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8.223503 - RABAUD: Orchestral Works
Henri Rabaud (1873–1949)
In 1873, still suffering from the shock of defeat by Germany and of the Commune, France began little by little to recover. The Empire had given way to a Republic that was not without its paradoxes. On 24th May the Assembly thanked Thiers and then elected Marshal MacMahon, whose monarchist sympathies were well known, as head of state.
Intellectual and artistic life too no longer dwelt under the traumatic shadow of Sedan. In the field of music there had just been a notable initiative in the foundation by artists such as Camille Saint-Saëns, César Franck and Romain Bussine, of the Société Nationale de Musique, established on 17th November 1871. Under the motto “Ars Gallica” this last greatly assisted the growth of the golden age that then opened for French music.
It was in this transitional period that Henri Rabaud was born in Paris, on 10th November. It is difficult to imagine an environment better suited to the development of the child’s musical gifts. He was the grandson of the flautist Louis Doris, the great-nephew of the soprano Dorus-Gras, creator of many rôles in the operas of Meyerbeer and Halévy, and the son of a well known cellist, a member of the Société des Concerts, Hippolyte Rabaud. His mother had been chosen by Gounod for the part of Marguerite at the first performance of his opera Faust on 19th March 1859.
From his earliest years Henri Rabaud found himself in a musical world dominated by the great classical composers. Often at home friends joined his father to play the trios and quartets of Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven. As a child he made a study of these works and by his own efforts acquired a very solid foundation in the theory of music. Attachment to the old masters, independence of spirit and a great mistrust of modernism were always to characterise his work. His study at the Conservatoire was a pure formality, since his teachers, Massenet, Taudou and Gédalge had little to give to a young man already provided with a solid technical foundation, crowned by the award of the Prix de Rome in 1894.
At the age of twenty-one Henri Rabaud discovered Italy, Verdi and Puccini, but it was Virgil who inspired his first orchestral work, Eglogue. This musical commentary on the First Eclogue makes clear the artistic achievement of a young composer, who here offers a score of great freshness. The final answer of Tityrus to Melibeus, forced into exile, gives a good idea of the mood of the work:
“Here at least you could have rested with me, this night on green leaves; we have ripe fruits, soft chestnuts and fresh cheese a-plenty. Already down there the roof-tops of the farms smoke and the shadows, falling from the mountain heights, grow longer. ”
At the end of the nineteenth century Wagner inspired a number of followers in France. Each year this country provided the most important group of foreign pilgrims to the Bayreuth Festival. On the list of 1896, for example, we find, by the side of Alfred Cortot and his friend Edouard Risler, the name of Henri Rabaud, Prix de Rome, Paris. As for Vincent d’Indy a few years earlier, the discovery of the tetralogy of The Ring on the sacred mountain and, in general, contact with the world of German romanticism had a not inconsiderable influence on Rabaud. This was expressed in 1897 with the Procession Nocturne, Opus 6. This Symphonic Poem after Lenau, dedicated to Edouard Colonne, is one of the composer’s finest orchestral works. It was inspired by an episode in Lenau’s Faust, in the translation by V. Descreux.
Faust, filled with sad despair, wanders in the forest. The night is dense, but the troubled breath of spring blows sweetly in the wood, giving warmth and life. The sadness of the hero, insensible to the wonderful feelings of the voices of spring, is expressed in a first episode in F minor, Andante tranquillo, which starts pianissimo with a solo French horn, then a clarinet, over the soft roll of the bass drum, played with timpani sticks, and of muted violins.
What is this brightness that lights up the forest there, turning purple the foliage and sky with its flames? Whence come the gentle sounds of sacred melodies that seem made to give consolation for all earthly sorrows? … Faust stops his horse … A solemn procession approaches… It is the Feast of St. John.
In the course of a second episode in C major, where wind instruments play a key part, supported only by cellos and double basses, the composer suggests first of all the approach of the procession by a very gradual crescendo that culminates in a forte, then its departure into the distance with a very gradual diminuendo, as the sound finally dies away.
In the third section of the work, Molto più lento, the initial tonality of F minor re-appears: Faust remains alone, standing in the darkness. He grasps hold of his faithful horse and hiding his face in the animal’s mane weeps burning tears, the bitterest that he has ever shed… Again the composer makes full use of his command of orchestration with a sense of colour and a subtlety that compels admiration.
