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8.223704 - KOECHLIN: Buisson Ardent (Le) / Sur Les Flots Lointains

Charles Koechlin (1867–1950)
Buisson Ardent (Le) • Sur Les Flots Lointains


A fascination with things distant is a marked characteristic of the impressionist period. The distant is always more beautiful: in the urban landscapes of Monet or Whistler, the industrial suburbs seem transformed into unreal palaces, set against the setting sun or the night sky. Associating the dream with a certain preference for the blurred and indefinite, impressionist sensibility has a predisposition to give way to this attraction of the distant. Diffused silhouettes blurred on the horizon or faint and distant sounds carried by the wind are the things that can stimulate the imagination of the creative artist. It is no accident that the fetes of Debussy are distant, or if the sound of bells reaches us muted by the thickness and murmur of leaves (Cloches II travers les feuilles). Impressionism is the art of nuances and subtle shading, the very opposite of the realist painting of Strauss. What can be better suited to this appetite for half-colours than voices or reflections weakened by distance or refracted in the surrounding air?

Koechlin was particularly subject to this fascination. Already as a child he associated certain chords in Massenet with the far-away ocean horizons of his beloved Jules Verne. His whole work would later appear as the search for an ideal and heavenly beauty, seemingly unattainable except in countries at the end of the world (Le livre de la jungle) and that he pursued at the heart of the forest (Ballade), or beyond the hills, towards those shores where we are carried by Promenade vers la mer (Paysages et Marines). The titles of many of his symphonic compositions bear witness to this attraction: Vers la plage lointaine, Vers la voute etoilee, Vers la cime (Seconde Symphonie) or Meditation de Purun-Baghat, striving towards the inaccessible summit of an ideal Nirvana.

The two short pieces here recorded share this attraction and its persistence from the beginning to the end of Koechlin’s musical career. Au loin is the second of two symphonic pieces, Opus 20 (the first entitled En reve). It was originally a piece for cor anglais and piano (1896), first performed in the following year by L. Bleuzet and Max d’Ollone. The orchestration for an ensemble of moderate size, with triple woodwind, dates from 1900. In this form the work was first performed in 1908 at Angers under the direction of the composer. Later Koechlin seems to have discarded the piece, considering that it was rough and not worth keeping, impregnated with atmosphere in the manner of Turner, with blurred outlines: in fact, he claimed, nothing developed in it, and it was like a dream that is too static, companion to the Extase of Duparc, but without its beauty. The severe judgement of the composer must seem surprising. Au Loin is a work in which peaceful simplicity reinforces the intense feeling of nature, with a refinement of style akin to that of Grieg or the young Delius.

Sur les flots lointains is, on the other hand, a late work. This symphonic poem for small orchestra, with double woodwind, was written in 1933 and uses a theme by Catherine Urner, a young American whom Koechlin met during a lecture-tour of the United States in 1919 and who worked under his direction from 1919 to 1933. The mood here is the same as that of Au loin, but the music makes use of the sophisticated modal polyphony that Koechlin was studying at this time as well as a subtle chromaticism inherited directly from Faure. It is in this sense the prototype of the great frescoes to come, Vers la voute etoilee (1933), La cite nouvelle (1938) or Meditation de Purun-Baghat (1936).

Le buisson ardent (The Burning Bush) must be counted among the massive symphonic compositions of a philosophical or mystical character inaugurated by La course de printemps (finale of the Livre de la jungle written between 1910 and 1925), works that constitute the most important part of Koechlin’s compositions of the 1930s.

In some respects this symphonic poem can be considered the composer’s musical testament. What is today the second part was completed by 1938 and the first part written later and finished in November 1945. Closely following the Docteur Fabricius (another great fresco composed between 1941 and 1944) it is the last work by Koechlin for full orchestra. He himself never heard the work, which was first performed on 19th November 1951 by the Orchestre National under the direction of Roger Desormiere. Until the present recording, it was only played once again, on 3rd May 1957 in Brussels by the I.N.R. under the direction of Franz Andre.

