top of page

Program Notes "French Melody" Oct 21

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (L’ apprenti sorcier) Paul Dukas (1865-1935) is not only the best-known work by the composer, it remains one of the most familiar of all concert pieces. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, an instant success at its 1897 premiere, continued to enjoy tremendous popularity for the next several decades. Then, in 1940, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was immortalized on the silver screen, courtesy of the Walt Disney animated classic, Fantasia. In the film, Mickey Mouse portrays the hapless apprentice, whose misadventures are set to Dukas’ brilliant score, performed by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The great German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe provided the inspiration with his ballad, entitled Die Zauberlehrling, Goethe tells the story of a magician’s apprentice. The apprentice animates a broomstick and orders it to fetch water. The broomstick complies but soon, the magician’s house is overflowing with water. The apprentice tries to stop the disaster by chopping the broom in half with an axe, but that causes two brooms to emerge and further inundate the house with water. Finally, the sorcerer returns, and with a wave of his hand, restores calm.

All of the action of Goethe’s poem is masterfully portrayed in Dukas’s scintillating music. A mysterious, slow introduction (Assez lent) transports the audience to the magician’s home. The scurrying apprentice is portrayed by a quicksilver woodwind figure (Vif). A stroke of the kettledrum is followed by a moment of silence. Isolated notes suggest that the broom is beginning to stir. Finally, its bumptious theme is played in full by the bassoons. From here, the music proceeds on its inexorable course, gaining power and momentum along the way. There is a brief pause when the apprentice splits the broom in two. But soon, the fury returns when the rejuvenated brooms wreak more havoc. Finally, the action comes to a crashing halt, as the sorcerer returns home. The hushed, introductory music briefly returns, whisked aside by an orchestral flourish.

- Ken Meltzer Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Petite suite--Claude Debussy (1862-1918) The first movements of Debussy’s Petite Suite of 1889 are drawn from two poems of Paul Verlaine’s (1844-1896) work of poems Fêtes galantes. The poems evoke the era of 18th-century aristocrats on country outings. Partiers assume the archetypal Commedia dell'Arte roles – there are countesses and rogues, priests and knights, all engaged in an atmosphere of frivolity.

In En bateau (Sailing), revelers in a boat have their minds on romantic trysts as they sail at dusk on a dark lake. Debussy’s music captures perfectly a mood of water-borne serenity and languor, opening with a kind of musical sigh that made the Petite Suite immediately popular with a wide audience.

But Verlaine’s poem has a wrinkle. There is a desire for romance, but no consummation. In fact, the poem ends with a wistfulness, despite a happy tone – promise unfulfilled.

And listen as Debussy’s music hints, just hints, at this dreaming and longing.

In the second movement, Cortège (Retinue), Debussy happily conveys Verlaine’s outward textual playfulness as a lady and her escort of a liveried monkey and pageboy retire upstairs. Nor does he miss the less-than-pure thoughts on the minds of her companions as their mistress proceeds unaware.

The final two movements, Menuet and Ballet, while not connected to specific poems, articulate broadly the nostalgia and the sparkle held in balance throughout the poems of Fêtes galantes.

The Petite Suite we hear now is not the piece Debussy composed at all, but is itself a kind of translation. Debussy’s suite was originally written for piano duet.

--LA Philharmonic

From Mignon- Je suis Titania -Ambroise Thomas (1811-1896) Thomas composed two dozen or so operas. Only Mignon (1866), based on a story by Goethe, and Hamlet are still performed. Mignon, stolen and raised by gypsies, is helped by a wandering old minstrel and a young student, her eventual love. In a plot even more bizarre than usual the aspiring actress Philine, with designs on the same student, here sings about her new role as Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

La fille du régiment by Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848) is an Opera-Comique and premièred in Paris in 1840. It tells the story of a young orphan girl raised by an army regiment as their mascot. Donizetti wrote 75 operas as well as orchestral and chamber music. In the latter part of his short life he suffered from mental illness. After his death much of his work disappeared from the concert stage. Over the last 50 years his work has had a resurgence and today the composer’s ingenious knack for vocal writing and his gift for melody are widely acknowledged. “Chacun le sait” is the most well know aria from the Opera and is considered a difficult piece for sopranos.

Another Soprano aria, “Salut à la France” became almost unofficial anthem of France during the second Empire.

Les contes d’Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) was his final work. He died a year before it premiered. This opera fantastic is based on three short stories by the writer E. T. A. Hoffman the protagonist in the story. Hoffman, in his stories and the opera, seduces and is seduces by many women. Antonia is one of those women. She has inherited her mother's talent for singing, but her father forbids her to sing because of the mysterious illness from which she suffers. Antonia wishes that her lover would return to her ("Elle a fui, la tourterelle" – "She fled, the dove"). Her father also forbids her to see Hoffmann, who encourages Antonia in her musical career, and therefore endangers her without knowing it.

Hoffman also falls in love with Olympia, an automaton. She sings one of the opera's most famous arias, "Les oiseaux dans la charmille" (The birds in the arbor, nicknamed "The Doll Song"), during which she periodically runs down and needs to be wound up before she can continue.

Carmen Suite no. 1 by Georges Bizet (1838-1875) - Parisian composer and piano virtuoso Georges Bizet was in the very last months of his life when his opera Carmen premiered in March of 1875. It would, in due time, become the greatest known and most beloved of his works but Bizet had only its original rather tepid reception to carry with him to the grave. Bizet’s gifts for melodic economy and spontaneity were never on better display than in Carmen. Each scene, each moment in fact, is so perfectly orchestrated with such a sense of musical aptness that no element of the whole is ever put in shadow by another. Suite No. 1 offers a five-course sampler of Bizet’s skill for creating lasting melodies of graceful inventiveness that somehow sound as they have been with us always. Tchaikovsky thought so, as did Debussy and Saint-Saens, even though it would take the reviewers and professional critics a bit longer to realize what a masterpiece the music world had on its hands.

--Utah Symphony

The Carmen Suite No. 2 is derived from vocal numbers of the opera. It starts off with the Marche des contrebandiers (The Smugglers’ March), which is sung at the beginning of Act III, when José has joined Carmen in the mountains where her friends carry on their trade. It is a light march, stealthy yet somehow impertinent. The Habañera is a transcription of Carmen’s famous Act I aria in which she describes love as a wild bird that can never be tamed: “If you don’t love me, I love you; but if I love you, watch out for yourself!” For a complete contrast, the Nocturne is an orchestration of the tender and soaring Act III aria of Michaëla, José’s sweet and chaste former girlfriend, as she fearfully wanders into the mountains with a message for him. Here a solo violin takes over the vocal line. The Chanson du Toréador is Escamillo’s swaggering portrayal of his art, while La Garde Montante is the children’s chorus from the beginning of the opera, where a band of street kids imitate the local troop’s changing of the guard. Finally, Danse Bohême is the gypsy dance that Carmen and her friends perform at Lillas Pastia’s: it starts quietly but builds to a frenzy.

--Sheboygan Symphony Orchestra

Recent Posts
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page