I’m very fond of the music of a number of French composers and on my recent journeyings in
found myself thinking about how much some of this music seems to reflect the French countryside. Now this may well be purely my imagination at work but the feeling is nevertheless there, in the same way that the music of Delius, for instance, always seems intensely English, even when the work in question is inspired by France or America ( for example, March Caprice, American Rhapsody). Maybe I’m guilty of whatever the musical equivalent of anthropomorphism is, but when all is said and done the music of Debussy, Ravel, and, to a degree, Saint-Saëns and Bizet still conjures up visions of French landscapes for me (with the possible exceptions of 'Carmen', ‘Bolero’ and ‘Danse Macabre’). I’m also enthusiastic about the works of Ibert but these seem much more cosmopolitan to me. France
Anyway, enough of these ramblings – here are a few examples of what I’m talking about. You may not agree with me but I’m not trying to lay down any laws here, merely giving a point of view. First off, here’s a favourite piece of mine – Le Tombeaux de Couperin by Maurice Ravel. This was originally written for piano and was orchestrated by the composer in 1920 (although he omitted two of the original piano movements). My first introduction to this work was – somewhat surprisingly - a performance of the prelude by the jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton. He recorded it in 1969 on an album called ‘Country Roads and Other Places’, dueting with himself on piano and vibes. From there I found the original piano work and then subsequently the orchestral version. If I had to choose between them it would be the piano version that would win out but I still retain a great fondness for
’s version. By way of a compromise, here is a clip of Vlado Perlemuter playing the prelude. I trawled through a lot of clips before settling on this one. In my opinion many orchestras and pianists take it far too quickly, but Perelmuter has the measure of this work perfectly. Check for yourselves – there are innumerable versions posted so have a listen to some and see what you make of them. Burton
Another Ravel favourite is the string quartet. The pizzicato movement from this has been used as incidental music for several films and television programmes over the years but despite this rough treatment the work still holds up for me. That movement has also been performed on the appropriate members of the mandolin family, in a multi-tracked version by the American mandolinist/guitarist Mike Marshall (this is on a very fine album called Gator Strut). Here, however, the pizzicato movement is played by the American String Quartet.
Now here’s an interesting little test of my feelings viv a vis the French countryside and the music. I found this clip of ‘Carillon’ from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite No 1, which has been set to film of windmills in
The first two pieces of Debussy that I ever heard were ‘The Golliwog’s Cakewalk’ and ‘Clair de Lune’. The former on BC Radio’s ‘Children’s Hour' in the very early 1950’s and the latter on an EP bought by my older brother, ‘Alcohol’ sometime around 1956 or 57 (see Classical Guess). Later I was to learn that Charlie Parker was much influenced by the harmonies of Debussy and Ravel and was to become well acquainted with their more sophisticated compositions but I have to confess that these two pieces were what kick-started my interest. Incidentally, for those of you who – like me – blench somewhat at the non-pc title of the cakewalk, here’s a link to some interesting observations. Anyway, here’s a piano roll of Debussy himself performing that work, and one of Mária Kovalszki performing Clair de Lune.
It goes without saying that this is by no means a definitive selection. There is a wealth of material to be discovered if you are not already familiar with these composers, but the clips by and large represent the start of my own interest in them. and my recent French trip made me think about them in a new light so I reckon they’re as good a starting point as any.