A French evening with François-Xavier Roth and Anna Caterina Antonacci

01 Dec 2015

Berliner Philharmoniker
François-Xavier Roth

Anna Caterina Antonacci

  • Edgard Varèse
    Ionisation for 13 percussionists (6 min.)

  • Jean-Baptiste Lully
    Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, suite (12 min.)

  • Hector Berlioz
    Les Nuits d’été for soprano and orchestra, op. 7 (31 min.)

    Anna Caterina Antonacci Soprano

  • Claude Debussy
    Première Suite d’orchestre (27 min.)

  • Maurice Ravel
    La Valse, Poème chorégraphique for orchestra (15 min.)

  • free

    François-Xavier Roth in conversation with Sebastian Krunnies (19 min.)

Vive la musique française! This Berliner Philharmoniker concert offers a diverse cross-section of three centuries of French music. Jean-Baptiste Lully, who was born in Florence in 1632 as Giovanni Battista Lulli and later adopted France as his home, had a lasting influence on the musical life of the Grande Nation as the founder of the Tragédie en musique – the French counterpart to Italian opera seria. But it was not only rival gods and tragic heroes of antiquity that Lully revived with his music. The composer also lent his voice to the bourgeoisie, still young at that time. To this end he thought up another form of musical theatre with none other than Molière: the so-called comédie-ballet. This Gesamtkunstwerk consisting of music, language and dance culminated in Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, the last collaboration between Lully and Molière.

Hector Berlioz invented another musical genre two centuries later more or less en passant: the orchestral song. Between 1834 and 1838 the composer set six poems by his compatriot Théophile Gautier to music; in 1856 he combined these songs and published them under the title Les Nuits d’été with orchestral accompaniment – a first, and not only in French music history. Whereas Berlioz was considered a revolutionary of French music of the 19th century, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel set new accents at the turn of the century. For many classical music lovers, the catchword “Impressionism”, borrowed from painting, under which the music of these two composers was conflated early on, has become a synonym for French music.

One of the most original composers of the following generation was Edgard Varèse, who emigrated after the outbreak of the First World War from his home in France to the USA. He earned a name for himself in particular by emancipating noise in music; his Ionisation for 13 percussionists makes an effective opening to the evening. This little stroll through the rich innovations of French music is conducted by François-Xavier Roth, born in Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1971. Acting music director of the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden and Freiburg as well as designated general music director of the city of Cologne, Roth makes his debut as conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker at this concert. The interpreter of the Nuits d’été, Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci, also appears with the Philharmoniker for the first time.

“Clarity, elegance, declamation”

Claude Debussy and the State of French Music

An all-French programme in Berlin – that would have been an absurdity for Claude Debussy. “What business do we have there?” he asked with annoyance in August 1910,on the occasion of a festival of French music in Munich. “The Germans do not need to understand us any more than we ought to try to empathize with them.” Debussy was a notorious German-hater – just as Johannes Brahms had nothing good to say about France and its music, although he did have French Caporal tobacco smuggled into Vienna. On the other hand, Debussy’s diatribes offer revealing evidence of the deep rift that has divided French and German musical history since at least the 17th century. To begin with, one may wonder how the two musical cultures actually differ, or what defines French music. Debussy also provides an answer to these questions: “French music is clarity, elegance, simple and natural declamation,” he explained. “French music seeks above all to give pleasure. Couperin, Rameau – they are true Frenchmen!”

Jean-Baptiste Lully: Le Bourgeois gentilhomme

It is significant that Debussy called François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau “true Frenchmen” but not the Italian named Giovanni Battista Lulli, who was born in Florence in 1632. Lulli had gone to France at the age of 13 and, under the name Jean-Baptiste Lully, quickly rose to become a key musical figure at the court of King Louis XIV, who was six years younger. Lully composed works in genres such as the comédie-ballet and tragédie en musique as well as the typical form of the French overture, with a slow, sharply dotted first section followed by a fast, often fugal, second section.

The comédie-balletLe Bourgeois gentilhomme (The Bourgeois Gentleman) – Lully’s tenth collaboration with Molière – also begins with such an overture, thus depicting a “courtly” style, which the work often grotesquely caricatures. The rich, naïve Monsieur Jourdain, a member of the middle class who would like to present himself as an aristocrat, cannot distinguish between genuine and artificial style and is made a fool of by his music and dancing masters as well as his servants. At the close, they even disguise themselves as Turks and give Jourdain the pompous title of “mamamouchi” during an absurd Turkish ceremony, in order to trick him into agreeing to the marriage of his daughter Lucile and her lover Cléonte.

Hector Berlioz: Les Nuits d’été op. 7

There are few works by Hector Berlioz which are as characterized by “clarity, elegance, simple and natural declamation” or display as much “fantasy of the senses” as Les Nuits d’été(Summer Nights)–six songs based on poems from Théophile Gautier’s collection La Comédie de la mort (1838), which Berlioz initially set for voice and piano in 1840/1841 before beginning work on an orchestral version in February 1843. The elegance and tenderness of the vocal lines, the alternation of bright and dark harmonies, the pulsating rhythm one moment, peaceful sostenuto the next, the subtle nuances of the small orchestra, with pairs of flutes, clarinets, bassoons and horns, one oboe, one harp – in Le Spectre de la rose (The Ghost of the Rose) – and strings, exude a spirit of classical purity and beauty. Les Nuits d’été thus reflects precisely what Debussy defined as the innermost essence of French music: “Beauty must appeal to the senses, must provide us with immediate enjoyment, must impress us or insinuate itself into us without any effort on our part.”

