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8.223755 - CAPLET / DEBUSSY / RAVEL: Prix De Rome Cantatas


Sept Choeurs pour le PRIX DE ROME

Unpublished Prix de Rome Cantatas


Andre Caplet (1878 - 1925)

Myrrha (1901) / Tout est Lumiere


Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)

Le Printemps (1884)


Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937)

L’Aurore (1905) / Matinee de Provence (1903) / Tout est Lumiere (1901)

Les Bayaderes (1900) / La Nuit (1902)


For all composition students at the Paris Conservatoire since 1803 the highest goal was the Grand Prix de Rome, a prestigious award offered every year by the Institut, which permitted the winner to spend two or three years at the Villa Medici in Rome and to study subsequently in Germany a1so. The title was won at bitter cost by Berlioz in 1830 and subsequently by Gounod, Thomas, Bizet, Massenet, Debussy, Caplet and nearly a hundred composers of lesser talent. The failings and inequities of the Prize were widely criticised, yet for all the mockery it suffered, the Prix de Rome survived into the twentieth century; it was Ravel (who never won it) who was unwittingly to bring it, in 1905, into the severest dishonour.


Candidates were required to submit a fugue and a 'concours d'essai', the setting of a given text for chorus, in the pre1iminary round of the competition. Those who satisfied the examiners with these works proceeded to the principal task, the composition of a cantata on a given text.


While some of the cantatas (such as Berlioz's Cleopatre and Debussy's L 'enfant prodigue) have become well known, the choruses written for the preliminary rounds have almost all fallen into obscurity. Until recently, indeed, few writers on Ravel even knew that he composed five such works. The present CD brings forward a group of Prix de Rome choruses by Debussy, Caplet and Ravel, all works from their student years but nonetheless works that can enrich our knowledge of these composers and evoke the real, if conventional, beauty of the 'Conservatoire Style' in the period 1880-1905. The style was essentially based on that of Gounod, Massenet and saint-saens. As Bizet, Debussy and Ravel were to demonstrate, the Conservatoire was able to foster real individuality and genius, even though it always seemed to be perpetuating the conventions of past generations.


Caplet and Ravel were both contestants in 1901. Caplet was three years younger and he studied with Leroux, Lenepveu and Vidal, while Ravel's teachers were Charles-Rene, Pessard and Faure. They were not close friends, evidently. In the 1901 concour5 the jury, presided over by Saint-saens, accepted the preliminary compositions of both contestants, but when they came to assess the solo cantatas, they judged Caplet's setting of the cantata text Myrrha to be superior to Ravel's. We can compare their preliminary choruses also. Caplet's setting of Victor Hugo's Spectacle ra55urant, a brightly optimistic poem about the perfection of nature, is much more robust than Ravel's, with more variety of texture and mood, and more adventurous orchestration. Caplet already at the age of twenty-two possessed a polished technique which won him the Prize. We can admire, for example, his deft writing for harp and woodwind, and the entry of the soprano soloist on La giroflee avec l’abeille is supported by a buzz in the violas and bouches fermees from the chorus.


In 1907 or 1908, after his return from Rome, Caplet became friends with Debussy, an association of the utmost importance to the younger man, who assisted with the orchestration of Le martyre de Saint-Sebastien in 1911. Debussy had himself competed for the Prix de Rome in the three years 1882-84; the choruses he composed in 1882 and 1884 were both, oddly, entitled Printemps, one on a text by Segur, one on a text by Jules Barbier. (To add to the confusion, Debussy also composed an orchestral suite entitled Printemps in 1887.) The chorus recorded here is the 1884 work, a graceful and elegant composition for soprano solo, mixed chorus and orchestra which was inexplicably overlooked for a hundred years. It received its first performance in California in 1985 by the Pacific Symphony Orchestra under Keith Clark.


In 1889 at the age of fourteen Ravel was admitted to the Conservatoire, where he studied piano, later harmony, later counterpoint and fugue, and ultimately in 1897 composition under Faure. Rave1's compositions for the Prix de Rome consist of five fugues and five choruses submitted in the five years that he entered: 1900, 1901, 1902, 1903 and 1905. In three of those five years he passed the concours d'essai and he therefore composed the three cantatas: Myrrha (1901), Alcyone (1902) and Alyssa (1903). The three cantatas are now quite weIl known (after resting in obscurity for over seventy years), but the five choruses are still almost unknown. They were performed for the first time on 16th December 1983 by the Chorus and Orchestra of Glasgow University, Scotland, directed by Hugh Macdonald. The poems of all but one of the choruses have not been identified.


