Angularities and Charm in a Fascinating Modern French Chamber Music Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Debussy, Ravel, Schmitt: Dragonfly Ensemble [Marcia Crayford (violin), Susie Mészáros (viola), Moray Welsh (cello), Sarah Newbold (flute), Katherine Thomas (harp)], Dora Stoutzker Concert Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 8.5.2015.(GP)

Debussy: Sonata for flute, viola and harp
Ravel: Duo for violin and cello
Schmitt: Suite en Rocaille


After what was, for me, an increasingly depressing night watching/listening to the results of the British General Election coming in, this lunchtime concert played by the chamber ensemble Dragonfly made for a real, if temporary, lifting of the spirits. In their onstage comments, more than one member of the ensemble referred to their programme as a “journey through twentieth-century French chamber music”. It was that, but it was also both more and less than that.  It was more since the value of the music played transcended considerations of chronology and geography. It was less because in an hour’s concert it was naturally impossible to provide more than a highly selective account of such a ‘landscape’ (indeed time restrictions meant that only two of the four movements of Schmitt’s Suite en Rocaille were played), and because Dragonfly’s relatively unusual instrumentation necessarily excluded much (string quartets, any work with piano) of the repertoire that such a ‘journey’ would normally include.

The metaphor of a journey had another kind of aptness insofar as the three works in the programme were played in chronological order of composition, beginning with Debussy’s Sonata (written 1915-16), continuing with Ravel’s Duo/Sonata (1920-22) and closing with Florent Schmitt’s Suite, premiered in 1935. Hearing these three (or, more precisely two-and-a-half) works in succession alerted one to a number of striking differences and also to some unsuspected links and continuities – notably that all these compositions are not merely examples of French music, they also raise questions about what might be ‘French’ about ‘French music’.

Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viol and harp was one of six projected sonatas which Debussy, already sick with the colorectal cancer from which he would die in 1918, conceived in the midst of the First World War. His planned title for the collection was interesting: ‘Six sonatas for different instruments by Claude Debussy, Musicien Français’. The foregrounded assertion of the composer’s ‘musical nationality’ is striking, in part because it posits a different conception of nationality from the kind fuelling the German war effort. Only three of these sonatas were completed (the other two being the Sonata for piano and violin and the Sonata for piano and cello). Though Debussy is, in general, one of the least ‘autobiographical’ of composers, it would be perverse to ignore the circumstances under which this work was written – in terms both of his own severe illness and the trauma of the surrounding war. It was at about this time that Debussy declared “I want to work not so much for myself, but to give proof, however small it may be, that not even 30 million ‘boches’ can destroy French thought”. When initially performed, the work was seen in some quarters (perhaps in part because of the use of the word sonata) as a kind of abandonment of the musical principles Debussy had hitherto been thought to represent. However, an interesting (if brief) essay by the American musicologist David Wesley Woo (‘Historical Allusions to the French Baroque Era in Claude Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp’ plausibly suggests that the significance of the term sonata is that it is an indicator of one of the particular ways in which Debussy wanted the work to declare his status as a Musicien Français, to indicate his ‘reclamation’ of a specifically French musical tradition (a tradition of “French thought”?). His use of the word sonata in the title of the work refers not to the classical sonata of Mozart and Beethoven, but to the Trio sonatas of such French composers as Couperin. I won’t rehearse Woo’s arguments or evidence here, since his (short) essay is readily available online ( Approached from this angle one hears in Debussy’s Sonata the way in which, at times, the harp fulfils the role of a continuo instrument (though Debussy’s writing doesn’t limit the instrument to that role). The writing for flute evokes, for me, the sonatas of the great French baroque master of the instrument, Michel Blavet. Although this is certainly not aggressively personal music, and seems to work more by understatement than explicit affirmation, yet its allusive ‘Frenchness’, given the date and circumstances of its composition, makes it, paradoxically, a powerful re-statement of the continuity and enduring power of that tradition of “French thought” that was under attack. The scale and balance of Dragonfly’s performance of the piece was thoroughly consonant with such a reading of the Sonata. There were passages of great beauty in the performance, notably at the close of the first movement and the whole had authority and an impressive sense of style. Certainly no one hearing this glowing performance could, surely, agree with the old, but still not forgotten view, that these late sonatas represent a dying away of Debussy’s creativity. Far from it – the work surely suggests that had he lived longer it would have been seen as a marking the beginning of a new phase in Debussy’s music, involving both a re-affirmation of his ‘Frenchness’ and hints of the neo-classicism which was soon to characterise so much European music.

