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by Eric Bromberger

Danse sacrée et danse profane

Born August 22, 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France
Died March 25, 1918, Paris

The Pleyel company of Paris had long been famous for its pianos (Chopin particularly admired the Pleyel piano), and in 1897 the firm introduced a new instrument, the chromatic harp. Previous harps had been able to manage only seven notes in an octave and had to use pedals to create the other notes, but the chromatic harp dispensed with pedals and instead offered strings tuned to all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. The company naturally wanted to show off its new instrument, and Pleyel and the Brussels Conservatory jointly commissioned a new work for chromatic harp from Debussy in 1904.

That year was one of the most important, productive, and turbulent in the composer’s life. Deep in work on La mer, Debussy left his wife that year for Emma Bardac, the estranged wife of a wealthy banker; under the spell of this new affair, Debussy composed one of his finest pieces for piano, L’isle joyeuse. But Debussy’s distraught wife attempted suicide, and during the resulting scandal many of his friends angrily deserted him. Doubtless the commission for the new harp piece was welcome to the composer, who was almost destitute at this point–he stopped work on La mer to write it.

The Danse sacrée et danse profane are scored for chromatic harp and string orchestra. This is music of delicacy and understatement, and Debussy keeps the harp firmly in the spotlight: the string accompaniment is lean (and in fact the Danses are sometimes performed as chamber music, with the harp accompanied by string quartet). Listeners should be a little wary of Debussy’s title, which is intentionally vague and probably meant simply to be evocative. There is nothing distinctly sacred about the first, while the second evokes no images of pagan ritual. Instead, this is intimate and sometimes haunting music, well-calculated to show off the new instrument and to please audiences. The somber Danse sacrée–based on a melody by Debussy’s friend, the Portuguese composer-conductor Francisco de Lacerda–is poised and formal in its lean-lined melodies. The music flows without pause–and with an almost imperceptible quickening of pace–into the Danse profane, which is brighter, more relaxed, and more animated. Sparkling runs show off the possibilities of the new instrument and finally drive the dance to its emphatic concluding pizzicato.

The Danse sacrée et danse profane were first performed in November 1904 at one of the Concerts Colonnes in Paris by the harpist Mme. Wurmser-Delcourt. Reviewers, still outraged by Debussy’s domestic scandal earlier that year, gave it only a lukewarm welcome. Debussy, still pressed for money, may have worried that the music would have few performances in its harp version, and that same year he arranged it for two pianos; it is still sometimes performed (and recorded) in this arrangement. The dedication, however, is to Gustave Lyon, the inventor of the chromatic harp.

String Quartet in F Major

Born March 7, 1875, Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, France
Died December 28, 1937, Paris

Ravel wrote his only string quartet in 1902-3, while still a student at the Paris Conservatory, and the first performance was given by the Heymann Quartet in Paris on March 5, 1904, two days before the composer’s twenty-ninth birthday. Ravel’s quartet is in many ways similar to the Debussy quartet, written in 1893–there are parallels between the structure, rhythmic shape, and mood of the two works–but Ravel dedicated his quartet “To my dear teacher Gabriel Fauré,” who was directing Ravel’s work at the Conservatory.

One of the most distinctive features of Ravel’s quartet is its cyclic deployment of themes: the first movement’s two main themes return in various forms in the other three movements, giving the quartet a tight sense of unity. Some have charged that such repetition precludes sufficient thematic variety, but Ravel subtly modifies the color, harmony, and mood of each reappearance of these themes so that from this unity comes enormous variety.

The first movement is marked Allegro moderato, but Ravel specifies that it should also be Très doux. This movement is built on two distinct theme-groups. The calm first subject is heard immediately in the first violin over a rising accompaniment in the other voices, and this leads–after some spirited extension–to the haunting second theme, announced by the first violin and viola, two octaves apart. The relatively brief development rises to a huge climax–Ravel marks it triple forte–before the movement subsides to close with its opening theme, now gracefully elongated, fading gently into silence.

The second movement, Assez vif–Très rythmé, is a scherzo in ternary form. The opening is a tour de force of purely pizzicato writing that makes the quartet sound like a massive guitar. Some of this movement’s rhythmic complexity comes from Ravel’s use of multiple meters. The tempo indication is 6/8(3/4), and while the first violin is accented in 3/4 throughout, the other voices are frequently accented in 6/8, with the resulting cross-rhythms giving the music a pleasing vitality. The slow center section is a subtle transformation of the first movement’s second theme. At the conclusion of this section comes one of the quartet’s most brilliant passages, the bridge back to the opening material. Here the pizzicato resumes quietly, gathers speed and force, and races upward to launch the return of the movement’s opening theme. This is wonderful writing for quartet, and the scherzo drives straight to its explosive pizzicato cadence.

The third movement–Très lent–is in free form, and perhaps the best way to understand this movement is to approach it as a rhapsody based loosely on themes from the first movement. Beneath these themes Ravel sets a rhythmic cell of three notes that repeats constantly, but it remains an accompaniment figure rather than becoming an active thematic participant. The movement’s impression of freedom results in no small part from its frequent changes of both key and meter.

