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8.223376 - DAVID: Brises d'Orient (Les) / Les Minarets
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Félicien David (1810–1876)
Les Brises d’Orient Les Minarets


Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon, exercised a strong if eccentric influence over French political thought in the first half of the nineteenth century. Saint-Simon had fought as an officer in the American War of Independence, became a generous patron of the arts under the Directoire and was later reduced to poverty as a result of property speculation. His ideas for the reorganisation of society, however, showed in some respects a remarkable degree of foresight. There should be a European federation under a government of intellectuals: institutions and the educational system should be common to the countries of the federation, but of the most fundamental importance was the organisation of the economy on lines that would later be described as socialist. Artists had a priestly rôle to play in this scheme of things and after the death of Saint-Simon in 1825 the lectures given by his followers in Paris in the early 1830s attracted the interest and approval of musicians such as Liszt, Hiller and Berlioz, of poets and of painters.

Félicien David was born in 1810. After the death of his mother and subsequently of his father, an amateur violinist, in 1815, the distinguished oboist François-Joseph Garnier encouraged the development of his musical abilities and in 1818 he became a chorister at St. Sauveur in Aix-en-Provence and there soon began to write music of his own. After further education for three years in Aix at the Jesuit college of St. Louis, he found varied employment locally, musical and unmusical, before gaining admission to the Paris Conservatoire, then under the autocratic rule of Cherubini. As a student he supported himself as best he could by teaching but soon found himself attracted to the doctrines of the Saint-Simonians, whose essentially socialist ideals had assumed further importance after the Revolution of 1830.

In 1831 David followed one of the leaders of the Saint-Simonians, “Père” Enfantin, to a community established at Ménilmontant, after divisions among the adherents of Saint-Siman over the question of marriage. At Ménilmontant Enfantin presided over a so-called community of love, a kind of socialist convent, with its own strange ceremonies and curious mode of dress, coats buttoned down the back, a symbolic expression of the law of human solidarity. The sect, to which David became composer-in-ordinary, providing piano accompaniment to its rites and composing choral music for ceremonial use, excited considerable public ridicule and official persecution. Liszt, who with many others had attended meetings in Paris and even played for them, later disavowed the whole movement, at least in its latest manifestation. The community at Ménilmontant was dispersed by government order in 1832 and early in the following year Enfantin, accompanied by David and a few followers, set out for Egypt, to preach their new doctrines there and restore the place to its old pre-eminence. From Marseilles they sailed ta Constantinople (Istanbul) and thence to Smyrna (Izmir), the Holy Land and Egypt.

David remained two years in Cairo, earning a living by teaching and at the same time collecting material which he used later in piano pieces and in the 1844 Ode-symphonie, Le Désert. A year after his return to Paris in 1835 he published at his own expense a collection of Mélodies Orientales for piano, but this enjoyed little immediate success. The original plates were destroyed in a fire and the lack of public interest in a work in which he had attempted to clothe original oriental melodies in intelligible Western dress led the composer to leave Paris and settle at Igny, from where he would visit the capital on foot.

In 1841, after a period in which he had written two symphonies and two dozen short string quintets, as well as anumber of songs and other instrumental pieces, David returned to Paris, where he finished his Third Symphony. His popularity grew, particularly with the performance of his songs by the tenor Walter, but it was Le Désert, to words by Auguste Colin, its vocal and orchestral movements introduced by descriptive speech, that brought more significant interest. This evocation of the Egyptian desert had a profound influence, leading other composers to explore this form of orientalism, an area already familiar to painters such as Delacroix and Decamps. The success of Le Désert led to a new edition of the Mélodies Orientales, under the title Les Brises d’Orient. The first eighteen of these short pieces were divided into six books and a seventh, Les Minarets, was published separately. David’s later works were less successful. The oratorio Moïse au Sinai, based on a prose sketch by Enfantin, and performed in Paris in 1846, failed to please and was followed in 1848 by a Second Oriental Oratorio, L’Eden, similarly received. Of his operas, again exploring the exotic, Lalla-Roukh, based on the poem by Thomas Moore, was the most satisfactory. He continued to the end of his life a loyal Saint-Simonian and eventually received official honours, before his death in 1876. His own achievement was as a musical pioneer of Orientalism, the influence of which was to be heard in Bizet’s Djamileh or inLakmé by Delibes, a composer whose debt to David was considerable, or even in Verdi’s opera Aida.

Les Brises d’Orient and Les Minarets were for the most part the result of improvisation on the portable keyboard that David took with hirn on his travels, a present from a manufacturer in Lyon. In the 1845 edition one piece is omitted, some titles are changed and the whole set of Mélodies Orientales re-ordered. Smyrna, composed in that city, opens the revised edition and is classical in its form. It is followed by an oriental dance written in Cairo, with a contrast between oriental and occidental Prière (Prayer) was written in Alexandria and opens with a direct reference to Schubert’s song Die Lorelei, and was apparently dedicated to the leading propagandist of Saint-Simonism, Emile Barrault. The A minor Vieux Caire (Old Cairo) was composed on the banks of the Nile, with Schubert not far away, and contains an A major central section in contrast.

The second book begins with the Fantasia Harabi, written in Cairo and more overtly oriental, until Schubert’s Lorelei returns, the first of two episodes, the second of which re-appears in conclusion. The second piece of the book, in the later edition of the Brises d’Orient, is La Sultane, dedicated to Jenny Montgolfier, almost a tarantelle in its energetic motion.

The third album follows with L’Egyptienne (“The Egyptian Girl”), with a touch of the exotic in its rhythmic drone bass. It was dedicated to Dr. Cognat, one of the group of Saint-Simonians in Cairo, where the piece was written. The third volume includes also Le Harem, composed in Constantinople, music well suited to the salon, starting in fine style, a fantasia with passing reference to melodies of apparent Arab provenance, interrupted by moments of drama, with distinct echoes of Beethoven and Chopin.

Aux Filles d’Egypte (“To the Girls of Egypt”), written in Cairo, retains its place at the beginning of the fourth volume and starts with a more clearly Oriental melody than many of the other pieces in the collection. It is followed by a Rêverie, also composed in Cairo, dreaming that contains agitation and excitement before its gentle conclusion. The album ends with a less exotic representation of a girl from Smyrna, written there.

L’Almée (“An Egyptian dancer”) was also written in Smyrna, a dance form used by Berlioz in his opera Les Troyens and a source for fashionable Oriental elements in ballet music by other composers. Souvenir d’Occident, from Smyrna, is followed by a brief Souvenir d’Enfance (“Memory of Childhood”) and a slow and at first melancholy waltz, written in Cairo and dedicated again to Dr. Cognat, ending the fifth album.

The last album of the Brises d’Orient opens with Une Larme de Douleur (“A Tear of Sadness”), written in Alexandria and reminiscent of Mendelssohn. There follows a contrasting Moment de Bonheur (“Moment of Happiness”). A second Rêverie, also from Alexandria, is in a lyrical G major, with Mendelssohn again remembered, forming a positive conclusion to the whole set of six books.

Les Minarets consists of three pieces, described on the title-page of the 1846 edition as Trois Fantaisies. The first of these, again dedicated to Jenny Montgolfier, is Souvenir d’Egypte. Opening in the manner of a Chopin Ballade, the piece moves on to an Arab Air, so described in the score, however heavy its western disguise. Sous la Tente (“Under Canvas”) implies, at least in its title, some desert exploit and is followed by a final farewell to the East in Adieux à I’Orient.

Keith Anderson

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