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  • Writer's pictureHelsingin Kamariorkesteri

France and the "Belle Époque"

Updated: Mar 29, 2019

Concert at Temppeliaukio Church on May 2nd 2019. Thomas Puissochet, Piano | Sami Junnonen | Iván Bragado Poveda, harp. Buy tickets here.

Reflections of optimism and prosperity on French Music from 1871 to 1914.

The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th mark a period of long-lasting peace in France, after the constant turmoil of wars between the country and it's neighbors in the early years of the French Third Republic. Unrestrained optimism, innovation, creativity, but also imperialism drove the society to an unmatched artistic growth, in an era nostalgically referred to as the Belle Époque. France was a cultural center of global influence; its educational, scientific and medical institutions were at the leading edge of Europe, and Paris was an effervescent hub for artists from all around the world. The western classical music of the times deeply reflects the state of euphory of the European societies preceding the outbreak of the Great War. The ever-developing demand and commissions of chamber music from the bourgeoisie and the "nouveaux-riches" created an abundant musical life bathed in the values of optimism and inventiveness. The exacerbated curiosity towards exotic cultures as well, with it's positive and negative implications, culminating in the successive World's Fairs, also had a striking effect on the composers musical imagery.


  • Ernest Chausson: Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet

  • Gabriel Fauré: Piano Trio

  • Maurice Ravel: Introduction and Allegro

Ernest Chausson: Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet

This rich, warm-sounding, melodic example of late French Romanticism defies categorization. Although Chausson called it a concert, as a derivate of the word "concerto", it features only a total of 6 players, and Chausson reffered to the two main instruments as "projections against the quartet background." For long stretches of the piece, virtually all the musical interest is in these two instruments; the other strings only occasionally respond. Stylistically it is clear that Chausson seeks to avoid the spell that Richard Wagner (1813-1883) cast over late nineteenth century French music. He still uses the rich chromatic harmonies and the passionate melodic style that had come into French music during the early years of the Belle Époque, but his textures and use of chords suggest an effort to find a non-Wagnerian sound through a deliberate archaism. One device he uses is parallel octaves in the part writing, which suggests old church chant. Another is the consistent use of the plagal cadence (the "church" or "amen" ending) instead of the ordinary type. These almost subconscious religious associations give the music the desired antique quality, a recurring element which can be found in many works of the era. Chausson dedicated the work to the famous Belgian violin virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe. Ysaÿe played the first performance, in Brussels in 1892, as the soloist, with pianist Auguste Pierret and members of the Ysaÿe Quartet. Upon finishing his creation, Chausson remarked: "Another failure!". However, the work, like countless others rejected by their composers, became one of his most well-known and popular pieces.

Gabriel Fauré: Piano Trio

"At the end of his life, Fauré's music takes on a curiously detached - contemplative - aspect as sonata form (bent readily to his uses) hand-in-glove with textural transparency provides a solid frame for constant quicksilver modulations verging on atonality. Never a confessional composer, the sublimation of abundant passion - and abundant gaiety - to an expressive ideal is nonetheless revealing of a deepening restlessness in its elliptical, elusive, exploratory gestures. Indeed, Fauré's transitions, while never less than seamlessly deft, possess a straightforwardness which occasionally approaches the notorious brusquerie of Albéric Magnard. Despite the deafness and physical frailty which dogged his last years, such works as the Second Violin Sonata, the Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra, and the Second Piano Quintet are powerfully worked on large canvases.
The latter was begun in the summer of 1919 during his first stay in the village of Annecy-le-Vieux, continued during a winter in the Midi and another summer at Annecy, and completed in Nice in February 1921. Over a rippling accompaniment, Allegro moderato, a confiding first theme on the viola is taken by the strings in turn and answered by the fugal second theme on the strings alone, rounded by a phrase on the piano which will figure prominently in the development. The second theme is given a brief but regular fugal exposition in the course of the development - the closest Fauré came to academic writing in any of his mature works - though the rapidity with which it dissolves into supple, delicate polyphony suggests satire, tongue-in-cheek. Closely organized, this seemingly spontaneous cascade of melody pours forth in inexhaustible invention through an extended development arching toward a brilliant coda. Any regret that such an engagingly argued movement should end is swept away by a capriciously coruscating Scherzo of sheer fantasy enigmatically etched in whole-tone sonorities, appearing out of nowhere, shimmering, and disappearing into nothingness. Like the initial movement, the Andante moderato is wrought from three themes - the viola leading a brief lament in the strings, a consolatory answer from strings and piano, and a chorale on the piano which rises eventually to a softly glowing benediction. The development becomes a tender threnody, the more moving for its restraint. Beginning warily in C minor, the Allegro molto rondo finale lightens through increasingly animated scintillations, teasingly vacillating between major and minor, to end radiantly in C major.
The triumphant, critically acclaimed premiere was given May 21, 1921, at a concert of the Société Nationale de Musique, by André Tourret and Victor Gentil, violins; Maurice Vieux, viola; Gérard Hekking, cello; and Robert Lortat, piano. "As the last chord sounded," Fauré's son, Philippe Fauré-Fremiet, recalled, "the audience were on their feet. There were shouts, and hands pointing to the box in which Fauré was sitting (he had heard nothing of the whole occasion). He came to the front row all alone, nodding his head... and looking so frail, thin and unsteady in his heavy winter coat. He was very pale."" Adrian Corleonis

Maurice Ravel: Introduction and Allegro.

To showcase its new chromatic harp, the Pleyel company commissioned Claude Debussy in 1904 to write his Danse sacrée et danse profane for harp and orchestra. The Érard company responded by commissioning Maurice Ravel to write a piece to display the expressive range of its double-action pedal harp. Ravel completed his Introduction and Allegro for a septet of harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet in June 1905, dedicating it to Albert Blondel, director of Maison Érard. He wrote it at breakneck speed, as he had to complete it before embarking on a boating holiday with friends. Ravel omitted the Introduction and Allegro from the catalogue of his works, made no mention of it in his autobiography, and referred to it in only two of his letters. Nevertheless, it was often performed at his concerts and it was the very first of the small number of his own works that Ravel recorded. Despite its original orchestration, the work is sometimes performed with a string orchestra instead of a string quartet, and will presently be performed in that setting. The music itself is a pure example of Apollonian ideals, with its colors pushing the refinement and sensitivity of the music to extreme height, and does not aim to express distinct human emotions, but rather to encompass them in a larger exterior meaning.

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