Claude Debussy: Première Suite dʼorchestre

Debussy’s almost pathological concern about the identity of French music may seem strange today, but it had deep historical roots. Born in 1862, Debussy grew into the era of Wagnerism, which not only rent French musical life but also caused social and political rifts, especially against the backdrop of the wars of 1870/1871 and 1914 to 1918. Debussy had also tasted the “poison of Tristan” (César Franck) and tried to free himself from this drug all his life. The four-movement Première Suite d’orchestre (First Suite for orchestra) was composed between 1882 and 1884. It is an extremely colourful, elegant work which still shows relatively few of the typically French elements that Debussy frequently made use of later. Characteristic, however, is the consistently dancelike style, which one would definitely not encounter in the music of any German composer of that day.

Maurice Ravel: La Valse

In view of the fact that Debussy and the 13-year-younger Maurice Ravel are often mentioned in the same breath as exponents of musical Impressionism – although they both strongly objected to the use of the term – one would think that the composer of Boléro would at least have found favour in the critical eyes and ears of “Monsieur Claude”, but far from it: “I agree that Ravel is extraordinarily gifted, but what annoys me is the attitude he adopts of being a conjurer, or rather a fakir casting spells and making flowers burst out of chairs. ... The trouble is, a conjuring trick always has to have a build-up, and after you’ve seen it once you’re no longer astonished.”

Wien (Vienna) was originally the intended title of an orchestral work whose first sketches date back to 1906. “It is not subtle, what I am undertaking at the moment,” Ravel wrote at that time. “It is a grand waltz, a sort of homage to the memory of the great Strauss, not Richard, the other – Johann.” Nearly 14 years passed, however, before the work finally took shape. It was then called La Valse(The Waltz), and Ravel intended it for Sergei Diaghilev’s legendary Ballet Russes. Diaghilev had commissioned Ravel to compose a ballet, and in April 1920 Ravel and Marcelle Meyer played a two-piano version of La Valse for him. Igor Stravinsky and the 21-year-old Francis Poulenc were also present at this preview, and Poulenc described the scene as follows in his memoirs: “When Ravel had finished, Diaghilev said something to him which I think is right: ‘Ravel, this is a masterwork, but it is not a ballet. It is the portrait of a ballet, a painting of a ballet.’”

Edgard Varèse: Ionisation

It is difficult to imagine what Debussy would have said about the music of Edgard Varèse. After the failure that Varèse’s symphonic poem Bourgogne suffered at its Berlin premiere in 1910, Debussy offered comforting words: “You are perfectly justified in not being alarmed by the hostility of the public. The day will come when you will be the best of friends in the world.” On the other hand, Debussy would certainly have understood the protests sparked by Varèse’s Ionisation in New York in 1933. The mere idea of composing a work for only 13 percussionists playing 41 percussion instruments and two sirens is so revolutionary that the audience’s confusion is perfectly understandable. Another factor is his use of rhythmic cells which are continually altered, divided and recombined. “I was not influenced by other composers as much as by natural objects and physical phenomena,” Varèse explained later – and was thus firmly rooted in the tradition of what Debussy had said in 1909 about “the music of tomorrow”: “One listens too little to the diversity of music that nature so abundantly offers us. It surrounds us, and we have lived in its midst without taking notice of it. That, in my opinion, is the new path.” A path that Varèse boldly followed in Ionisation.

Michael Stegemann

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

François-Xavier Roth was appointed Generalmusikdirektor of the city of Cologne at the beginning of this season and has been chief conductor of the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg since 2011. Roth was born in Paris in 1971 and initially graduated from the conservatory there as a flautist; he later studied conducting with János Fürst. His repertoire ranges from the music of the 17th century to contemporary works and includes all genres: symphonic, opera and chamber music. Pierre Boulez and Richard Strauss, and György Ligeti and Beethoven have been among the core themes of his work with SWR; Roth has premiered works by Philippe Manoury, Yann Robin and Georg Friedrich Haas and has realised projects with the composers Wolfgang Rihm, Jörg Widmann and Helmut Lachenmann. Roth has also made guest appearances with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Finnish Radio and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, the Bayerische Staatsorchester, the Wiener Symphoniker and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 2003, Roth founded the orchestra Les Siècles which performs programmes of highly diverse works on modern and period instruments; appearances with this ensemble have taken him to France, Italy, Germany, England and Japan. His work in the opera house includes Thomasʼ Mignon, Offenbachʼs Les Brigands and Delibesʼ Lakmé at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, Feldmanʼs Neither at the Staatsoper unter den Linden in Berlin and Wagnerʼs The Flying Dutchman with Les Siècles. Youth development and music education form another important element of François-Xavier Rothʼs work: He is the musical director of the Panufnik Young Composers Scheme with the London Symphony Orchestra, and he founded the orchestral academy Jeune Orchestre Européen Hector Berlioz. With these concerts, he now makes his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Anna Caterina Antonacci comes from Ferrara and received her training in Bologna. The winner of the Verdi Competition in Parma (1988), the Maria Callas Competition of the Italian broadcaster RAI and the Pavarotti Competition, she has since sung in all the major opera houses of her homeland, as well as in theatres in Paris, Munich, London and San Francisco. Her repertoire ranges from early Baroque to the 20th century with a particular emphasis on the operas of Rossini. Anna Caterina Antonacci has worked with many renowned conductors such as Claudio Abbado, William Christie, Riccardo Muti and Antonio Pappano. In 2003 she gave a celebrated performance as Cassandra in Berliozʼ Les Troyens at the Théâtre du Châtelet, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner. This was followed by more French roles – such as La Juive and Carmen, both in London and Paris. In addition, she gives recitals with pianist Donald Sulzen with a particular focus on the Italian and French song repertoire. The soprano made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in December 1994 under the direction of Claudio Abbado in a madrigal by Monteverdi. She sang here most recently in June 2001 as a soloist in Stravinskyʼs Pulcinella under the baton of Riccardo Chailly.

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