The 1900 chorus, Les Bayaderes, failed to win the examiners' approval, probably because the manuscript is little more than a sketch, with numerous technical errors surprising in a composer who was later to apply such perfect technical craftsmanship in his music. The music borrows the exotic style of Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio espagnol for a poem about Indian dancers. When one of the dancers is buzzed by a bee, her frenzied, erotic wriggling generates a great spasm from the orchestra and a five-octave descending scale from the woodwind. The piece shows Ravel to be a true composer if still an imperfect craftsman.


The second chorus, a setting (like Caplet's) of Victor Hugo's Spectacle rassurant, is more carefully written, and it passed the examination. The orchestra is small, the choral writing smooth and simple, and the poem is given an elegant and warm setting in A major. The treatment of overlapping phrases in the voice parts is especially admirable, and the soprano solo has an exquisite entry .The unorthodox writing for sopranos and basses in unison, for La frissonnante libellule evidently did not disturb the judges.


In May 1902, perhaps gaining confidence after the award of a third prize for his cantata in the previous year – the only prize he won in all five contests - Ravel set about his third candidature with more daring. La nuit is an invocation to the healing calm of night, and its orchestral introduction ventures boldly upon some broad gestures, some striking harmonic surprises and a clamorous top C from the sopranos (on douleurs) at the climax. The scoring is elaborate and ambitious and the piece reflects a striving will and a rich imagination, not in any sense the work of a calculating or compromising mind, nor of a miniaturist. The cantata that year, Alcyone, was more advanced and personal too. But still Ravel did not win the Prix de Rome, which was awarded to Ayme Kunc.


So he tried again in 1903 with a chorus, Matinee de Provence, which suggests for the first time the charming salon manner of the 1890s, perhaps a deliberate attempt by Ravel to lower himself to the level of his judges. The poem invokes the brilliant skies and colours of Provence, and the orchestra gives restrained support, not the brilliant orchestral magic of Sheherazade, which he was also composing at the same time. The chorus was approved, but the cantata of that year, Alyssa, still did not win the prize.


In 1904 he decided not to enter; having already composed the String Quartet and Jeux d' eau, he was widely considered to have proved himself to the public, if not to the authorities of the Conservatoire. But in 1905 a curious impulse drove him to enter for the last time, perhaps because he had reached the age of thirty, the limiting age for candidates. This time his fugue and his chorus, L' aurore, were considered inadequate and he did not proceed to the cantata at all.




In the uproar that this caused, the political aspects of the scandal were mercilessly raked over, especially when it was discovered that all six successful finalists were pupils of one of the judges, Lenepveu. Ravel's chorus was said to break the traditional rules of harmony. That may be so, but there is still no possible case for Ravel's disqualification. The setting of L 'aurore is the most complex of the five choruses, with many changes of character, key and pace. It opens with a passage of recitative for double bass and bassoon, later to become a triumphant unison for men's voices Salut, O jour levant!, and it ends in a full-orchestral blaze of E flat major. Ravel' s personal style is more evident in this chorus than in the others, as if he was at last writing with conviction. There is no sense of writing just to please the judges (as there is in the 1903 chorus) and no musical justification for their rejection.


The scandal broke in the pages of Le Matin and the Mercure de France, where Ravel's supporters berated the Institut for its failure to recognise Ravel's standing as the leading French composer after Debussy. Even Faure and Romain Rolland entered the controversy in Ravel's favour, and criticism was only stilled when Dubois resigned as director of the Conservatoire at the end of 1905.


Ravel himself remained aloof and quietly devoted himself to his next compositions; he was entering the most productive period of his life. He never made any claims for his right to have won the Prix de Rome, and he never published or performed the choruses and cantatas. But he did learn that institutions are not always the friends of art and he came to hold their activities in contempt. He later refused the Legion d'Honneur and for the rest of his life never went near the Conservatoire again.


