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8.557053 - DUKAS: Piano Sonata / Variations on a Theme of Rameau
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Paul Dukas (1865-1935)

Paul Dukas (1865-1935)

Complete Piano Music

 

Paul Dukas was born in Paris on 1st October 1865 and died there on 17th May 1935. Although his catalogue of published works is small, it is of the highest quality, consisting essentially of one overture, Polyeucte, one symphony, one symphonic scherzo (the immortal L’apprenti sorcier), one choreographic poem, La Péri, one opera, Ariane et Barbe-bleue, and four piano works, two occasional pieces written in memory of two great masters, Haydn and Debussy, and two others now considered key compositions of both their genre and their time, the Sonata in E flat minor and the wonderful “Rameau” Variations. Dukas’s respect for music, his audience and himself resulted in extreme, and at times excessive self-criticism and censorship. Far from damaging his inventive capacity, however, his exacting standards brought him enlightenment and stimulation, hence the dense textures, the imagination and the subtlety to be found in even his shortest works.

 

The Prélude élégiaque of 1909, composed around the letters H-A-Y-D-N to mark the centenary of Haydn’s death for the Revue de la Société Indépendante de Musique, is a leading example of those monuments created by classical composers to pay homage to one of their own. Its calm, vibrant and full sonorities reveal an affection and admiration for the composer of The Creation as well as for all that he represented in terms of inventiveness and balance. Dukas used words as well as music to praise Haydn in his Chroniques musicales. In fact ever since 1904 he had been describing his fellow composer as “pure of heart, a genius, a creative spirit and a natural, with faith in the absolute expressive value of music”.

 

In similar fashion, from the very first notes of La Plainte, au loin, du faune (1920) we are left in no doubt of Dukas’s love, veneration even, for the work of Debussy. His grief at his friend’s death is expressed here through the sorrowful chromaticisms and great simplicity of this sombre, noble and unpretentious work which recreates the powerful, sensual harmonies of the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

 

The great Sonata in E flat minor is composed on a grander scale altogether. Dedicated to Saint-Saëns, it was first performed in Paris’s Salle Pleyel on 10th May 1901 by Edouard Risler. It followed the sweeping Symphony in C and L’apprenti sorcier of 1896-97 and is acknowledged to be one of the twentieth century’s greatest works for piano. While certain influences can be glimpsed - Beethoven, Liszt, Franck - the sonata is really the reflection of Dukas’s own classical and aesthetic thinking, as marked by refined emotion and a discursive density requiring absolute concentration on the part of both the listener and the performer. Nothing is superfluous here, everything is significant.

 

The sonata has a four-movement design. The opening Modérément vite is constructed on two themes, the first, anxiety-laden, in E flat minor, the second, more serene, in C flat minor, and uses regular sonata form, exposition, development and recapitulation. The second movement, Calme, un peu lent, très soutenu, also has two themes. It takes its substance not from the opposition of motifs but, much more subtly, from their complementary nature, in a stunning lyrical progression stemming from ornamental variation and the double so beloved of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century composers. After these melodies in flowing contrapuntal phrases, the third movement, Vivement, avec légèreté, acts as a bithematic scherzo which is then added to and enlivened by a third motif, briefly treated in fugato. The finale, in E flat and 4/4 time, is rhythmical and wonderfully “orchestrated”. Without going as far as a Franck-like cyclical form, Dukas allows the opening scheme to reappear: a magnificent culmination to this dazzling work, free from any weakness, be it in tone, thought or writing, whose grandiose conclusion broadens the details of the opening bars into a supreme dimension.

 

The Variations, Interlude et Finale triptych completed in February 1902 and again first performed by Risler, on 23rd March 1903 at the Société Nationale de la Musique, constitutes a different challenge, that of constructing new and impressive material from the basis of the smallest musical fragment. Once more demonstrating in his music the analysis championed in his critical writings, Dukas chooses a theme of disarming simplicity from Rameau. Then he applies some of his own views, for example, that true music can free itself from earlier writing and instruments (in this case the harpsichord). Finally, he does away with time as the spirit of an age in order to tend towards the universal and the intemporal in a fabulous adventure.

 

The first seven variations are essentially melodic. No. 1 is characterized by the use of counterpoint, No. 2 by its rhythmic strength, while in Nos. 3 and 4 the theme switches between bass and soprano, from one hand to the other; in No. 5 we hear modulating polyphony, No. 6 uses an echo effect and No. 7 has a leaping, skipping melody. There is a livelier feel to the final four variations. No. 8 is in arpeggios, No. 9 has a gigue rhythm, No. 10 that of a sarabande, and No. 11 unfolds in a very peaceful atmosphere. Then comes the dreaming Interlude, a moment of calm between the earlier tension and the great surge of the Finale, where the principal motif divides, first syncopated, then magnified, until the two reunite in the final apotheosis. This superb and powerful tribute to Rameau illustrates the extent of Dukas’s desire for Apollonian clarity. After the density of the Sonata, his creation has become refined, achieving the very quintessence of music, and of the classical spirit, freedom.

 

Bénédicte Palaux Simonnet

English version by Susannah Howe


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