The title of this piece, Le Calme de la Mer, is French for “The Calm of the Sea.” It is a work of French Impressionism, though its composer, Tony Aubin (1907-1981) lived and composed much later than other Impressionist composers. This piece was published in 1965 while most impressionist works were published before 1920. Aubin was influenced by Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Paul Dukas, who was one of Aubin’s teachers.
To the right is a photograph of Tony Aubin coaching a trio with the same instrumentation as this piece: flute, clarinet, and piano. This is a rare instrumentation because all of the instruments sound in a generally higher pitch than other groups who have low-sounding instruments as well as high. A trio with just three performers has the advantage of being small enough for each instrument to get a chance to perform the melody, accompany it, and play in close harmony.
An hommage is a piece of music written to pay tribute to something or someone. In this case, the tribute is being paid by Hungarian clarinet professor Béla Kovács to French composer Claude Debussy. Béla Kovács (b. 1937) is Professor of Clarinet at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music and performs in orchestras in Budapest, Hungary. Here is what Professor Kovacs had to say about these pieces:
My pedagogical activities inspired me to compose the Hommages. The pieces were intended to be etudes or studies which students may use as supplementary material to the usual dry and mechanical – although indispensable – exercises. They contain various challenges. If performed with impressive dexterity, proper tone production and sufficient knowledge of styles, coupled with a sense of humor and a certain amount of fantasy, they could, hopefully, find success even on the concert stage. I recommend the Hommages to all my former, present, and future students, and also to those, who, recognizing their value, may wish to devote more concentrated attention to them.
Béla Kovács is an excellent replicator of various composers’ styles, such as that of Claude Debussy (1862-1918). The bulk of Debussy’s works fall under the category of French Impressionism, which was a movement in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century that departed from the more obvious, overt style of Romanticism. Impressionist music is much like impressionist art: it depicts the figurative meaning of a person, object, or scene rather than the literal portrait. The emotions are more subtle and covert. Also, the melodies are more difficult to identify because they weave together an atmosphere rather than a song or dance. Kovács directly quotes at least two of Debussy’s works in this piece for unaccompanied clarinet including his Premiere Rhapsody and Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, which is perhaps Debussy’s most famous work.
Have you ever experienced something that overloaded your senses? Ever witnessed something that seemed to transcend human experience? That gave you a sense of awe or wonder? Classical music does that for me and it is the subject for this segment’s emotion in Classical music.
awe – noun – a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder
wonder – noun – a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable
Take Gaspard De La Nuit by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) for example. This impressionist piece for solo piano has three movements. The first movement alone is like an out of body experience. Impressionism is often like that because it doesn’t tend to depict reality, but more raw senses and emotion out of context. It is atmospheric rather than programmatic. Abstract rather than literal.
The first notes don’t sound like a piano playing, they sound like water trickling in the darkness from an unknown source. When the melody enters, it progresses as though unconfined to any particular key. It is hard to tell what this melody wants from us, as there is no tension and resolution like typical melodies and their accompanying harmonies. All we can tell is that the melody is becoming more insistent.
The subtitle of the first movement is Ondine, a mythical water fairy, and Gaspard De LaNuit is translated “treasurer of the night,” which in French is a reference to the devil. Again, the titles and references need not be taken literally in Impressionism. The feeling I get is being drawn in, seduced, and swept away on an unintended journey. I believe love can be like that, particularly divine love. There is awe at the vastness, gloriousness, and profundity of the character of God. This next clip depicts what it feels like to consent to this journey, follow the proverbial rabbit down the rabbit hole, and be blown away by the experience.
Part of my job here is to explain how Ravel has this effect on the listener, but I can’t. A simple explanation is that the music gets louder, the texture thickens (more notes, wider range), it builds by going up in pitch and then back down, and the melody uses a whole tone scale which has a mysterious sound because it doesn’t lead anywhere. But that explanation does not make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. That’s why this music is so wondrous and awesome.
I thought you could use a break from all of that fear-mongering I did last week. So this week, I hope to resolve all of that tension. That is all Classical music is, really: tension and relaxation. Conflict and resolution. When music theorists talk about “functional music,” that is what they mean. There are certain notes, chords, and orchestrations whose function is to cause tension and there are certain ones that resolve tension. The best composers delay the resolution as long as possible, drawing your ear in and then delivering great satisfaction when it comes. It’s like the anticipation of opening presents on Christmas morning. Ok, time for some definitions:
content |kənˈtent| – adjective – in a state of peaceful happiness
serene |səˈrēn| – adjective – calm, peaceful, and untroubled; tranquil
or as a noun – an expanse of clear sky or calm sea
I love the noun serene. If gives me such a great canvas on which to put my impressions of this music.
Clair de lune is the third movement of a piano suite by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) called Suite bergamasque. Though Debussy was mainly an Impressionist composer, this piece is in the Romantic style. While this piece really needs no introduction, I will provide some context to help enrich your listening experience. If it is distracting, then just play the clips and relax!
Clair de lune is French for “moonlight.” While I recommend listening to the whole suite, it is self-evident why this piece is so popular when you listen to it. The piece was named after a beautiful poem by Paul Verlaine (1844-1896). Here is the English translation:
Your soul is a select landscape
Where charming masqueraders and bergamaskers go
Playing the lute and dancing and almost
Sad beneath their fantastic disguises.
All sing in a minor key
Of victorious love and the opportune life,
They do not seem to believe in their happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight,
With the still moonlight, sad and beautiful,
That sets the birds dreaming in the trees
And the fountains sobbing in ecstasy,
The tall slender fountains among marble statues.
You may hear this read aloud in the original French as well as English here.
The first clip is the essence of contentment for me. As some would say, it takes me to my “happy place.” I imagine myself lying in a boat in calm waters at night, looking up at the moon and stars, feeling a gentle breeze across my face, hearing the sound of it passing through the trees, ruffling the leaves.
This next section seems to wisp me away to a peaceful, beautiful environment. As I listen, I feel my muscles in my back, shoulders, and neck relax. Here’s another definition for you:
sublime |səˈblīm| – adjective – of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe
And that’s it! I’m not going to put too many demands on you this week by going into to much musical detail. I just want to enjoy the music with you and exchange ideas on its affect.