Lili Boulanger: D’un Soir Triste (One Sad Evening) and D’un Matin de Printemps (One Spring Morning)
Women composers, like other female creative artists, have had to fight battles their male counterparts do not. Even today, a woman artist, writer, or composer often gets evaluated on criteria that have little or nothing to do with her work, and everything to do with her gender, her appearance, or her life circumstances. Lili Boulanger was no exception.
The younger sister of composer and pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who taught composition to many of the 20th century’s most distinguished composers, Lili Boulanger revealed her enormous talent and potential at a very young age. A musical prodigy born into a musical family, she won the coveted Prix de Rome, France’s most prestigious composition prize, in 1913, at the age of twenty. She was the first woman to win this award (Nadia received second prize in 1908, although many of the judges believed she should have won top honors). Boulanger’s compositional style, while grounded in the prevailing French impressionist aesthetics associated with Debussy, is nonetheless wholly her own. It is rich in color and nonfunctional harmony, and employs a wide variety of textures: the use of archaic modal keys, hollow chords (open fifths and octaves), ostinato figures, running arpeggios, and static rhythms.
Along with her tremendous musical ability, Boulanger was born with a chronic, debilitating intestinal illness, believed to be Crohn’s disease. Today there are drugs and other therapies to manage this condition, but in Boulanger’s time the illness itself had neither name nor cure, and its treatment was likewise little understood. Throughout her short life, Boulanger suffered from chronic abdominal pain, bouts of uncontrollable diarrhea, and debilitating fatigue; all these symptoms naturally impacted her stamina and her ability to compose. Contemporary reviews and articles about Boulanger and her work always emphasized her physical fragility, often in lieu of a thoughtful assessment of her music.
Despite illness, Boulanger continued composing, even on her deathbed. D’un Soir Triste and D’un Matin de Printemps are two of the last works she wrote, and she conceived each in several different iterations: for duo, trio, and full orchestra. The two works treat the same opening melodic and rhythmic theme in different ways: in D’un Soir Triste, the tempo is slow and the mood elegiac, while the same melodic/rhythmic fragment receives a cheerful, puckish treatment in D’un Matin de Printemps. D’un Soir Triste cannot escape being interpreted as Boulanger’s own musical obituary, and perhaps also an elegy for the soldiers lost in WWI, while D’un Matin de Printemps can be heard as a nostalgic reflection on happier days gone by.
Béla Bartók: Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19, Sz. 73
“In my view, this is the best work I have so far written for orchestra.” – Béla Bartók, 1927, writing about The Miraculous Mandarin
Béla Bartók completed three works for the stage: the opera Bluebeard’s Castle, The Wooden Prince ballet, and The Miraculous Mandarin, which is based on a story by the Hungarian writer Menyhért Lengyel. Although often described as a ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin was conceived as a pantomime, with silent movements “acted” to the music.
Lengyel was an Expressionist fascinated by the new science of psychiatry – he went to a Freudian analyst – and The Miraculous Mandarin is a textbook Expressionist work, replete with provocative, lurid images. Bartók’s music is equally challenging; at its premiere, The Miraculous Mandarin ignited a scandal and was subsequently banned from performance. Only after WWII, 20 years after its premiere, was The Miraculous Mandarin revived. Bartók designated the first six sections an orchestral suite, which premiered in 1928.
Bartók’s interest in Lengyel’s story is something of a mystery. However, his connection to it was immediate; he once described it as “marvelously beautiful.” Some scholars suggest that Bartók’s experiences during WWI inclined him toward a work so obviously devoid of sentimentality. Whatever the reason, Bartók’s commitment to the story is total. From its opening bars, the music of The Miraculous Mandarin transports the listener into the tawdry underworld of a low-class brothel, in which a young girl is forced by a gang of thugs to entice unsuspecting customers, who become the gang’s robbery victims.
The introduction conjures up the tornado music from The Wizard of Oz: a swirling, shrieking mass of strings, horns and winds, punctuated by snare drum rolls. “It will be hellish music. The prelude before the curtain goes up will be very short and sound like pandemonium,” wrote Bartók to his wife in 1918. A brief clarinet solo signals each of the girl’s conquests. In the first scene, a destitute lecher is lured in (trombone glissandi). When the thugs discover he is broke, they beat him and kick him out. Next an awkward young man appears, and the girl waltzes with him (oboe and English horn), but he too is penniless, and the gang ejects him. Suddenly the mandarin appears (huge brass glissandi). His character is a conglomeration of ugly stereotypes: rich, sinister, and imbued with unquenchable lust. To the gang he seems the perfect mark, although the girl is repelled by him. Nonetheless, she begins her seductive dance (a flirtatious on-again-off-again number featuring strings, with interjections of flute and other winds), which arouses the mandarin’s passion. He pursues her (wild shrieks of brasses and winds, with muted trumpet solo), whereupon the gang attacks, stripping the mandarin of his money and other possessions. The suite ends at this point; the full ballet continues as the gang tortures and eventually murders the mandarin.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19
One of Ludwig van Beethoven’s earliest works for orchestra, this concerto served as the young composer/pianist’s formal introduction to Viennese society, and reflects Beethoven’s mastery of Classical form and style. Beethoven began sketching it possibly as early as 1785, when he was 15, finished it in 1795, and made his final revisions to it in 1798. This concerto is a youthful work, and the iconoclasm we associate with Beethoven is not evident. However, underneath the Mozartean structure, orchestration, and style of this concerto, we can hear glimpses of the mature Beethoven, especially in his use of unexpected harmonies. The powerful, muscular solo passages also showcase Beethoven’s particular performing style.
Beethoven was both conductor and soloist for the premiere in Vienna’s Burgtheater. In the days before the concert, Beethoven was battling a nasty bout of colic, and dulled both the pain and his mental faculties with medication. As a result, he finished the concerto only two days before the premiere. As Beethoven completed each page, it was given to a group of copyists who worked in an adjacent room frantically making copies for the orchestra. Typically, Beethoven did not commit the solo part to paper beforehand. In 1801, Beethoven finally wrote down the soloist’s part and sent it off to his publisher with profuse apologies for its illegibility.
The concerto was a resounding success with both audience and critics, but Beethoven was dissatisfied with it, and wrote an apologetic letter to his publisher: “A concerto for pianoforte which, it is true, I do not make out to be one of my best.”
The Allegro con brio is full of short, pithy melodic ideas, strung together seamlessly like a strand of pearls. The most notable aspect of this movement is its remarkable cadenza, which Beethoven improvised at the premiere. Fourteen years later he wrote out a cadenza, which, in scope and style, almost swamps the movement preceding it. The lyrical Adagio provides a change of mood as the solo part executes delicate, exposed lines, emphasizing phrasing and tone rather than showy virtuosity. In the closing Rondo, Beethoven employs an unusual accented short-long-short-long rhythm as the main theme, and this off-balance motif hints at Beethoven’s irreverent sense of humor.
(N.B. The B-flat Concerto No. 2 was actually written before Beethoven’s C Major Concerto No. 1, but published after it, which accounts for the numbering confusion.)
— © 2018 Elizabeth Schwartz
NOTE: The program notes attributed to Elizabeth Schwartz are published here by the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra for its patrons and other interested readers. Any other use is forbidden without specific permission from the author, who may be contacted at www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com. Elizabeth Schwartz is a writer and music historian based in Portland, OR. She has been a program annotator for more than 20 years, and her clients include the Oregon Symphony, the Spokane Symphony, and Chamber Music Northwest, among others. Ms. Schwartz has also contributed to NPR’s “Performance Today” (now heard on American Public Media).