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Program Notes: Awakenings

Concert Program

Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869)
Les nuits d’été, op. 7
1. Villanelle (F)
2. Le spectre de la rose (D)
3. Sur les lagunes (g)
4. Absence (Eb)
5. Au cimetiére (Bb)
6. L’ile inconnue (F)
Ana Sokolovic
Henri Frédien Tomasi (1901 – 1971)
Fanfares liturgiques
1. Annonciation
2. Evangile
3. Apocalypse (Scherzo)
4. Procession du Vendredi-saint

Program Notes

Born in La Côte-Saint-André, Isère, France, December 11, 1803; died in Paris, 8 March 1869
Les nuits d’été (Summer Nights), Op. 7 (1840-1)

Not long before he died, Berlioz referred to his song cycle Les nuits d’été (Summer Nights) as “quite unknown in France and something which I myself have never heard in its entirety.”  It was many decades, almost a century in fact, before his collection of six songs began to widely circulate.  Les nuits d’été was ahead of its time.  Berlioz was the first to break away from the established narrative or psychological theme of the song cycle with piano (Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, or Schubert’s Winterreise, for example) and to construct his cycle around an emotional theme and a single poet.  He went a step further and orchestrated the six songs.  Composed 1840-41, these delicate, intimate songs are the result of his friendship with Théophile Gautier, poet, novelist, literary critic, and fellow traveller in the early years of Romanticism.  Berlioz read his collection La comédie de la mort and it resonated with his own taste for the macabre.  Villanelle was the first song he set, in March 1840, adding five more over the next few months.

Les nuits d’été is unified by its recurring theme of lost love and the accompanying emptiness.  Villanelle, an ode to Spring, is the brightest of the songs, but an undercurrent of melancholy lies in its shifting harmonies and pulsing chords and in its hint that Springtime love can be an illusion.  The spectre of the rose begins with one of Berlioz’s finest melodies, languid and soaring, as it introduces the spectre of a rose that returns in the dreams of a young woman who wore it at her first ball.  The seascape in the third song, On the lagoons, is a tragic one, haunted by the tragedy of death and the lover’s mournful cry: “Alas, to set sail across the sea without love.”  The keening accompaniment is unresolved by the end.  Profound loneliness underscores Absence, with its raw, almost elemental cry for the lover’s return, echoed in the simplest, most understated of gestures.  In the cemetery descends even deeper into despair, as moonlight awakens unhappy souls.  Strange, ethereal sounds paint the tremulous light of a shrouded spirit.  Then, in The unknown isle, Berlioz gives us his most unrestrained, exuberant writing.  A magical island where love can last forever brings us back full circle.  But the quiet close to the song seems to suggest that the voyage there is not yet quite over and may be a long one.

Born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), September 7, 1968
Ringelspiel (Merry-go-round) (2013)

Currently beginning a three-year residency as Artist-in-Residence with the Montreal Symphony, Montreal composer Ana Sokolović has won many national awards including recent back-to-back Junos for large-scale orchestral works in the “Classical Composition of the Year’ category.  Svadba-Wedding (2012) for six female voices, one of four operas she has composed, has received more than 50 productions around the world, helping make Sokolović, internationally, the fourth most performed female opera composer of the last decade (2010-19).  The Serbian–born composer has lived in Montreal for 30 years, teaching at the Université de Montréal, steadily building a career which now embraces frequent international performances of her orchestral, vocal, chamber, opera and theatre pieces, and a major publisher.

Ringelspiel was the first of three pieces she wrote for the National Arts Centre Orchestra after winning the NAC Award in 2009.  The German word, meaning merry-go-round or carousel, is similar to Ringispil in her own Serbian language.  “I like the musicality of the word,” she says.  “To most of us, a merry-go-round brings back memories of childhood and conjures up emotional responses of nostalgia and naïveté.”  Sokolović also derives inspiration from the mechanical aspects of the merry-go-round — its simplicity of movement, its circular motion, and its status as an icon of the machine age.  The five sections of the piece are played without break and each evokes a different atmosphere.  The first is a very mechanical section, she says, suggesting the merry-go-round itself, a huge machine which now begins to turn.  The second is heavy-footed and we can feel the steps around us.  The middle movement, she finds ‘a little spooky,’ a sort of merry-go-round ballerina.  The machine sounds return in the fourth movement, while the fifth turns sad and nostalgic as the merry-go-round is now broken.

