August 2 Concert - Gaubert and Jolivet

This week’s blog is another musical adventure for me; actually a lesson. The two composers, Philippe Gaubert (French; 1879-1941) and André Jolivet (French; 1905-1974) are not ones that I have studied carefully until now. Most likely their names are not familiar to most of you. The two composers have much in common, yet speak in very different musical languages. What do I mean by that statement? They are both concerned with texture and instrumental color. Tone color, known as timbre, (Fr.) in musical terminology, is the element or character of sound that allows our ears to identify various instruments, independent of sounds related to pitch or volume or rhythm. For Gaubert his music is all about an impressionist palette, the world of the French artists, Renoir and Monet; the musical world of Debussy and Ravel, that can be “painted” by instruments. For Jolivet, the color is derived directly from the instrument he chose for a work: that is the elements of the raw sound that emanate from the wood or strings or metal of a particular instrument. His use of color is to tell of rage and sorrow. He “paints” emotion not a scene. I hope that looking closely at the two pieces Adam Neiman has programmed for Thursday, the 2nd of August, will clarify my definition of color and the two different approaches to its use.

Both pieces, and the Mozart Quartet that is first on the program, are works that include the flute. The high register of the woodwind brings a new timbre for us to appreciate. The Mozart is a magical setting. The Quartet in D Major for Flute, Violin, Viola, and Cello, K.285 was written as a commission for an amateur flutist. Mozart wrote a piece easy enough for the amateur to play, yet delightful in its melodic and emotional content. The many tone colors of the flute, some bright and airy, or reedy and melancholy or metallic and shrill are immediately engaging. The piece is a fine introduction to the French composers and their understanding of the flute.

 Philippe Gaubert

Philippe Gaubert

Adam Neiman reduces the group by one for the next work on the program. It is Gaubert’s, Trois Aquarelles for Flute, Cello, & Piano. The French word Aquarelles means watercolors. Gaubert’s intent is clear, just from the title, is it not? The combination of instruments, the high register of the woodwind flute, the deep string voice of the cello, and the piano combine to “paint” the charming work. Just in case you are wondering, the piano is a percussion instrument.

I interrupt this narrative to write a bit about Gaubert. He studied flute from an early age and became a famous soloist, winning First Prize for flute performance at the Paris Conservatory at the age of 15! He joined both the Paris Opera Orchestra and the Conservatory Orchestra. He studied composition and conducting. He joined the French Army during World War I and saw action at Verdun. After the war Gaubert became Professor of Flute at the Paris Conservatory as well as continuing his career as a flutist and conductor at the Paris Opera. He gave up his soloist career in favor of teaching, conducting, and composing in the mid 1920s. He continued his teaching and conducting until shortly after the outbreak of WW II.  He was Maestro of the Paris Opera at the time of his death in 1941. His love of Debussy, Ibert, Fauré, and Ravel is reflected in his compositions. He conducted their works, recording them in the late Twenties and early Thirties.

Now back to the piece at hand. Let’s have a look at how Gaubert, the Impressionist, “painted” his Trois Aquarelles. The first movement or section of the work is Par un clair matin. (On a Clear Morning) It is a happy, sparkling sun-filled scene that we hear and “see”. It is interesting to note that Gaubert conceived this work while enduring terrible conditions in the trenches during WW I. As Adam says in his notes, “the pieces impart an infectious optimism.” Aquarelles was published in 1921. It was originally scored for violin, cello, and piano. The composer thought to experiment with his score and used his instrument, the flute, in the final version.

The flute spins out happy melodic chirping and lively phrases above the warm mellow voice of the cello and the piano arpeggios that travel the keyboard. There is a middle section, more subdued and pensive. Perhaps seeing Autumn approaching, or maybe, as it is for me as I write today, there are a few large, fluffy clouds passing overhead on a beautiful July day. Gaubert goes back to the first passages to end the movement. The second part is Soir d’Automme. (Autumn Evening) Is it a wistful look back at summer days or a pause on a brusque fall day? Enjoy the melancholy cello phrases and the flute’s reedy timbre as they elaborate on the same melody. Appreciate the quiet piano punctuations and musings. Are those leaves trembling on maple trees here in Vermont? Is this the composer taking time for a quiet reflection on life or just an evening filled with longing and memories of the past? The last vignette is called, Sérénade. It has a Spanish/Basque flavor as the opening dance figure is heard. The flute twirls a dance step, whistling happily as it unwinds. The cello comments continually in a less jovial mood as the flute continues to sing. The jogging piano provides the underpinning, harmonically and rhythmically. A somewhat agitated and sad section interrupts the proceedings. Once again you can hear the nasal timbre that the flute can produce. There is a halting, plaintive conversation between the flute and the cello. Back for a short spin of the first measures, there is a final attempt to return to a happier mood. A wave goodbye from the flute and the last six single notes heard from the piano are the perfect “au revoir” from Gaubert.

