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Chausson: Viviane

Duparc: “Testament,” “L’invitation au voyage,” and “La vie anterieure”

Berlioz: “L’absence” and “L’île inconnue”

Ravel: “La flûte enchantée”

Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Oakland Civic Orchestra

Oakland, CA

Oct 26, 2014



          Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) is perhaps one of the lesser-­known French composers from the late Romantic period, but within his 39 published works are significant moments of brilliance and creativity that have endured the test of time, still making appearances in both chamber and orchestral programs today. As a student at the Paris Conservatoire, Chausson worked with Jules Massenet; later in his career, he would study with César Franck and could frequently be found in the company of other great composers, including Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, and Henri Duparc, whose songs also appear on this program. After leaving the Conservatoire, Chausson traveled to Bayreuth, where he was exposed to the music of Richard Wagner, whose operas—especially Parsifal (1883)—would have a major impact on the composer’s style. In fact, many aspects of Viviane (1887) show the influence of the German musical tradition.

          In Viviane, Chausson tells the story of the eponymous fairy’s relationship with the wizard Merlin in the forest of Broncéliande. The story is taken from the legend of King Arthur, one of the more famous chapters of European folklore, the adaptation of which was very much in line with the Romantic tradition of setting medieval literature to music. This type of appropriation is something that Chausson would have seen in the operas of Wagner (among others), who relied on medieval lore for many of his works, most notably Parsifal, Lohengrin (1848), Tristan und Isolde (1859), and, of course, Der Ring des Nibelungen (1869-1874). Chausson was so attracted to King Arthur’s legend that he would revisit it in his opera Le roi Arthus (King Arthur) (1895).

          Viviane features languid melodic lines, which evoke a bucolic feeling throughout the work. Chausson, an expert orchestrator, proves his excellence here in the rich string textures and delicate woodwind harmonies. The work, a single-movement symphonic poem, is rhythmically fairly conservative, but dynamically quite exciting. Overall, Viviane is a brilliant hybrid of Wagnerian drama and French essence.


          Having written predominantly for voice and piano, Henri Duparc (1848-­‐ 1933) is most famous for his mélodies (songs). “Testament” is based on a poem by Armand Silvestre, its soaring, lamenting melodies complementing the text, which deals with loss. The protagonist wishes to leave a testament of his sadness, saying “Pour que le vent te les apporte/Sur l’aile noire d’un remord/J’écrirai sur la feuille morte/Les tortures de mon coeur mort!” (“So that the wind will bring to you/On the black wings of remorse/I will write on the dead leaves/The tortures of my dead heart!”).

          Hector Berlioz’s (1803-­‐1869) Les nuits d’été (Summer Nights) (1841/1856) is a six-­‐movement song cycle originally written for piano and voice, but later arranged for orchestra. The cycle is based on works by French poet Théophile Gautier, although the title references Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In “L’absence” (“Absence”), Berlioz uses fermatas generously, which, when coupled with the use of rubato and the already Adagio tempo marking, gives the music a sense of space and longing, emphasizing the loneliness of the protagonist, who pines to be reunited with his lover. Berlioz’s text painting is magnificent here, keeping the overall mood of the piece consistent while changing the timbre, mode, and dynamics with each subsequent section of the poem. The piece features lengthy melodic lines, portentous of Wagner’s “endless” melodies later in the century.

          “L’île inconnue” (“The Unknown Island”) is a more rousing work, set in a 6/8 meter, which has a decidedly dance-­‐like feel. The upbeat tone mirrors the protagonist’s desire to gallivant around the world with his love. “Dites, la jeune belle!/Où voulez-­‐vous aller?” he asks. “La voile enfle son aile/La brise va souffler!” (“Say, young beauty/Where do you want to go?/The sail swells/The breeze will blow”).

          Both Duparc’s “L’invitation au voyage” (“Invitation to Travel”) and “La vie anterieure” (“Past Life”) are taken from the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, who is generally considered to have been the first modernist poet. Baudelaire’s imagery invites colorful orchestration, enabling a great marriage between music and text. In “L’invitation au voyage,” the protagonist dreams of traveling abroad with his companion. He imagines “Mon enfant, ma soeur/Songe à la douceur/D’aller là-­‐bas vivre ensemble/Aimer à loisir/Aimer et mourir/Au pays que te ressemble!” (“My child, my sister/Think of the sweetness/Of going there to live together!/To love at leisure/To love and to die/In a country that is the image of you!”).

          Maurice Ravel’s (1875-­‐1937) “La flûte enchantée” (“The Enchanted Flute”) is a selection from his song cycle Shéhérazade (1903), a three-­movement work based on text by French poet Tristan Klingsor. The orchestration and rhythms of the song are reminiscent of Ravel’s opera L’enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Spells). The frequent juxtaposition of moods and timbres that Ravel achieves in the different parts of the orchestra generates a gorgeous soundscape for the conversation between the solo flute and the vocalist. This piece certainly provides evidence for the claim, which many have made, that Ravel was greatest orchestrator of the twentieth century.


          Like Chausson, Paul Dukas (1865-­‐1935) was influenced by a few key Romantic figures; his work has been compared to Hector Berlioz, César Franck, and Richard Wagner. Dukas, too, had a significant formative experience related to Wagner: his first essay as a critic was a review of Gustav Mahler’s 1892 production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Dukas was a versatile musician and a fairly prolific composer; however, he is said to have destroyed many of his works and, as a result, very few remain.

          The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1897) is based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1797 poem Der Zauberlehrling, the story of a young magician who summons a broom to perform chores while his master is away. When the master returns, he finds that the apprentice has lost control of the broom, so he breaks the spell, restoring order to his workshop. The poem was a product of the growing Romantic predilection towards supernatural phenomena, as well as man’s increasing desire to dominate nature through technology that he is ultimately, at least in the poem, unable to wield.

          The work’s instrumentation is rather conservative when compared to other late Romantic orchestral works, although it certainly reflects the influence of Berlioz’s and Wagner’s expanded orchestras with its inclusion of three trombones, contrabassoon, and glockenspiel. The rhythm and melody of the recognizable main theme allow for creative melodic variation, which can be heard as the piece develops. Dukas’ excellent use of text painting makes it easy for one to imagine the events of the poem while listening to the music; in fact, the poem has occasionally been included in programs of the performance.

          The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is Dukas’ most well-­known and oft-­‐performed work. This is, in part, due to its inclusion in Disney’s animated film Fantasia (1940). For the film, it was famously recorded by conductor Leopold Stokowski; this performance is still considered among the greatest recordings of the piece.


Adam Rothbarth © 2014

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