Born in Marseille, France, August 17, 1901; died in Paris, January 13, 1971
Fanfares liturgiques (Liturgical Fanfares) for brass and percussion (1941-4)

Growing up in Marseille, about as far distant from the French capital as is possible within the country, Henri Tomasi generally preferred to do things his own way.  “I had to make it on my own,” he said in an interview with his son two years before his death.  “I had neither the freedom nor the resources that most of my Conservatory comrades from bourgeois families had.”  Born exactly 120 years ago to poor but musical Corsican immigrant parents (his father was a postal worker), the young Tomasi distinguished himself in the Marseille Conservatory from an early age.  A childhood of poverty left him with a strong feeling for justice throughout his life and work.  At 15, he, like Shostakovich and other self-starter musicians, earned money by playing piano in some of the earliest movie theatres, fine-tuning a gift for improvisation.  He also played in upscale hotels and brothels.  Tomasi’s skill and determination brought him a grant from the city at the age of 20 and the support  of a lawyer-benefactor to pursue studies at the Paris Conservatoire, where he was taught by the best: Paul Vidal for composition, Vincent d’Indy and Philippe Gaubert for orchestral conducting.  Throughout his studies he continued to play piano in cafés, cinemas, and in the Palace Hotel Lutetia to pay the bills.  In 1927, after diligently handing in ‘a fugue per week’ in the words of a friend, Tomasi won both a Prix de Rome and First Prize for conducting.

Conducting and composing were to be Tomasi’s life from this point onwards.  He conducted at the Concerts du Journal and for Radio-Colonial, one of France’s first radio stations.  A trio of symphonic poems helped build a reputation as a composer.  For a quarter of a century, he conducted leading French and European ensembles and became principal conductor at the Opéras of Monte-Carlo and of Vichy.  In 1956, loss of hearing in his right ear forced him to concentrate entirely on composing.  “While it is true that I regret having lost time conducting, I have to admit that it gave me an advantage that others don’t have,” he told his son.  “There is no doubt that today, no one can beat me for orchestration – hands down!”

A large catalogue of about 120 opus numbers includes 20 virtuoso concertos which are led in the number of performances by those for trumpet (1948), trombone (1956) and saxophone (1949).  The Fanfares liturgiques (Liturgical Fanfares) (1941-4) is his most performed work in its various versions.  He wrote the scores for a dozen French films and many documentaries.  Opera was an important part of Tomasi’s life, starting at an early age.  “I believe that a performance of Puccini’s La Bohème in 1911 [at the Opéra de Marseille] was responsible for my musical destiny, for it still moves me,” he wrote in 1970, describing his first visit to an opera house.  He was to write a dozen operas, all of which were staged but no longer remain in the repertoire.  Of these, Miguel Mañara (aka Don Juan de Mañara) is the most ambitious.  It grew out of music for a radio adaptation of a 1913 mystery play by French-Lithuanian writer Oscar Vladislas de Lubicz- Miłosz, cousin to poet Czesław Miłosz.  In it, a Don Juan character reforms and takes holy orders in a monastery.  Its highly spiritual narrative was mirrored by Tomasi’s personal life at the time.  Separated from his wife, a successful artist, Tomasi spent much of his time at the Dominican Monastery of Sainte-Baume in Provence.  His crisis is expressed in his descriptive words for the opening movement of the Symphony in C:  “ The battle between the instinct of passion and mystical yearnings.”  Tomasi was in a doomed relationship with a young woman he had met at the monastery.  Much of his time in his retreats was spent writing Miguel Mañara, which was to initially receive a concert performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris in 1952, followed, four years later, by a fully staged production by the Prinzregententheater in Munich.

The Fanfares liturgiques (Liturgical Fanfares) comprise four selections extracted from the second act of this opera.  They were first premièred in 1947 under the title Fanfares concertantes.  The scoring is for three trumpets, four horns, three trombones and tuba, with percussion.  The setting is a Good Friday procession in Seville and, for concert performances of the selections, Tomasi adds deeply Christian descriptions for each.  In Annunciation, the Angel Gabriel announces that the Virgin Mary is to bear the Son of God.  Brisk celebratory sections contrasting the three instrumental groups enclose a solemn chorale from the four horns.  In Gospel, a solo trombone announces salvation through Christ, with references to the Gregorian chant Credo in unum DeumApocalypse, a scherzo movement, sees the violent hunting out and victorious triumph over the forces of evil.  The Good Friday Procession, the longest of the four movements, begins as a distant slow procession, built upon religious chant.  It travels closer, building in intensity, quoting fragments of thematic material from previous movements, building to Miguel’s religious epiphany and a transcendent chorale from the full ensemble.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Henri Tomasi and the 120th anniversary of his birth.

©2021 Keith Horner
All program notes are written by Keith Horner.  Comments welcomed: