June 2, 1925
Last weekend, I was greatly encouraged by the audience’s enthusiastic reaction to such a well-programmed concert put together by the Russian-born conductor, Serge Koussevitzky.1 Known for being a champion of both new Russian and French repertoire, Koussevitzky’s choice to appeal to specifically French audiences with his recent program at the Salle de Peletier was delightful.2 Amidst all of the frivolous works being created, many pieces often a parody of another, it was refreshing to attend a program so full of depth, yet at the same time distinctly anti-German. Though all of the pieces were well chosen, Germaine Tailleferre’s brand new Piano Concerto, featuring the composer herself as soloist, was the standout gem as the most authentic to the French aesthetic for crispness and clarity. Commissioned by the Princesse de Polignac after hearing Tailleferre’s neoclassical Marchand,3 this piece is music being created for music’s sake, a purely musical mode of expression,4 and a statement that the French can reclaim a music culture for their own without relying on frivolity. Tailleferre created a piece capturing the very essence of “Frenchness” through her implementation of the old and the new – reclaiming the Baroque use of counterpoint and dance rhythms as “French” and implementing the relevant French style of clear orchestration and intriguing harmonies used by Les Six and Satie.
The first movement perfectly displays this clarity in Tailleferre’s writing. It is rhythmically reminiscent of J.S. Bach’s 3rd Brandenburg Concerto – always driving forward, even relentless at times. Though it is a heavily contrapuntal work, typical of other neoclassical works,5 it never feels too heavy or busy. Much of this is due both to Tailleferre’s choice to write for an only 12-instrument ensemble and her extensive use of winds. Strings are too non-distinct in attack, while winds have a crisp attack and allow for much more variety in timbres. Winds work much more nicely with the sharp attack on the piano found in this first movement. The movement also delves into unique harmonies that are distinctly from “Les Six,” yet Tailleferre’s clever implementation of these French harmonies in the midst of Baroque counterpoint is what adds to the charm of the piece. This movement most brilliantly displays Tailleferre’s impressive virtuosity, and it certainly seemed to be one of the audience’s favorite pieces of the evening.
The second movement is a beautiful contrast to the first. Here there is also a sense of unrelenting rhythm, but more in the sense of a dirge than a dance. The piece makes more use of tasteful dissonance than does the previous movement and leaves the listener wanting more after the completion of this brief movement. The third movement is really the highlight of the piece, again picking up the dance spirit of the first movement. The piece is in dialogue with a Gigue or a Minuet through its use of hemiola, and reminds me greatly of a movement from a Bach dance suite. Its use of a fugal opening and sequencing throughout continually pays hommage to Bach, whose ideals we can truly claim as French.6
I was especially drawn to this concert both because of the two premieres on the program, the Tailleferre Piano Concerto and Deems Taylor’s Through the Looking Glass, but also because of its specifically anti-German programming. C.P.E Bach’s concerto ought to be considered more French than German as it more closely aligns with French ideals of clear writing. German music is at fault generally because it is too cluttered; this is made especially obvious in the exhaustive Beethoven symphonies and Wagner operas. C.P.E Bach however, like his father, manages to write a clear work that is in many ways similar to Tailleferre’s concerto. Similarly, Taylor’s orchestral suite Through the Looking Glass was an excellent choice for programming because its imagery is so clear. Wagner’s operas contain far too many musical symbols, always allowing for multiple interpretations because of his lack of clarity.7 Taylor’s suite, on the other hand, provided a charming, if literal, interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s work. The concert ended ironically with Ravel’s La Valse: ironically, because the piece was written as a tribute to the Viennese waltz so it is actually the least French piece on the program. Ravel, however, always considered Mozart as an inspiration for what the French can achieve in their music, and his dedication to Viennese culture is not an embracing of German culture.8 He will always be considered one of the great champions of French music so this odd choice on Koussevitzky’s end is permissible.
Indeed, I was so highly impressed by Tailleferre’s style and attempt to make serious French music in the midst of frivolous works by Satie and others in Les Six. Her use of Neoclassical composition techniques hearkens back to a time when music had a greater sense of depth, and I believe that she will eventually be known as one of the greatest contributors to French music from this period.
1 “Program for Concert Koussevitzky,” accessed November 22, 2015, http://www.classical.net/~music/guide/society/krs/programs/images/full/21_1925MayJune.jpg.
2 Joseph Horowitz, “Koussevitzky, Serge,” Oxford Music Online (2013), accessed November 22, 2015, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/A2249993?q=koussevitzky&search=quick&pos=2&_start=1#firsthit.
3 Robert Shapiro, “Germaine Tailleferre,” in Les Six: The French Composers and Their Mentors Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie, ed. Robert Shapiro (London: Peter Owen Publishers, 2011), 251.
4 Germaine Tailleferre, “Germaine Tailleferre,” in Les Six: The French Composers and Their Mentors Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie, ibid., 251. This quote is taken from Tailleferre’s notes on the concerto, which would have been unaccessible to a Parisian critic at the time.
5 Michael Thomas Roeder, A History of the Concerto, (Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1994,) 352.
6 Claude Debussy, Three Articles for Music Journals in Morgan, Source Readings in Music History, volume 7, The Twentieth Century, ed. Oliver Strunk (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998), 163. Here, Debussy demeans Beethoven, saying, “Geniuses can evidently do without taste,” yet praises Mozart and Bach for their originality.
7 Robert Donington, Wagner’s ‘Ring’ and its Symbols: The Music and the Myth, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1963,) 21. Though Donnington praises Wagner’s use of ambiguity in the Ring cycle, a Parisian critic would view his lack of clarity as unfavorable and praise Taylor for his literalism.
8 Roger Nichols, Ravel, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011,) 220. Ravel expresses in an interview with the Neue freie Presse that Mozart is the “greatest of all composers” for the members of the young modern school.