After the serene close of the third movement, the fourth–Agité–leaps almost abrasively to life. Agitated it certainly is, an effect that comes from its steadily-driving double-stroked passages, and this mood continues across the span of the movement. The basic metric unit here is the rapid 5/8 heard at the beginning, though Ravel changes meter frequently, with excursions into 3/4 and 5/4. Once again, material from the first movement returns, and after several lyric interludes the finale takes on once again the aggressive mood of its opening and powers its way to the close.

Ravel’s quartet generated a mixed reaction at its première in 1904. One of those most critical was the dedicatee, Gabriel Fauré, who was especially bothered by the unorthodox finale, which he thought “stunted, badly balanced, in fact a failure.” But when Ravel, troubled by such criticism, turned to Debussy for his estimation, the latter offered the best possible response: “In the name of the gods of Music and for my sake personally, do not touch a note of what you have written.”

of Deborah, for Deborah

Born 1953, Vancouver, Canada

Note from the Composer

To begin with, the notes and harmonies of the piece are made from Deborah’s name, according to the German language association of notes and letters:

                 D = D
                 E = E
                 B = B♭
                 (o and r have no analogs to musical notes)
                 A = A
                 H = B

These notes - D E B♭ A B - permeate the piece in many, many ways. This is one of the ways in which the title of Deborah, for Deborah has meaning: the piece is literally made of “Deborah”. Those of us who knew her know that much of Deborah’s identity as a person and as a musician was shaped by her work with singers and by growing up with string players. Singing, playing string instruments and playing the harp – these are all about breathing, either literally or figuratively. Deborah’s battle for her life was also all about breathing: how to keep it healthy and strong in the face of tremendous odds. Breathing is literally incorporated into the sounds of the piece – the sounds and gestures of exhaling and inhaling. The structure of the piece also reflects Deborah’s identity. The structure of breathing (inhale followed by hold followed by exhale) is quite literally mirrored in the piece’s design. The piece is made of nine sections, each identical in length: 31 bars. The fifth - or middle - section is the source for all the other eight. It contains everything -all the rhythms, all the notes, all the music from which the other eight are made. I think of this ‘source’ as the piece’s complete identity in concentrated form. It is a musical analog to Deborah’s identity. Sections 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8 and 9 are effectively variations on section 5 in that each consists of a subtraction of some kind from the material in section 5. That subtraction can consist of either literally removing notes in the various variations from the equivalent moment of section 5. Or it could be sustaining notes in the various variations at the equivalent moment in which they are initiated in section 5. One could literally lay any variation on top of section 5 and it will line up perfectly with 5 (the source) or any of the other variations. The symbolism of this structure as it relates to the reflection of a composer on the life of his sister is something I leave to you to consider. I’ll say only that there are many layers of meaning for me. This way of making music is a personal inquiry into the nature of musical sound as it travels through time, constantly changing but constantly returning to familiar territory. How this way of hearing musical sound connects to one’s thoughts and feelings about a very special human life is the subject of of Deborah, for Deborah.
                                  - Joel Hoffman

Piano Quartet No. 2 in G Minor, Opus 45

Born May 12, 1845, Pamiers, France
Died November 4, 1924, Paris

Gabriel Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 1 has become one of the cornerstones of French chamber music, but his Second Quartet, composed in 1885-86, is not nearly so well-known. Fauré was still struggling for recognition when he wrote the later quartet: at age 40, he was supporting himself (and a wife and infant son) by working as an organist in Paris. Real fame would not come to the gentle Fauré until late in life, but when he composed the Second Piano Quartet he was at the height of his powers: from this same period came two of his most famous works, the Requiem and the Pavane.

Though he made his living as an organist, Fauré was an excellent pianist, and the piano is extremely active in the Second Piano Quartet, announcing themes and dominating textures even when it has a purely accompanying role. This music often sets the piano and strings in opposition, and the striking beginning offers one of the best examples of this. The opening of the Second Piano Quartet is said to have been inspired by a memory from Fauré’s childhood. Between ages 4 and 9, he lived at Montgauzy, where there was an iron foundry driven by a stream. The beginning of the quartet is Fauré’s depiction of that memory: the rippling sound of the stream is heard in the piano, while the strings’ thrusting, broad-limbed melody echoes the pounding machinery. The movement has two subordinate themes, both distantly related to the opening melody–one hears machinery surging, however faintly, throughout this movement, which concludes quietly on fragments of the “foundry” theme.

The piano dominates the Allegro molto. In fact, the opening belongs almost exclusively to that instrument, with only faint comments from the strings. The structure of the movement is unusual for a scherzo, for it has no trio section; instead, Fauré offers contrasting episodes from the strings, related to the first movement’s “foundry” theme.

The restrained Adagio non troppo opens with a long duet for piano and viola, with the instruments taking turns. Fauré’s student Charles Koechlin is reported to have said that if the viola did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent it just to play the theme that begins this movement. Violin and cello join the duet, and gradually the music grows to a soaring climax, then falls away to the quiet conclusion.

The energetic Allegro molto bursts to life with a triplet accompaniment in the piano that will figure importantly throughout the movement. Strings have the almost violent opening theme, the piano the lyric second idea. This movement is interesting for its rhythmic vitality, and listeners will enjoy such details as the misplaced stresses or the brilliant waltz that breaks out from time to time before the finale concludes with an exuberant coda, pushed along by flying triplets.