When Henri Rabaud wrote his Divertissement sur des chansons russes in 1899, Russian music was very much appreciated in Paris. In addition to the works of Tchaikovsky, since the Paris World Exhibition of 1889 there had been music by the Five. There is no need to overload this attractive work with useless commentary. We may see here rather a wink of the eye, amused and indulgent, from a French musician at the public vogue for music of supposed peasant origin with its colourful orchestration and references to the music of the people.
Apart from these fine pages of orchestral writing, the growing reputation that Rabaud enjoyed at the beginning of the twentieth century relied for a great part on his activity as a composer for the theatre. In 1904 he completed his first dramatic work, La Fille de Roland (“The Daughter of Roland”), with a libretto by Ferrari based on the work of H. de Bornier, acclaimed by music-lovers. His great operatic success, however, came in 1914 with Mârouf, Savetier du Caire (“Mârouf, Cobbler of Cairo”). This work in five acts, with a libretto by Lucien Népoty inspired by the Arabian Nights, received an enthusiastic welcome when it was first performed at the Opéra Comique under the direction of Ruhiman.
Mârouf has now disappeared from the stage, but it is remembered thanks to the Dances. These are taken from the second scene of the third act, with Mârouf, the Sultan and the Vizier, and the appearance of the Princess. To understand music of this kind we should relate it to the taste for musical exoticism that had arisen in the middle of the preceding century. After Félicien David’s Le Désert, Charles Gounod’s La Reine de Saba (“The Queen of Sheba”) or Georges Bizet’s Djamileh, Henri Rabaud knew how to bewitch his public with powerfully evocative music that, nevertheless, lacks vulgarity and, as Gustave Samazeuilh notes, combines, with a very French sense of moderation and good taste, classical tradition and Oriental colour.
In 1917 Rabaud embarked on a new collaboration with Lucien Népoty, now for the dramatic stage. The latter had made an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and suggested that Rabaud should write musical entr’actes. The composer accepted, but rather than write a completely new score, he adapted for orchestra music from the English virginalists of the sixteenth century, William Byrd, Giles Farnaby and anonymous composers of the period. Realised with great refinement and intelligence in the use of instrumental colours, these transcriptions were later regrouped into Suite Anglaises, of which two are here included.
The Suite No. 2 in B-flat major is made up of an Allegra (Williarn Byrd), an Andante (anonymous) and an Allegro maestoso (anonymous). In G major, the Suite No. 3 is in five movements, Maestoso (anonymous), Moderato (Giles Famaby), Allegro (Farnaby), Andante (anonymous) and Maestoso (anonymous). Whatever purists may now think, Henri Rabaud, in his own time, afters a rare example of curiosity about a repertoire that many of his contemporaries either did not know or despised.
A Member of the Institut since 1910, Rabaud succeeded Fauré as director of the Conservatoire in 1920. By then his name was known on the other side of the Atlantic, where he had conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra two years before.
Attracted by a seventh art still in its infancy, Henri Rabaud collaborated with the director Raymond Bernard in 1924–25 with music far the Miracle des Loup and Joueur d’Echecs (“Chess-Player”), the first original music written far silent films.
In 1928 the Paris Opéra staged Mârauf again and, probably stimulated by this public success, Rabaud turned his attention to a lighter work, Rolande et Je Mauvais Garcon (“Rolande and the Bad Bay”), completed in 1933 and staged at the Palais Garnier in 1937.
After a tour of South America as a conductor the following year, Henri Rabaud returned to France. During the Second World War he became a member of the Executive Board the Comité Professional de l’Art Musical, established in 1943 by Alfred Cortot, with Germaine Lubin, Jacques Thibaud and Marguerite Long, and took Albert Wolft’s place as director of the Pasdeloup Orchestra. He died an 11th September 1949 at the age of seventy-six, while still working on his last opera, Le Jeu de l’Amour et du Hasard (“The Game of Lave and Fortune”).
We may leave René Dumesnil, a keen observer of French musical life, to have the last word: Everything is choice, and very judicious, with Henri Rabaud, and no-one was ever more severe with himself than this composer, whose power of invention seems so spontaneous and who expresses himself with such facility.
© 1994 Alain Cochard
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