The programme of this symphonic poem is taken from one of the last episodes of Romain Rolland’s novel Jean-Christophe. Here Le buisson ardent symbolizes the fervour of a return to life, resurrection and rebirth of the creative instinct after a series of trials that have brought the composer Jean-Christophe to collapse. Withdrawing to the heart of the Swiss Jura, he reaches a state of prostration and spiritual death near to madness, but one day the Foehn, harbinger of spring, blows, marking the end of the winter in which he has been immersed. This return to life is first a dialogue and a fervent communion with God and nature, then, for the musician, everything turns to sounds: to the rains of spring and the melting of the snow torrents of music give answer, music that has nothing in common with what the composer had written before: if he wanted to set his vision faithfully he had to begin by forgetting everything that he had up to then heard or written, to wipe out all his formal training, traditional technique and reject these props of an impotent spirit, this bed ready for the laziness of those who avoid the fatigue of thinking for themselves and rely on the thoughts of others (1). This principle is astonishingly in tune with the ethic of Koechlin, who, while possessing sovereign mastery of techniques of the past, transcended them, considering the first duty of an artist to seek his own truth beyond even the language that only helps him to transcribe it. There have been frequent attempts to investigate the connections between Romain Rolland’s novel and the musical world of the period in which it was written. May we not consider that forty years after the publication of the book, Charles Koechlin wrote the music of Jean-Christophe?

The first part of the symphonic poem corresponds more exactly to everything that precedes Jean-Christophe’s return to life, that is the confusion of Jean-Christophe, the sudden arrival of the Foehn, harbinger of spring, that brings Jean-Christophe back to life through its warm and tempestuous breath (2).

The three sections are separated by two pauses:

[1] Presque adagio (heavy, sad). The mood of this introduction is heavy and oppressed. An atonal phrase announced by the solo violin provides material for a true meditation on human sorrow, entrusted to the strings alone, followed by sustained notes at first in the lower register of the brass, taken up by the violins in the highest register, over a background of timpani, creating a mood of expectation.

[2] Allegro non troppo: the Foehn. In this section the whole-tone scale predominates and the unleashing of the forces of the orchestra represents the irresistible outburst of spring: rapid glissandi from low to high, orchestral writing more and more complex over a percussion ostinato, from which melodic fragments of pentatonic character emerge, excite a real torrent of sound that nevertheless remains under masterly control. The listener will notice in particular the first bars of this section, with their magic and unreal sonorities that depict the transparent motionlessness of a winter landscape at the first breath of spring. Repeated twice over the static immobility of a great chord of superimposed fifths sustained by the strings divided and vibrato, the whole-tone scale is stated (the first breaths of spring) with a glissando upwards on the woodwind and the ondes martenot, given rhythmic form the second time in a more definite manner by the percussion, which lead to the final liberation.

[3] Allegro moderato: the rebirth of Jean-Christophe. Here the Foehn has shattered the doors of the house. It penetrates Jean-Christophe’s room and he greedily breathes the air (3). A crescendo in the strings and woodwind on the ascending whole-tone scale brings whirls of wind in a frenzy punctuated by the joyous fanfares of the brass. Then there arises a full melody, a great long phrase of love, fervour, tenderness, that little by little falls back towards the serenity of the last chords.

The second part of the Le buisson ardent is related to the meditation of Jean-Christophe. It is also in three sections:

[1] Molto moderato: Jean Christophe contemplates the life of the world, that flows like a simple pure spring (4). The sound of the ondes martenot, a long and very clear melody grows little by little until it hovers over a series of superimposed fifths. Then nature speaks, a voice of serenity that grows livelier little by little, with the reminiscence of poly tonal harmonies and the brass calls of the wind of the first part, reaching a first summit of intensity. There follows an almost religious song, marked by serenity, which symbolizes the return of calm to Jean-Christophe’s soul (4).

[2] Fugue – Allegro vivo: Jean-Christophe’s joy. A livelier and joyful subject, that seems to come from the composer’s Sonatines and the children’s song character of which represents the renewal of Jean-Christophe, his recovered enthusiasm. Under the insistent allegro crotchets of the theme there emerges gradually the chorale of the final section.

[3] Choral. Stated first in unison, then accompanied by different orchestral groupings (arpeggios from the organ, piano, harp and bells), the theme of the chorale leads to a climax of impressive grandeur, a glowing apotheosis of joy and fervour. With a gradual diminuendo it reaches a meditative and dreamy ending, with brief reminiscences of the song of nature of the first section, in a luminous dissolution of sonorities.

Le buisson ardent uses a large orchestra. In addition to the traditional full orchestra there are five saxophones, ondes martenot, piano, organ and an important percussion section that includes gong, tam-tam and bells.

It is probably possible to listen to Le buisson ardent independently of its literary programme. The richness of its musical content, its character of philosophical and mystical meditation, suffice to illustrate its biblical title. Through its lofty inspiration, the complexity and individuality of its language, the fullness of its orchestration, this symphonic poem, Koechlin’s masterpiece, occupies a place among the musical heights of the first half of the present century.

Michel Fleury
English translation by Keith Anderson

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