Dolly Suite Op. 56
In the 1890s Gabriel Fauré would often compose or revise small pieces for the infant daughter of his mistress Emma Bardac (1862-1934). These affectionate pieces celebrated a birthday, a pet, or a special person in the life of the young Regina-Hélène, known in the family as “Dolly,” and six of them from the years 1893 to 1896 form the suite for piano duet named after her.
In keeping with their pose of childlike naïveté, the texture of these pieces is music-box light, with little exploration of the lower reaches of the keyboard, but Fauré’s classic qualities are in evidence on every page of the score: refinement of musical gesture, a watery transparency of harmony, and that indefinable French attribute known as charm.
Berceuse marks Dolly’s first birthday in 1893 with a dreamy lullaby. A cozy mood of slumbering repose is created by drone tones in the bass and a cradle-rocking accompaniment.
Dolly’s brother Raoul is commemorated in Mi-a-ou, an approximation of how the young girl pronounced Messieu Aoul. A rambunctious melody with constantly shifting accents describes the restless energy of the young boy.
Le Jardin de Dolly evokes the calm of the perfect garden as a young girl might imagine it, her childlike delight in what she sees symbolized by frequent modulations.
Kitty-valse paints the playful character of the household dog, whose tail-wagging ramblings through the house are gently parodied as a ‘waltz’ of canine choreography.
Tendresse explores the concept of “tenderness” through a very personal lens of introspection, using the lyrical but highly chromatic language used in Fauré’s Nocturnes and other ‘adult’ pieces.
The suite ends with Le Pas espagnol, a tribute to the castanet-clicking sounds and heel-stomping dance rhythms of Spain.
Sonata for Piano Duet
The young Francis Poulenc was a naughty boy, a very naughty boy indeed, who dared to inject the musical styles of jazz, cabaret and other popular music genres into ‘serious’ composition. As the gay son of a wealthy family, he roamed freely among the more louche enclaves of Parisian nightlife, picking up a taste for the type of devilish wit and stylish parody that we would probably associate with drag shows today.
Poulenc was still in his late teens when he composed his three-movement Sonata for Piano Duet, a work both serious and anything but. Its modest dimensions and simple presentation of musical ideas qualify it as a miniature sonata at best, so the ‘sonata’ label is likely applied tongue-in-cheek. It does, however, engage seriously with the new trend of musical primitivism introduced by Stravinsky, who in fact was something of a mentor to the young Poulenc and used his influence to get him a publisher for this work.
Stravinsky’s influence is amply apparent in the barbarous repetitive rhythms that open the first movement Prélude, and the lyrical (or at least whistleable) melodies inhabiting the middle section of this movement could have come straight out of Shrovetide Fair.
Most Stravinskian of all is Poulenc’s use of small melodic phrases, usually five notes in range or less, both as the repeating units of an ostinato pattern, or in creating the larger phrase structure of a foreground melody.
The second movement, entitled Rustique, is especially interesting from this point of view. Its simultaneous use of similar melodic material in both 8th-note and 16th-note figuration patterns is reminiscent of the fractal-type layered textures of Balinese gamelan music.
The Final, while still rhythmically propelled, is not quite so static in its use of ‘wallpaper’ patterns of rhythm and melody. It employs a wider variety of rhythms, and in a nod to (or dig at) Classical tradition, recalls themes from previous movements and seems set to build up momentum for a bang-up finish. But in a gesture of cabaret cheekiness, Poulenc turns on a dime and closes out the movement with a smokey jazz chord as if to say: “Gotcha!”
Six Épigraphes antiques
In 1894, Debussy’s friend Pierre Louÿs enacted a hoax on the French public. Seeking to generate enthusiasm for the virtues of pagan sensuality, he published what he claimed were his own translations of newly discovered poems by Bilitis, a supposed contemporary of the ancient Greek poetess Sappho—poems that featured lines such as: I undressed to climb a tree, my naked thighs embraced the smooth and humid bark.
The poems were his own, of course, and stimulated (if that is the right word) Debussy to set three of them in his Trois Chansons de Bilitis of 1897. Debussy also wrote incidental music for a dramatic reading of the poems that took place in 1901, reusing much of this material in 1914 when composing his similarly themed Six Épigraphes antiques for piano duet.
In each of the six pieces in this set Debussy meditates on a wish, a prayer or a dedication such as those found in the epigraphs on the walls of ancient buildings or tombs.
He begins with a description of pastoral life in the ancient world by invoking Pan, god of the summer wind, who is heard playing his pan pipes as the piece opens. Used throughout is the pentatonic scale, neither major nor minor, symbolizing the call of the natural world.
