to music, he was bewitched when he heard Claude Debussy’s symphonic tone poem Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun (1891–1894). While Debussy produced many of his mature works in this decade—including Nocturnes, Images, and his String Quartet in G Minor—it is the 10-minute Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun which remains his most famous work. It was premiered in Paris on December 22, 1894 under the baton of Gustave Doret, was arranged by Maurice Ravel for piano four hands in 1910, and was later adapted to a ballet in 1912 by renowned dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Today Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun is considered to have marked the beginning of the Modernist movement, with conductor and composer Pierre Boulez asserting, “It is here that the twentieth century begins.”


Mellarmé’s piece Afternoon of a Faun is a perfect example of Symbolist poetry, with its fantastical
trappings of mythological creatures and symbolic imagery in a dream-like setting. The poem tells the story of a faun—a half goat and half man, a symbol of the unbridled spirit—who awakens from a nap and becomes besotted when he sees beautiful nymphs and naiads—maidens of nature—frolicking in the woods. Through the eyes of a dazed faun, the narrative is meandering and opaque. Debussy’s musical adaptation reflects the same nonlinear dreaminess, opening with a languid flute solo:

Like Mellarmé’s poem, Debussy deliberately avoids clear musical motives and functional harmonic
progression; rather, he manipulates colors and changing textures, letting melodies emerge and fade
away, as in a dream. In 1910 at the age of 28, Igor Stravinsky became an overnight sensation in Paris with the premiere of his ballet The Firebird. This was the first of many collaborations with renowned ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who had launched his Ballets Russes in 1909. Their partnership led to a number of major works of the early 20th century: Petrushka (1911), Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring, 1913), Le Rossignol (The Nightingale, 1914), Pulcinella (1920), Mavra (1922), Renard (1922), Les noces (The Wedding, 1923), Oedipus Rex (1927), and Apollon musagète (Apollo, 1928).

 

Early in his career, Stravinsky was inspired by visual imagery; often a piece would first come to him as an image in his mind, which he then transcribed into music. The image of a young girl who danced herself to death in a pagan ritual became the beginning of Le Sacre du printemps, and the image of a puppet who comes to life gave rise to Petrushka. The composer describes his inspiration for Petrushka:

 

"I had in my mind a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating
the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggi. The orchestra in turn
retaliates with menacing trumpet-blasts. The outcome is a terrific noise which reaches its
climax and ends in the sorrowful and querulous collapse of the poor puppet. … One day I
leapt for joy. I had indeed found my title — Petrushka, the immortal and unhappy hero of
every fair in all countries."

 


The ballet is comprised of four scenes; the outer two are public, taking place on the Admiralty Square in St. Petersburg in the 1830s, while the two middle scenes are set in private rooms and focus on the ballet’s main characters: the pitiable outcast Petrushka, the lovely and unattainable Ballerina, and the ill-mannered Moor. The ballet opens at the Shrovetide Fair, a bustling pre-Lenten festival that has filled the streets with people, street dancers, and drummers. Rival buskers vie for the crowd’s attention with their music while the Magician, who has imbued his puppets with human emotions, introduces his puppet show.


The two inner scenes involve the three puppets interacting in their cells; Petrushka competes with the Moor for the Ballerina’s love but ultimately loses the contest and is shoved out of the scene. The final scene returns to the busy street fair, but as Petrushka enters the stage with the Moor in pursuit, our protagonist is struck down by the Moor’s saber and dies in front of an aghast crowd. After the Magician insists that the poor Petrushka was merely a puppet, the street empties. At last, we see Petrushka’s ghost on the roof of the theatre thumbing his nose at the oppressive Magician, who flees in horror.

A friend of Stravinsky’s, Nikolai Myaskovsky, opened his review of Petrushka by posing the question, “Is Stravinsky’s Petrushka a work of art? […] For Petrushka is life itself. All the music in it is full of such energy, such freshness and wit, such healthy, incorruptible merriment, such reckless abandon, that all its deliberate banalities and trivialities, its constant background of accordions not only fail to repel but, quite the contrary, carry us away all the more. […] The music of this extraordinary ballet has such integrity, energy, and such inexhaustible humor, that one positively loses all desire to attempt a more detailed analysis …”

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