That Lightness of Spirit
Anthony McGill has chosen an elegant and lyrical program of music from France, America, and Russia, nearly all from the early 20th century. This period saw the birth of modernism — including Cubism, Expressionism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and Futurism — yet this CD focuses on music that shares, in the words of Francis Poulenc, “that lightness of spirit without which life would be unendurable.”
André Messager composed the delightfully sweet and showy Solo de Concours of 1901 for Paris Conservatoire clarinet students to cut their teeth upon. A student of Saint-Saëns and Fauré, Messager succeeded Fauré as organist and choirmaster at St. Sulpice, composed for the Folies-Bergère, and served as music director of the Opéra-Comique. Although he was only 9 years older than Debussy, and his own music was rooted in the traditions that Debussy rejected, Messager encouraged Debussy during the composition of Pelléas et Mélisande, and conducted its premiere at the Opéra-Comique in 1902.
Debussy also wrote a test piece for clarinet students at the Paris Conservatoire, exactly 9 years later than Messager (both composers were 48 when they composed these solos.) He was particularly fond of his Première rapsodie, and he orchestrated the piano part in 1911. Debussy’s Petite pièce was composed as a sight-reading test. Debussy famously declared, “There is no theory. You only have to listen. Pleasure is the law.” With his floating, ambiguous harmonies, released from the functions of traditional tonality, and his luminous orchestrations, he ushered in a new sensibility that reached across the Atlantic to America.
George Gershwin — in addition to frequent trips to hear great black musicians playing stride piano at Harlem spots like the Cotton Club and his fascination with the music of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith, and other jazz musicians — was drawn to the music of France, as much as the French were drawn to Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, and musique nègre.
A year after the premiere of his Three Preludes of 1927 (for solo piano but much transcribed), Gershwin journeyed to Paris, where he composed An American in Paris. He described the work himself: “The opening part will be developed in typical French style, in the manner of Debussy and Les Six, though the themes are original.” That same year, in a letter to Nadia Boulanger, Maurice Ravel wrote that Gershwin is no longer satisfied with his international success “for he is aiming higher” and “he knows that he lacks the technical means to achieve his goal.” Ravel did not feel that he could teach Gershwin, so he asked Boulanger if she would “undertake this awesome responsibility.” She declined. Gershwin soon returned to America.
Gershwin had read DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy before he left for Paris. It was not until 1934, however, that Gershwin decided to compose an opera based on Porgy (which Heyward had turned into a play in 1927), and he had hoped that Paul Robeson would play the lead, as opposed to Heyward’s suggestion that they collaborate on a revue called Porgy starring Al Jolson, the white singer who often appeared in blackface. (Todd Duncan sang the role of Porgy in the first production.) Summertime was the first music he wrote for the opera and remains its best-loved song. It Ain’t Necessarily So, sung in the original 1935 production by vaudeville star John Bubbles (who gave tap-dancing lessons to Fred Astaire in 1920), is simultaneously jazz-inspired and derived from Jewish cantorial singing (it is easy to hear the relationship with Baruch atoh adanoi.)
Born one year after Gershwin, Francis Poulenc had a similar ability to merge serious composition and popular song. His early style, which gained him acceptance into Les Six, was simple and charming, but the death of a friend in 1936 brought a more serious tone into his writing. The Sonata for Clarinet and Piano of 1962 was commissioned by Benny Goodman, who was supposed to premiere the work with Poulenc at the piano, but the composer died before the work was published. The premiere was given at Carnegie Hall with Leonard Bernstein stepping in for Poulenc.
Both Gershwin and Sergei Rachmaninoff spent time in Hollywood, which is where the Russian composer wrote his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. His wordless Vocalise, composed in 1912 when Rachmaninoff was still in Russia, has been transcribed for every instrument that can emulate the human voice.
As much as Debussy sought a new musical language and Gershwin favored innovative ideas, Rachmaninoff aggressively rejected modernity. He put it bluntly, “I have no warm feeling for music that is experimental—your so-called ‘modern music,’ …I myself could never care to write in a radical vein that disregards the laws of tonality or harmony. Nor could I learn to love such music, if I listened to it a thousand times…It is my own pet belief that, if you have something important to say, you don’t need a new language in which to say it.”
Debussy ‘s feelings were quite the opposite. He wrote to Jacques Durand in 1907, “…music is not, in essence, a thing that can be cast into a traditional and fixed form.” Debussy, who was accused by critics of musical anarchy, resented those members of the public who “use music as casually as one uses a handkerchief” and in his frustration wrote to Ernest Chausson as early as 1893, “I propose the foundation of a ‘Society of Musical Esotericism.'”
Gershwin’s songs were popular internationally, but his more ambitious music — Concerto in F, Rhapsody in Blue, Porgy and Bess — received mixed reviews and were the subject of controversy. What did he feel about audiences and esotericism? As Gershwin himself put it, “Einstein plays the violin and listens to music. People in the underworld, dope fiends and gun men, invariably are music lovers…”
Gershwin could satisfy the musical tastes of Einstein and Al Capone. (In fact, Al Capone was a fan of “Rhapsody in Blue”.) Anthony McGill and pianist Gloria Chien have given us a CD for all music-lovers, a collection of musical snapshots of an era, profoundly lyrical and with a lightness of spirit.