A quizzical whole-tone scale, however, is used to summon up the mystery surrounding a Tomb without a name, its anonymous occupant mourned by the chromatic descent of distant voices.
A wish That the night may be propitious paints the silence of the night, and the various creatures moving about within it, in a richly layered texture of ostinato patterns and animal calls.
A Dancer with cymbals then appears on the scene, her dainty steps and waving gestures imitated in graceful triplets while exuberant ornamentation conveys the sound of her instrument.
She is followed by the Egyptian woman, as dark and mysterious as the drone tones quietly drumming in the bass register. Sensuous, snaking lines of an oriental flavour, rich in augmented 2nds, accompany her lascivious movements.
The final epigraph expresses a wish To thank the morning rain. It features a delicate imitation of raindrops in a constant patter of 16th notes that only ceases when the the pan pipe melody that opened the work is recalled, marking the return of the sun.
Trois Pièces faciles
The neo-classical style that Stravinsky was to adopt after the Great War can already be seen taking shape in such works as his Three Easy Pieces for piano duet of 1914-1915. In their stripped down, bare-bones textures and identification with established genres of European music—march, waltz and polka—they foreshadow the treatment that Stravinsky would soon apply to the music of Pergolesi in his ballet Pulcinella. The March, in fact, seems to be a prototype of this procedure, based as it is on the old Irish folk melody The Blacksmith and his Son.
What Stravinsky does in these pieces, however, is closer to parody than to hommage, and closely resembles what the Cubist painters did in visual art by presenting conflicting ‘planes of perception’ simultaneously.
The genre of each piece is easily recognizable by its characteristic pulse and rhythmic style: the steady walking beat of the march, the lilt of the waltz, the hop-hop-hop of the polka. Layered on top of that, however, are melodies full of ‘wrong notes,’ melodies that often seem to be in another key.
Stravinsky had already used this polytonal effect before when he combined two key centres a tritone apart (F# major and C major) to create the famous Petrushka chord in his 1911 ballet of the same name. In these pieces, however, this picturesque ‘spot’ effect is transformed into a basic operating procedure.
The result is an exhilarating aural experience as prismatic shimmerings of tonal colour in the primo part are splashed over a mechanical and boringly repetitive accompaniment pattern in the secondo.
Mother Goose Suite
Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was written in 1910 as a piano duet for two small children, Mimi and Jean Godebski, whose parents were friends of the composer. Ravel was an avuncular presence in the Godebski home, as Mimi would later recall in her memoirs:
Of all my parents’ friends, I had a predilection for Ravel because he used to tell me stories that I loved. I used to climb on his knee and indefatigably he would begin, ‘Once upon a time…’
The musical stories depicted in Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye were taken from the classic 17th-century fairy tales of Charles Perrault and Marie d’Aulnoy. The score is of the utmost simplicity, tailored to suit the small hands and limited technical abilities of the children who were to play it.
Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant paints the hushed stillness enveloping Sleeping Beauty, who is cursed to remain in an enchanted slumber until being awakened by the kiss of Prince Charming. Recurring pedal points in the bass summon up the drowsiness of sleepy-time while modal harmonies (with a flat 7th scale degree) evoke an era in the distant past when courtiers danced the pavane, a slow stately processional dance popular in the Renaissance.
Petit Poucet tells the story of Tom Thumb wandering through the forest (in a steady pattern of double 3rds) dropping crumbs behind him to find his way back, only to find that birds (with high chirps in the upper register) have eaten them all up.
Laideronette, impératrice des pagodes is the story of a Chinese princess transformed into an ugly young girl by an evil fairy. As she takes her bath, she is surrounded by a troupe of servants playing various instruments for her entertainment. The pentatonic scale, used throughout, represents the Oriental setting of the tale.
Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête is a conversation, carried out in the high and low registers of the keyboard, between Beauty and the Beast. She expresses herself in a touchingly innocent soprano melody declaring that she doesn’t find him ugly at all while he growls out gruffly in the bass of his devotion to her. The surprise comes at the end, of course, when he is transformed into an ever-so handsome prince and they live happily ever after.
The concluding story of the suite is Le Jardin féerique, that tells of the fairy garden in which Sleeping Beauty lies in deep slumber. The scene opens in a mood of quiet elegy but soon the Prince’s arrival is announced in a passage of sustained arpeggios. The elegiac tone returns as the prince touchingly beholds the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and bends down to kiss her. Being thus released from her enchanted sleep, she awakens to a chorus of glittering glissandos expressing the brilliant light hitting her eyes and the exultation she feels at seeing her long-awaited Prince Charming.
Donald G. Gíslason 2020