The Wand of Youth Suite No.1 Opus 1a (2) Edward Elgar Download 'The Wand of Youth Suite No.1 Opus 1a (2)' on iTunes
The best of French composers – and quite a cosmopolitan bunch they were too.
We go to Spain first where a naïve soldier has his life turned upside down by one of opera’s fieriest femmes fatales. The public reaction to the premiere of Carmen was lukewarm to say the least, and Bizet predicted his opera would be ‘a definite and hopeless flop’. ‘Sadly, he died suddenly at the age of 36,’ says Katherine, ‘before Carmen’s first run was even over and he would never know just how successful it would become – probably the world’s favourite opera I’d say. It certainly has some of opera’s best-loved tunes in it.’
Poor Bizet hadn’t had much success with his operas before Carmen either. The main Parisian theatres preferred the established classical works to efforts from newcomers. One critic wrote of Bizet’s 1863 opera, The Pearl Fishers that “There were neither fishermen in the libretto nor pearls in the music.” ‘That’s not fair,’ says Katherine, ‘because the Pearl Fishers, which is set in Ceylon – or modern day Sri Lanka - has one of opera’s most beautiful duets.’
The earliest French composer in Katherine’s Collection is Francois Couperin. He was known as Couperin le Grand, to distinguish him from other members of his family. ‘Not because he was fatter than them, you’ll understand,’ says Katherine, ‘but because they were also musicians – (but not quite as great as him.)’ Couperin was the court organist and composer to Louis the Fourteenth and Couperin would give a concert every Sunday for his master, often playing the harpsichord, on which he was a virtuoso player. Many of his keyboard pieces have poetic titles like this one "The mysterious barricades" and use interesting keys and harmonies to create a special mood.
Of all 19th century composers, perhaps it was the French who had the greatest gift for melody. It made them extremely popular in their own time but meant that their works received a bit of a snub from later audiences who wanted a bit more drama and dissonance. ‘Thankfully we can now once again appreciate just how great a composer like Massenet was, for example,’ says Katherine. ‘He was a consummate opera composer. There’s lots to discover and enjoy in his opera Manon, and some wonderful moments in Werther too. And then there’s Thais, set in Egypt, which has one of music’s most exquisite melodies.’
Lakmé was the last opera composed by Leo Delibes. ‘It contains that beautiful duet, beloved of a certain airline, and much more besides,’ says Katherine. Tchaikovsky was enamoured with Delibes music – enough to rate him more highly than he rated Brahms. Of one of Delibes’ ballet scores Tchaikovsky wrote: ‘... what charm, what wealth of melody! It brought me to shame, for had I known of this music, I would have never written Swan Lake.’
It was with a ballet that Delibes achieved true fame in 1870 – Coppélia – the story of a mechanical dancing doll that distracts a country boy from his beloved and appears to come to life.
The Carnival of the Animals, composed in 1886, was originally written as a joke and Saint-Saëns worried that it might damage his reputation. He banned complete performances and only allowed one movement, The Swan, to be published while he was alive. The piece became acclaimed worldwide as The Dying Swan after 1905 when it was choreographed for legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova. She performed the piece about 4,000 times.
Gabriel Faure was recognised as the leading French composer of his day and achieved particular popularity across the Channel. ‘I particularly love Faure’s Requiem - which is just so beautiful,’ says Katherine. ‘Faure himself said he saw death “as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience.”
As the 20th century got underway, the melody and form of Saint-Saens and Faure gave way to the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel. Ravel’s works particularly for piano demand incredible skill from the performer, and his orchestral music is full of colourful instrumentation. Ravel is perhaps known best for his Boléro which he disliked and once described as "a piece for orchestra without music”. ‘Personally I always preferred this beautiful mournful dance,’ says Katherine.
Claude Debussy – a crucial figure in the transition to the modern era in Western music – remains one of the most famous and influential of all composers. ‘I absolutely love his symphonic poem, Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, which was first performed in Paris in1894,’ says Katherine. ‘It seems to me to be just perfect with not a note out of place.’ This piece marked a turning point. The conductor Pierre Boulez says that "the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music."