Ravel’s Duo for Violin and Cello (as he originally called the piece, before retitling it a ‘Sonata’) was written in memory of Debussy. Indeed the first movement was published in an issue (December 1, 1920) of La Revue Musicale dedicated to Debussy, two years after his death (other contributors included Dukas, de Falla, Bartok, Roussell, Malipiero, Satie and Stravinsky). Although that first movement was written before the end of 1920, it took the composer much effort, more than a little rewriting and a good deal of time to finish the other three movements. It was not completed until 1922, being premiered in April of that year. The struggle and time involved perhaps reflected Ravel’s awareness that the piece represented, as he later said, “a turning point” in his work (rather as Debussy’s Sonata did, even if he had little time left to take such developments any further). Like Debussy’s, Ravel’s piece was far from universally admired when first performed. As Rollo H. Myers puts it (in his Ravel: Life and Works of 1960), “the angularities and asperities of this controversial work created something of a scandal at the time, and caused many of Ravel’s admirers to revise their opinion of the composer of Daphnis and the Rhapsodie Espagnole. Gone are the scintillating sonorities and rich texture of the Piano Trio; the solo violin and ’cello are now exposed, naked and unadorned, in a pitiless two-part counterpoint, vying with one another in the execution of perilous acrobatics and almost perpetually in motion; antagonists frequently, rather than partners”. In what was a generally impressive performance of this difficult piece by Marcia Crayford and Moray Walsh I had two slight reservations: at times the playing of both might valuably have been a little more forceful and percussive, and the balance favoured the violin a little too much, at the expense of the cello. Oddly enough Ravel himself felt, according to the violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, who gave the first performance of the Sonata with Maurice Maréchal, the composer felt that that the cello should be given more prominence than it often was in performance.

The biggest stylistic departures for Ravel in this Sonata included (a) that there was an increased emphasis on the horizontal melodic line and a considerable lessening of the emphasis on harmonic richness, (b) that it was in an altogether sparser style and (c) that it seemed to reflect non-French influences such as Bartok and Kodály. Indeed the use of the word ‘Duo’ in Ravel’s original title for the piece may have reflected his consciousness of what it owed to Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello of 1914. Those who disliked Ravel’s new work objected to all three of these developments. As late as 1947 Norman Demuth (in his Ravel) was complaining that in it “Ravel nearly falls into Central European style and remembers his manners just in time. It may have been an experiment; certainly it is something quite new in Ravel’s styles – and the style does not suit him”. Certainly the work asks many questions, and there is a consistent feeling of searching in the music. Crayford and Walsh were perhaps at their best in the second movement (marked ‘Tres vif’) and in their articulation of the somewhat mournful third movement (‘Lent’), in which they found much that was moving and in which the fortissimo instrumental ‘battle’ was shown to be the natural and fitting preface to an uneasy peace at the movement’s close.

Debussy had sought to define ‘Frenchness’, in part, in terms of a reappropriation of the French baroque. Ravel sought to expand ‘Frenchness’ by the assimilation of a different (Hungarian) national tradition. By the time that Florent Schmitt came to write his Suite en Rocaille he had already written a great deal of music grounded in an almost omnivorous appetite for many musical traditions. He seemed as likely to draw on Wagner as on Fauré. Writing about Schmitt in the New Grove, Jann Pasler observes that Schmitt’s early works had, in their “solid construction, extreme colours, and sometimes violent emotions” made him something of “a musical ‘Fauve’”. When, after some years largely preoccupied with large-scale orchestral projects, he returned to chamber music with this Suite, Schmitt turned back to a very different artistic inspiration, wholly at odds with the aesthetics of Fauvism, but also very characteristically French. Schmitt describes his four-movement suite as “en Rocaille”. This is a term from art history, used as early as the 1630s to describe decorative features made of rocks or shells, often in garden architecture. From the 1730s it began to be used to refer to some of the more elaborate decorative schemes we now associate with the rococo movement. So, more explicitly than Debussy in the Sonata which opened this concert, Schmitt harks back to an earlier style in which the French had a European-wide pre-eminence (one wonders whether the contemporary context of revived German nationalism was relevant here – whether Schmitt, like Debussy, was concerned to affirm that “French thought” would not be crushed?). The delightful music in this suite has many of the rococo virtues (or vices, depending on your view of the style), being pretty rather than profound, witty and graceful, light and intimate, charmingly harmonic, its characteristically rococo sinuousness of line charming and quite free of the “angularities and asperities” of Ravel’s Duo/Sonata – and also quite without the emotional weight of that work. One doesn’t often get the chance to hear this Suite, and so enjoyable was Dragonfly’s performance of it that it seemed particularly unfortunate that they felt that time constraints prevented their playing more than the first and the last movements. I can’t believe that anyone in their audience would have objected if Dragonfly had taken up another six minutes or so of their time and treated them to the entire work. In recent years my encounters with Schmitt have largely involved his large-scale works; after hearing even this partial performance of his Suite en Rocaille I shall certainly make efforts to hear (and re-hear) more of his chamber music.

The flexible instrumental resources of Dragonfly, formed by Marcia Crayford and based in mid-Wales, as well as the expertise and experience of its members (who have experience, inter alia, with the Nash Ensemble, the Fitzwilliam and Chillingirian Quartets, the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and many other distinguished ensembles) makes it well-suited to some adventurous exploration of the chamber repertoire and I very much hope to hear more of them soon, at RWCMD or elsewhere.

Glyn Pursglove


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