 André Jolivet

André Jolivet

After Gaubert’s fifteen minutes of pure impressionist musical color, André Jolivet’s, Chant de Linos (Song of Linus) gives us a totally different experience. Here we have a setting that is dependent on a 6 tone scale, the notes are G, A flat, B, C sharp, D, F, and back to G. The scale is related to Greek modes. It is a dissonant setting that looks back to primitive instruments and their sounds. Flutes and drums date back to ancient times. They were basic to primitive sacred music. The first flutes were fashioned from mastodon bones and drums from hides of many animals.

Jolivet’s interest in ancient music came from his desire to return to the humanitarian aspects of music. In the 1930s he was part of two non-conformist groups that valued magic and ritual in music and indeed in life. He accepted the new schools of atonal music, but rejected, as did his close friend Messiaen, the French Neo-classic movement in music. He had little or no interest in new schools of harmony, (or should I say dis-harmony?) He said that he sought to “create a living music in a spirit of sincerity, generosity and artistic consciousness….music must convey to those who love it, without compromise, its spiritual violence and its infinite reverberations.” 

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It is to be noted here that Jolivet served in the Army during WW II. Connections can be made between the basis of his work and war. Anger and hostility, revenge and loss all enter the back story of Chant de Linus: quite different from the high level of optimism that Gaubert maintained in the dark days of Verdun.   

Just who is this Linos of Jolivet’s song? He is a figure in Greek mythology. According to most mythological family trees, he was Apollo’s son, though other lineage is also often mentioned. Greek mythology declares Linos to be the first teacher of music, and the creator of melody and rhythm. He also invented the stringed Lyre according to written histories of ancient heroes and gods. He was Orpheus’ and Hercules’ music and philosophy teacher. Greek tales tell that the teacher was killed by his students, struck by a blow of a Lyre. Some versions of his death say that Apollo killed his own son because he rivaled him in musical skills. Other stories assert that Hercules killed his teacher because he criticized his work. Linus is known as the personification of the lament. Here then, we find the thrust and meaning of Jolivet’s chamber work for flute and piano. The piece is a lament; a threnody. A song of mourning for Linus.

Written in 1944 to be a Flute Competition piece for Paris Conservatory students, Jean Pierre Rampal, won the competition performing the new work by Jolivet. Both the artist and the composer benefitted greatly from this result. The work is technically enormously difficult. Every note is exposed, there is no hiding here for either performer. (Jolivet wrote a later version of the piece for flute, harp, violin, viola, and cello.) Chant opens with a strident, shocking, hammered piano entrance that is followed immediately by wails of the flute proclaiming grief and pain. A melody, disturbingly sharp and despairing, cries out above the dragging support of the piano. The nasal sound of the woodwind instrument is exploited. A skittering, disturbingly gruff section slams our ears. There are odd sounds; scrubbing and scraping coming from the flute and grumbling chordal asides made by the piano. There is “fluttering”. (A technique that in its simplest form, uses the tongue to articulate a letter or sound by trilling or fluttering against the roof of the mouth; the tongue having released a wind stream to start the effect.) There are odd phrases where two adjacent notes are played at once producing dissonant punctuations. Jagged dance-like patterns whirl from the flute as the piano hammers jagged comments. The flute takes off at an alarming rate, screaming, raging, then rasping mad scale passages. The constant almost cocky, jaunty piano hands off its incessant syncopated beat to the flute to handle in its highest register. Without a transition, the frenetic passages halt and the wandering grief-laden flute melodies return. The singing seduces us into a belief that the madness is past. But no! The relentless, but sometimes quiet, beat of the piano returns always pushing forward as the flute pirouettes madly above. The rondo-like pattern; this alternation of mood from fierce anger to overwhelming pathos, from frenzied dance tempos to funereal phrases, is schizophrenic. When finally, there is a brief resting place after so much harmonic unrest and a respite from the instruments’ disturbing repeated evocations of loss, the last despairing phrases rush at us wildly.

I know that my wordy analysis describes a terribly “over the top” use of instrumental color compared to the comfortable Trois Aquarelles you will have heard before this giant of a piece. An introduction to this amazing chamber piece is a must. One cannot hear the Chant de Linus completely unprepared. It is a fantastic eleven minute journey into the unknown for most of us. If you have the inkling and the time, do listen to it before the concert. Perhaps listen twice! Sit tight, and be prepared to be swept away by a torrent of sound and a wild palette of instrumental color! Be in awe of the artistry of the two performers as they reveal the amazing Chant de Linus

- Fran Rosenthal

Further Reading

A History of the Flute
Information about Gaubert
Information about Jolivet