HENRI DUTILLEUX (1916–2013)
Les citations for Oboe, Bass, Harpsichord, and Percussion (1985, rev. 1990-91)
Liam Boisset, oboe, Anthony Manzo, bass, Gilles Vonsattel, harpischord, Ian David Rosenbaum, percussion
by Paul Griffiths
Artists of all kinds, and in all periods, have been inclined now and then to use their art to capture something from another. The formal term for this, “ekphrasis,” goes back to ancient Greece, and the classic example is a Greek one: the description of the shield of Achilles that continues through well over a hundred lines of the Iliad. But though originating in a literary commentary on a visual work of art, ekphrasis extends into other domains, not least that of music. Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is a self-declared example of a composition recreating paintings in sound. Very much more numerous are the musical works that take literary texts as their subject matter, whether those texts remain present, as in songs and opera, or not, as in symphonic poems and scores made for films or the theater.
This evening’s program presents works that transpose architecture, poetry, and sacred sculpture, but begins and ends with examples of music springing from music. The first piece, Henri Dutilleux’s Les citations, is the strangest work in that composer’s catalogue, first of all in terms of its scoring. Dutilleux’s home ground was the orchestra. On the rare occasions when he worked on a smaller scale, he preferred standard genres: string quartet, solo instrument with piano. In the unique case of Les citations, however, he put together his own mixed ensemble.
The piece is also unusual in foregrounding quotations from other music—indeed, declaring them in its title. Dutilleux began the composition in response to a commission for the 1985 festival in the English coastal town of Aldeburgh, where Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears had made their home. Appropriately, a trace of Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, forty years old at the time, made its way into the score. Signaled by the arrival of the harpsichord and bass with marimba (hitherto the piece has been an oboe solo with discreet punctuation from a suspended cymbal), the quotation comes from Grimes’s aria “Now the Great Bear and the Pleiades,” at the words: “Breathing solemnity in the deep night.” There is also another reference to Britten in the prominence of the oboe, whose modal, incantatory tone recalls that of the English composer’s Six Metamorphoses after Ovid (themselves ekphrastic). Multiphonics (chords produced by special fingerings) arrive for points of emphasis.
Entitled “For Aldeburgh 85,” this four-minute movement might have remained an occasional piece, rarely revived, had Dutilleux not decided to extend it—and extend its scope of quotation—five years later. What he added was a new, longer movement whose sources are stated in its title: “From Janequin to Jehan Alain.” The latter was a contemporary of Dutilleux’s who had been killed in the Second World War, leaving an output that included a set of variations for organ on a song believed at the time to be by the 16th-century master Clément Janequin but now regarded as anonymous. Before reaching its quotations from Alain and Anon., the movement interposes a harpsichord solo in which Dutilleux refers to an earlier work of his own, his ballet Le Loup (“The Wolf”). The other players come in one by one, and when the quartet has been assembled, we hear on the harpsichord a falling motif from another Alain composition (Thème varié for piano) together with the Renaissance song in harmonics on the double bass. The harpsichord continues with a little more from the Alain, the oboe recalls the old song, and the movement is set on its path between and away from these borrowed materials. A jazz episode for bass and percussion soon takes over, with the harpsichord more or less in the background and the oboe silent, until it responds to the increase in temperature. Everything then comes to a startling full stop. The continuation is slow and full of memories, before the movement comes to a broken yet brilliant conclusion.
Igor Santos’s as light becomes form (2019), also in two movements of which the second is twice as long as the first, is in dialogue with architecture, specifically with that of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. Santos, who had recently completed doctoral studies at the University of Chicago, designed the piece for a concert within the building, taking into account particularly how Wright had used light to animate what was a revolutionary structure in reinforced concrete. The sense of light streaming into a contained but voluminous space, or raining down, is vividly realized as sound, which has its own ways of varying in intensity and color.
“The guiding principle for the first movement,” Santos explains, “is Wright’s technique of compression/release—narrow entrances that open dramatically into bright and tall rooms.” This movement, with its effulgent sonorities, acts as a prelude to the second, which is, to quote the composer further, “inspired by the ceiling of Unity Temple’s main worship space, and particularly by the twenty-five coffers and their unique stained glass pattern. All of these panels (or ‘lightscreens,’ as Wright called them) are identical, and variety derives from rotating their placement each time. The music in this movement presents a ‘lightscreen theme,’ a series of simple objects that are ‘filtered’ and radiated as a sheen of piano resonance. At first the objects in the theme are simply reshuffled, and later proceed by organically expanding each individual component over the course of 25 variations.”
Turning to literature, Andrea Clearfield’s Three Songs take off from love poems by Pablo Neruda, poems of rich sensuality in which the female body is intimately familiar, closely felt, and yet also infinitely other: a landscape, clothed in pearl, allied to colors and stars and, once more, light. Clearfield wrote the work in 1996 for the bass player Robert Kesselman, of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and his oboist wife Jennifer Kuhns. “The double bass and oboe,” the composer elucidates, “represented not only two different instrumental families and musical registers, but also contrasting instrumental shapes, colors, and sizes. These complementary opposites resonate with elements of Neruda’s love poetry, which plays on images of dark and light, night and day, masculine and feminine.”
The entwining of instruments—the entwining also of music with unspoken poetry—remains as warm in the version Clearfield created two years later for Edgar Meyer to play with the violinist Heide Sibley. Bass and violin slide over one another, like two bodies lying together, their gestures curved, exploratory invitations. Whether in repetition or in heightening passion, they speak to each other. Their moments are brief—two slow movements and a teasing escapade are all over in seven minutes—but they come from eternity.
