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Program Notes: Debussy and Ravel (February 18-19, 2023)

Updated: Feb 9, 2023


February 18-19, 2023

Tessa Lark, violin

Claude Debussy

Marche écossaise sur un théme populaire

(Scottish March on a Popular Theme) (1908)

Ernest Chausson

Poème, op. 25 (1896)

Tessa Lark, violin

Maurice Ravel

Tzigane (1924)

Tessa Lark, violin


Claude Debussy

Ibéria from Images (1905)

Par les rues et par les chemins

In the Streets and Byways)

Les parfums de la nuit

(The Fragrances of the Night)

Le matin d’un jour de fête

(The Morning of a Festival Day)

Maurice Ravel

La Valse (1919)

Note: Due to illness, violinist Nicola Benedetti is unable to perform on these concerts as originally scheduled. The SLSO is grateful to violinist Tessa Lark for stepping in on short notice.


Program Notes

by Tim Munro

Composers find inspiration everywhere. A beautiful landscape, a handwritten note, a snowy day. On this program, each composer is inspired by people. Debussy’s two works on this concert were inspired by individuals literal (the general who commissioned a march), and figurative (the people he imagined living dreamy lives in Spain). Ravel conjures an image of dancers.

Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy

Marche écossaise sur un théme Populaire

Claude Debussy

Born 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France Died 1918, Paris, France

In his twenties, Claude Debussy needed cash. The talented young man skirted the edge of poverty, taking odd jobs: conducting a choir of friends, teaching the odd piano lesson, playing music for seances. His music was known little outside a small circle of experimental artists.

He couldn’t afford to say no to commission opportunities. When a Scottish General approached him, he paid attention. The General, Meredith Reid, wanted a march based on a bagpipes melody he associated with his ancestors, the Ross clan.

Reid was not particularly happy with the result, originally written for two pianos. But the commission has left posterity with a strange and fascinating work. The Scottish tune is there, somehow always touched by the veiled beauty of Debussy’s own voice.

When Debussy orchestrated the work much later, he first gave the bagpipe tune to a combination of oboe and muted trumpet. On hearing the final version, Debussy is said to have exclaimed, “But…it’s pretty!”

First performance: January 16, 1910, in Nancy, France by the Orchestre des Concerts du Conservatoire, Guy Ropartz conducting

First SLSO performance: January 1, 1915, Max Zach conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: January 17, 1925, Rudolph Ganz conducting

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, harp, strings

Approximate duration: 7 minutes

Ernest Chausson
Ernest Chausson

Poème, op. 25

Ernest Chausson

Born 1855, Paris

Died 1899, Limay, France

Like many young men of his social class, the Paris-born Chausson studied law, although he never practiced it. Fortunately, he had enough family money to pursue his interest in music, and in his early 20s he began taking conservatory-level classes with Jules Massenet and César Franck. At first an ardent Wagnerian, he made pilgrimages to Germany before gravitating to the French Impressionism of Debussy and his circle.

Chausson composed his Poème for violin and orchestra in the spring of 1896, while vacationing in Italy. The Belgian violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe had requested a concerto, a project that Chausson found somewhat intimidating.

“I hardly know where to begin,” he admitted to Ysaÿe in a letter. “But I can cope with a shorter work. It will be in very free form with several passages in which the violin plays alone.” He created three versions of his Poème: one for orchestra, one with piano accompaniment, and one for string quartet and piano; all feature solo violin. He dedicated Poème to Ysaÿe, who debuted it. Chausson died in a bicycle accident at age 44, three years after its completion.

Although Chausson decided against using any extra-musical content, he was initially inspired by Ivan Turgenev’s 1881 novella The Song of Love Triumphant, a supernatural romance about a Renaissance love triangle that hinges on a seductive Indian serenade. Vestiges of the source material linger in the shadowy harmonies of the introduction, marked Lento e misterioso (slow and mysterious). Throughout the enigmatic 16-minute work, cast in a single movement, Chausson blends Eastern exoticism with dazzling violin pyrotechnics. Seemingly simple melodies erupt into spectacular cadenzas, studded with double-stops and nimble passagework.

First Performance: December 27, 1896, Nancy, France, with Eugène Ysaÿe as soloist and Guy Ropartz conducting

First SLSO Performance: March 30, 1929, with Georges Enesco as soloist and Eugene Goossens conducting

Most Recent SLSO Performance: November 26, 2017 with Karen Gomyo as soloist and Jun Märkl conducting

Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, and strings Performance

Approximate duration: 16 minutes


Maurice Ravel
Maurice Ravel


Maurice Ravel

Born March 7, 1875, Ciboure, France

Died December 28, 1937, Paris, France

A London apartment, 1922. In a tight-filled room, violinist Jelly d’Arányi plays music by Maurice Ravel for a small audience, including the composer. Concert over, d’Arányi begins playing a “gypsy” melody. Ravel asks for another. Then another.

Ravel was internationally famous, but he nursed scars, from the First World War, from the death of his mother. In 1924, an episode of depression forced him to temporarily abandon a long-promised sonata for violin and piano.

His thoughts turned to d’Arányi. “You have inspired me to write a short piece of diabolical difficulty,” he wrote to her. “Conjuring up the Hungary of my dreams.”

Tzigane begins with a long, rhapsodic violin solo. Perhaps Ravel whisks us back to that smoke-filled apartment, rapt listeners in the palm of d’Arányi’s hand. She was a “gutsy firebrand on the fiddle,” wrote a friend, combining passion and freedom with technical chops.