Hugh Macdonald



Myrrha by Andre Caplet

A famous photograph taken on Saturday 18th May 1901 has immortalised the entry into the Palais de Compiegne of the five candidates for the Prix de Rome in composition, who a fortnight earlier had achieved success in the initial tests for a four-voice fugue and a work for chorus and orchestra: Ayme Kunc and Andre Caplet (pupils of Charles Lenepveu), Albert Bertelin (pupil of Theodore Dubois and Charles-Marie Widor), Maurice Ravel (class of Gabriel Faure) and Gabriel Dupont (Widor's class). They were going to be confronted, as Roland-Manuel rightly says, by the platitude and absurdity of a text crammed full of padding, far surpassing the usual mediocrity of this kind of school essay, Myrrha by Ferdinand Beissier, after sardanapalu5 by Byron. Two performances of their work, for three soloists and orchestra, on 28th June at the Conservatoire and on 29th at the Institut, given by the Societe des Concerts and singers from the Paris Opera, helped the jury to award the first Grand Prix to Caplet, the first Second going to Dupont and the second Second to Ravel.


For the members of the music committee of the Acadernie des Beaux-Arts, the cantata by Caplet appeared distinguished by the accuracy of the word- setting and the careful and interesting scoring. It reflects, in fact, the composer's achievement. Director of music at the Odeon since 1899, Caplet had already written Le Livre Rose (1901) for voice and piano, Ete (1899) and paques citadine5 (1900) for chorus and orchestra and his Suite persane, an adaptation for orchestra of a double wind quintet of 1900.


The music, however, has other qualities. It is always interesting to hear the first works of a composer. There will be reminiscences, influences, here perhaps excusable concessions to the academic, the whole ornamented with personal turns of phrase, signs of the mature style. In the thematic line of the preliminary test chorus spectacle rassurant (Victor Hugo), Myrrha offers an exact picture of French aesthetic of the period (Bizet, Massenet, Faure, Debussy) as well as of Wagner, without pastiche: a fondness for the foreign note, harmonic colours and functions deliberately blurred, a desire for conciseness (a refusal to overload or write turgid development), a sense of line, of timbre, of space. These were qualities which, with a precocious understanding of the stage, of drama and a subtle element between painting and suggestion made Caplet the indispensable collaborator of Debussy from 1907, unrivalled conductor of the Boston Opera, and the Pasdeloup and Lamoureux concerts. Overlooking some conventional elements, the three scenes attract by the variety of the relative treatment of voices and orchestra, revealing the psychology and connections of the characters, with a number of passages of carefully wrought effects (distance, storm, tempest, angry waves) or of real feeling (Myrrha to Sardanapale: Viens, fuyons tous deux). The work is accurately brought to life through the soloists and the young members of the Orchestre de l'Universite de Paris-Sorbonne. Very special mention must be made of Jacques Grimbert, less for his already weil known qualities as a conductor than for his splendid musicological work (the restoration of Ms.3868 of the Departement Musique of the Bibliotheque Nationale) which has its practical result in living music. It is hoped that the present recording will demonstrate to performers and pub1ishers, as well as musicologists, the merits of a work that has fallen into unjustifiable oblivion, a work of Andre Caplet, a truly French musician.


Michel Delahaye (Universite de Paris-Sorbonne)



Ravel's Prix de Rome Cantatas


For the concert and recording we did not want to retain the original chronological order of composition: 1900, Les Bayaderes; 1901, Tout est Lumiere; 1902, La Nuit; 1903, Matinee de Provence; 1905, L' Aurore. Another arrangement of the five pieces seemed possible, not in their order of appearance at each competition, but according to a unity of time, that of one day, from its origin, L' Aurore, to its end La Nuit. Strangely over the five years under consideration, the poems set, apart from Le5 Bayadere5, have subjects that perfectly suit our plan: atmospheres dealing with different moments in a man's day… in Provence… with the dance of Le5 Bayadere5 leading to La Nuit. This has persuaded us to adopt the following order: L ' Aurore (1905); Matinee de Provence (1903); Tout est Lumiere (1901); Les Bayaderes (1900); La Nuit (1902).


Jacques Grimbert

(English Versions: Keith Anderson)


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