A longer French composition completes the program symmetrically and also returns to the theme of music drawing on music. The alliance of the piano with tuned percussion instruments is a regular feature of Philippe Hurel’s scoring; his Tombeau isolates that element and makes of it a whole world. The person remembered in this memorial tribute is Gérard Grisey, with whom Hurel spent some time in Oslo when the senior composer, only a month before his death, was there for a performance of his Vortex temporum.
“When Gérard died,” Hurel has recalled, “I was working on a piece for piano and vibraphone of a playful nature. The immense grief that suddenly overwhelmed me led me to abandon the project, of which nothing but the instrumentation remained. How better could I pay homage to Gérard than by writing absolutely my own music, with no reference to his, no signs of his influence? Nevertheless, it was exactly the violence of the solo in Grisey’s Vortex temporum that started my piece off. It was imperative not to study the score, and yet to retain its force and use it as a possible metaphor. I had never had to confront this type of work before. The piece took on the appearance of a ritual, and the vibraphone player found himself with extra instruments, such as cowbells, Thai gongs, crotales, and woodblocks, all to ‘disturb’ the piano without actually putting it out of tune, as Grisey had done. For the first time ever, my music was not to be objective. I had great difficulty in evaluating the material, and my momentary yielding to complete intuition might not have pleased the dedicatee. The piece is, however, imbued with Grisey’s spirit, and could not have seen the light of day without him.”
The work is in four movements, of which the last is resumptive, a memory of a memory.
Paul Griffiths is a music critic, novelist, and librettist.
Andrea Clearfield on Three Songs After Pablo Neruda
Nicky Swett: Your “Three Songs” are inspired by particular poems by Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda. What appeals to you in Neruda’s poetry?
Andrea Clearfield: I am drawn to the lyricism in Neruda and an evocative quality that’s sensual, that reflects a joy at being alive and at the same time a longing for the unattainable. For me, this is a tension that lends itself to thinking about music. I’m also drawn to his play on opposites. Light and dark, night and day, joy and sorrow, life and death, presence and absence—these oppositions can also be forces in music.
NS: How does his language make its way into your composition?
AC: These pieces are not representational renderings of the texts, but rather small tableaux that capture something of the poem as a whole. I’m not attempting to represent particular lines or themes. That being said, the original piece was commissioned by bassist Robert Kesselman for his then-fiancée Jennifer Kuhns, an oboe player. I loved the shape of the two instruments, and began to imagine the bass as the body of the woman.
The contrast of the instrumental families, of the sound and the register, and of the appearance of the instruments, all played into this idea of complementary opposites that I found in Neruda. In the first movement, there’s counterpoint with musical lines that intersect and move in different directions, pulling apart and coming together with a kind of magnetism that is also one of the essential elements of the poem. The second movement has a covered quality, inspired by the idea of a veiled light, and the instruments wrap around each other. The ascending arpeggios in the bass are almost like an invitation, with the oboe, or the violin in the version on this concert, responding to the invitation.
AC: In the final piece, which was inspired by a lengthy poem, I thought about the idea of dancing in the lightness of the universe. It is a dance that ties the other movements together and has a little bit more of a common interplay, rather than these opposites pulling at each other.
NS: What new possibilities did you explore in your 1999 arrangement of the work for Violin and Double Bass?
AC: The bass-oboe version was deeply inspired by the beautiful tone and contrasts of colors that Rob and Jennifer were capable of. When I arranged it later for bassist Edgar Meyer and violinist Heide Sibley, I took advantage of the fact that the two instruments were in the same family. There could be conversation in pizzicato, shared double stops, or violin harmonics contributing to that veiled quality. I wanted to use the various capabilities of the violin and the extended range to create the same intensity of contrast that you hear in the oboe and bass version.
NS: What makes these instrumental pieces “songs”?
AC: A song traditionally would be sung by the voice, though it really could be any musical setting of a poem. As a singer, your instrument is your body, and the voice depends on the breath, which is so close to the emotions. There’s an inherent intimacy to singing. I was thinking of these instruments like singing bodies, and these pieces as songs in the sense that the instruments create an intimacy and emotional quality that is almost like that of the human voice.
The Spectral Spectre of Gérard Grisey
by Nicky Swett
Though none of his works will be heard directly, the specter of the composer Gérard Grisey (1946–98) hangs over this New Milestones program. He is often credited with formally founding the spectral music movement in France in the mid-1970s, which, in Grisey’s words, “offered a formal organization and sonic material that came directly from the physics of sound.” Henri Dutilleux was one of Grisey’s formative teachers, though Dutilleux did not identify himself with any particular movement and was considered conservative by many of the spectralists. Yet the overtone series–enforced harmonies that form an integral part of Dutilleux’s musical language—sonorities we hear in the harpsichord and marimba parts of Les citations—form a strong aural link to much work written by his spectralist contemporaries.
The work that closes the program—Philippe Hurel’s Tombeau—was completed in 2000, soon after Grisey’s sudden death, and dedicated to his memory. In his posthumously published article “Did You Say Spectral?” Grisey describes one of the key harmonic and timbral consequences of the spectral music movement as a “more ecological approach to timbres, noises and intervals.” Hurel insisted that his memorial Tombeau contains absolutely no direct reference in style or substance to the dedicatee, except a violent impulse found in Grisey’s Vortex temporum. Yet some of the formal consequences of spectralism that Grisey outlines in that article, including “exploration of the thresholds between different parameters,” and “superposing and placing in and out of phase contradictory, partial, or implied processes,” are important to how Hurel puts together this homage for piano and percussion. Both of these works can be heard as hinting at Grisey’s music and ideas without citation or allusion, forming a distant impression rather than a direct image—a set of faint spectral overtones floating in the air around the concert program.