The title, Tzigane, is a variant form of “gypsy,” a term offensive to many Romani people. In fact, Ravel uses no Romani melodies, basing his folk-tinged music on Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies.

D’Aranyi received the completed score two days before the premiere. The full force of her personality seems to have made up for any technical shortcomings. “I don’t know what she did,” Ravel wrote afterwards, “but I liked it.”

First performance, version for orchestra: October 19, 1924, in Amsterdam, by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Pierre Monteux conducting, with Samuel Dushkin as soloist

First SLSO performance: December 27, 1947, Erich Leinsdorf conducting, with Isaac Stern as soloist

Most recent SLSO performance: April 25, 2021, Leonard Slatkin conducting, with Erin Schreiber as soloist

Instrumentation: Solo violin, 2 flutes (second doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, percussion (glockenspiel, suspended cymbal, triangle), harp, celesta, strings

Approximate duration: 10 minutes


Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy

Ibéria from Images

Claude Debussy

Born 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France Died 1918, Paris, France

I am almost as fond of pictures as I am of music,” wrote Claude Debussy. “I’ve never been able to live in a world of real things and real people. I have this insurmountable need to escape from myself.

By age 39, Debussy had found his voice. It was something strikingly new. “I feel more and more that music cannot flow inside a rigorous, traditional form. It consists of colors and of rhythmicized time.”

Debussy planned a new series of works, called Images. He plotted out 12 works inspired by light reflections, by village bells, by Indonesian gamelan, by Chinese embroidery. The final three works were planned for two pianos, but eventually took shape as orchestral works.

Debussy always took his time. It would be seven years until the three orchestral Images were complete. Debussy diagnosed the reason as “a pronounced case of procrastination, and a strange need to never finish.”

ut behind that posturing was a most important reason: Debussy’s perfectionism. He knew what he wanted, and it took time to achieve it. “I can’t allow myself simply to dash them off,” he wrote while in the midst of completing the work.

Iberia conjures Debussy’s own vision of Spain. Having spent just one afternoon there, he mimics generalized sounds: guitars, castanets, keening melodies. According to the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, “Debussy knew Spain from books, from pictures, from songs, from dancers.”

For the French, Spain was exotic. It lay close to North Africa, and Africa was—according to one prominent writer of the time—“half Asiatic.” Many today find such attitudes problematic, but Debussy’s audiences were thrilled by such “alien” lands.

1. Par les rues et par les chemins (Along the streets and along the paths). It’s a lazy sort of afternoon. We wander, and as we wander our mind drifts, to the sky, to the people walking past, to the hazy light, to a roving town band.

2. Les parfums de la nuit (The scents of the night). A dreamy night[1]scene, blurred harmonies, distant bells.

3. Le matin d’un jour de fête (The morning of a festive day). “It sounds like music that has not been written down,” wrote Debussy. “The 24 whole feeling of rising, of people and nature waking. There is a watermelon vendor and children whistling—I see them all clearly!”

First performance: February 20, 1910, by the Orchestre Colonne at the Châtelet Theater in Paris, Gabriel Pierné conducting

First SLSO performance: December 29, 1911, Max Zach conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: November 30, 1997, David Loebel conducting

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, celesta, strings

Approximate duration: 20 minutes


Maurice Ravel
Maurice Ravel

La Valse

Maurice Ravel

Born 1844, 1875, Ciboure, France

Died 1937, Paris, France

In many ways, Maurice Ravel was a thoroughly modern musician. He had a lifelong love of machines, was fascinated by the metronome and the player piano, was eager to bring the sound of jazz into his music.

Yet, he loved the waltz. For more than a decade, he dreamed of creating an orchestral evocation of another time and place: “a grand waltz, an homage to the memory of the great Johann Strauss.”

His dream was interrupted by other work, then by war. Ravel worked as a driver in World War I, suffering great pain and losing several friends. During this time, his mother died, which led to years of what he called “horrible despair.”

Time passed, and the grand waltz idea found new life. It came in the form of a commission from Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario whose Ballets Russes held Paris in its thrall. Ravel spent the winter “waltzing frantically.” La Valse was complete by the early spring.

When Ravel returned to his waltz-dream idea, it was different. Time had altered it. A purely orchestral idea had become a kind-of-ballet, called a “choreographic poem for orchestra.” And significantly, the Strauss homage had taken on darker tones.

La Valse tells no story as such, but Ravel wrote this about the work:

“An Imperial Court about 1855. Clouds whirl about. Occasionally they part to allow a glimpse of waltzing couples. As they gradually evaporate one can discern a gigantic hall, filled by a crowd of dancers in motion. The stage gradually brightens. The glow of the chandeliers breaks out fortissimo.”

The music begins in the very depths of the orchestra, basses and contrabassoons trying to find the beat. As the music brightens, it also hardens. Outbursts rise like sharks, only to fall back into the water.

Later, darkness gathers, dangers mount. Ravel avoided revealing too much of himself in public or private. But as La Valse finally rears its savage head, might we hear something of the real Ravel emerging, teeth bared?

First performance: December 12, 1920, by the Lamoureux Orchestra of Paris, Camille Chevillard conducting

First SLSO performance: December 23, 1921, Rudolph Ganz conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: February 3, 2018, Stéphane Denève conducting

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, strings

Approximate duration: 12 minutes


Tim Munro served as the SLSO’s Creative Partner from 2018-2022. In 2023, he became Associate Professor of Music at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University in Australia.

Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.

1 Kommentar

George Yeh
George Yeh
06. Feb. 2023

Typo in Marsalis' name at the top of the page in the composer credits, which has "Winton". It needs to be changed to "Wynton".

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