Program Notes

Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony

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Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)
Of a Spring Morning
Duration: ca. 5 minutes

Lili Boulanger, the younger sister of the French pedagogue, Nadia Boulanger, rests among a cast of composers who died tragically young, leaving us to wonder what music might have been had they lived full lives. Suffering from a weak immune system since infancy, she struggled through frail health to compose instrumental and vocal works that reveal an immense, if inchoate, talent.

It certainly was noticed by judges who in 1913 awarded her the coveted Prix de Rome in music, and as the first woman to win the prize, she became an international sensation. Although illness forced her to rely on private instruction at home rather than conservatory training, her compositional technique was evolving alongside many well-known masters of her day.

In 1914 she traveled to Italy, writing a number of works before returning again two years later, but the distractions of world war and bronchial pneumonia forced her back to France. Too weak to sit at the piano, she dictated to her sister her final creation, Pie Jesu, and died shortly after. She was 24.

Boulanger orchestrated Of a Spring Morning in her final year, transcribing it from an earlier duo for violin and piano. This hardly sounds like the music of a fading light, as its delicate energy and ebullient opening theme on the flute reflect the spirit of Debussy, or even Daybreak from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. But this is pure Boulanger in her feel for color and contrast, harmonic transparency, wistful crescendos and diminuendos, and the confidence in how it ends: a harp glissando followed by a single, assertive note from the full orchestra.

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)
Requiem in D minor, Op. 48
Duration: ca. 40 minutes

This all-French program continues with one of the most elegant and subtle choral works of the late 19th century, a Mass for the Dead that unfolds as a peaceful narrative. Unlike the resounding, thunderous requiems of Berlioz and Verdi − and more in line with the German Requiem of Brahms − Fauré offers consolation to the living through seven softly etched, complementary sections.

Fauré was not attracted to power in music; he sought clarity and beauty rather than drama and pathos. For instance, he omitted the traditional Dies irae (Day of Wrath) and only briefly during the Libera me does he allude to the terrors of the final judgment. Fauré was cynical about religion and had no use for fear, suffering and redemption.

“They say that my Requiem does not express the terror of death,’’ the composer wrote. “Someone has called it a lullaby of death. But that is how I see death; as a happy deliverance, as a yearning for the joy that lies beyond, rather than as a sorrowful passing.’’

His greatest choral work is not a declamatory flogging but a treatise on peace, resignation and eternal rest. All of its sections move forward on a wave of tranquility, inspiring Nadia Boulanger (whose younger sister, Lili, is on this program) to exclaim “Nothing purer, clearer in definition has been written.’’

Fauré was a master of French song, and it stands to reason that this work unfolds like a series of arias, each imbued with harmonic richness and a fluid rhythm that remains unchanged over long periods. This uniformity of tempo suggests that he wanted to preserve the arc of a vocal line without shifting or interrupting its direction. The core of the work resides in both the Santus and Pie Jesu, which together are perhaps the most expressive music Fauré ever wrote.

The architecture of the Requiem includes the following sections:

I. Introit and Kyrie (Lord have mercy)
II. Offertory (We offer to Thee, O Lord)
III. Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy)
IV. Pie Jesu (O merciful Lord Jesus)
V. Agnus Dei (Lamb of God)
VI. Libera me (Deliver me)
VII. In Paradisium (To Paradise may angels lead)

Fauré scored the work less as a large-scale orchestral piece but as chamber music, and rarely do all instruments play together. It opens majestically with a powerful chord and the choir responding in prayer. A deeply felt Offertory follows, then the celebrated Santus and Pie Jesu. The Agnus Dei bathes in a warm glow and hints of the Indroit, and only in the Libera me to we sense the slightest foreboding. The work ends in paradise, the angelic sound of sopranos ascending to a heavenly realm.

Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921)
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, “Organ”
Duration: ca. 36 minutes

Saint-Saens lived a long and extraordinary life. He was born the year Darwin made crucial evolutionary discoveries aboard the HMS Beagle, and died the year the Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the World Series. Beethoven had been dead for eight years and Brahms was a toddler. He lived through the heart of the Romantic period in music, the Civil War and opening of the Eiffel Tower, the First World War, and the creation of the League of Nations. He would have made an entertaining dinner guest.

Early in life he was hailed as another Mozart, and Liszt called him the world’s greatest organist. He developed refined tastes and a keen wit, enjoyed exotic travels, wrote scientific papers on astronomy and botany, was an expert on ancient Greek instruments, and could sight read the most complex sheet music (at age 10 he could play from memory any of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas). He survived the death of two sons, then left his estranged wife and never remarried.

Despite having been a remarkably talented musician and composer, Saint-Saens often is regarded as second-rate. Certainly, the popularity of his best works is justified, such as the piano concertos, Carnival of the Animals and Organ Symphony. But if he lacks depth, his work carries a distinctive aroma and the French characteristics of grace, clarity of expression and elegant proportion.

His Symphony No. 3 explodes with color, nervous energy and, like a good novel, a surprise ending. He crams into two movements – adagio and scherzo − what many composers would spread out over four, and Saint-Saens repeats themes in the cyclical fashion of a Liszt tone poem. Quavering string figures squirm their way from beginning to end, with musical arguments arising from them. The poco adagio that caps the first movement is nothing less than profound.

The second movement is best known for its aggressive rhythms and rippling piano scales – used so effectively in the 1995 movie Babe – and a tug-and-pull between a light trio section and the return of the scherzo. Unexpecting audiences often jump up from their seats at the startling entrance of the organ in the bright key of C major, which carries the orchestra into a final brassy fanfare worthy of a Bach chorale.

Program notes by Kurt Loft, a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and former music critic for The Tampa Tribune.