About this Recording
8.225234 - FANELLI, E.: Symphonic Pictures / BOURGAULT-DUCOUDRAY, L.: Rhapsodie cambodgienne (Slovak Radio Symphony, Adriano)
English  French 

Ernest Fanelli (1860-1917)

Tableaux Symphoniques

Ernest Fanelli was born in Paris on 29th June, 1860, the son of a bank clerk, whose family had emigrated to France from Bologna. His studies at the Paris Conservatoire came to an abrupt end when he was expelled for his refusal to attend the class of a particularly unkind teacher. After earning his living for a time as a timpanist in small orchestras, he was re-admitted and attended the composition classes of Léo Délibes, until shortage of money finally compelled him to leave, forced to support himself by work as a percussion-player or pianist. Fanelli, in fact, was self-taught, studying scores that he could borrow from libraries. By his early twenties, he had already started composing.

In 1912 the composer-conductor Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937) had noticed Fanelli as a percussionist of his Orchestre Colonne, when the latter had begged him for some work as a copyist. As a specimen of his musical handwriting, he had submitted a manuscript, which was not only neatly written, but also revealed some fascinating music that Pierné had never seen before. Fanelli modestly admitted that he had written this work himself 29 years before. Pierné took the manuscript home for study and enthusiastically declared afterwards that it "contained all the principles and all processes of modern music used by recognised masters of today". He also observed that in the year this piece had been written, he himself had won the Prix de Rome, but at that time "our art was entirely different from that of Fanelli... Russian music was unknown, Wagner did not win recognition until a few years later and Debussy was not talked of seriously until 1890. Thus one man had marvellously foretold our whole epoch". Pierné also wrote a passionate article on Fanelli in the French publication Musica, after offering to perform this composition with his orchestra, an event which took place on 17th March, 1912. A few weeks later, Musical America published some of Pierné’s statements, together with an enthusiastic review of this memorable performance under the title "Fanelli’s rise to fame like an Arabian Nights tale" and The Musical Times added its own praise in an article by Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi. This was the famous première of Fanelli’s Thèbes, the first part of Tableaux Symphoniques d’après le Roman de la Momie (1882-3 and 1886), here given complete. Now, after over a decade of researches and struggles, a story in themselves, it has been possible to make the present recording. The rowdy première of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps of 1913 took place a year later, an instance of the vitality of Parisian musical life, in which music might still elicit cries of joy or protest from audiences.

Subsequently, Pierné performed some of his protégé’s other works, including Fête dans le palais du Pharaon, the second set of Tableaux Symphoniques, in a concert of 23rd February 1913, and his Impressions pastorales, a symphonic suite of 1890 with 22 short movements, in a concert of 30th May, 1913. After that, Fanelli’s name was forgotten and details of his life seem to have met the same fate. In the Revue Musicale of April 1912, Jules Ecorcheville already asks if Fanelli will eventually show up again and be as brave as with his Tableaux. In his last work, an apparently grotesque and poignant String Quintet entitled L’Ane (The Donkey), the composer seems already to have become disillusioned and embittered, a man whose only preoccupation was how to be able to feed his family. In the writing of Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy, Fanelli is mentioned. It was Ravel who, speaking about Fanelli, even dared to point a finger at Debussy, remarking "now we know where his impressionism comes from". Debussy, for his part, compares Fanelli’s case to that of Edgar Allan Poe, who acquired sudden fame by winning a competition through his beautiful handwriting. He classifies him as "a composer with an acute sense of musical ornamentation, dragged towards such an extreme need of minute description, making him lose his sense of direction". Last but not least, Ezra Pound joins the circle of Fanelli’s defenders: from a list of works he adds to his article on the composer, we learn that Fanelli had written some more, mainly large-scale orchestral works, among them Humoresques, L’Effroi du Soleil (Fear of the Sun) and a Suite rabelaisienne, the grotesque modernism of which would apparently even have made Berlioz turn pale. Pound tells us that one evening Fanelli was playing a restaurant piano at Ermenonville, where an elegant party was gathered, including Debussy with some ladies. Debussy immediately left, when he heard those modern harmonies. Pound’s comment is: "Debussy was a man ever modest. Or let us grant that the position was difficult". We must not forget that Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, the prototype of musical Impressionism, was written ten years later than Fanelli’s Tableaux, and if that had become generally known, there would have been good reason for leaving Fanelli to play his restaurant piano, and for keeping him largely out of the concert hall. Debussy lived until 1918, in other words he only had six years to worry about Fanelli, and by the outbreak of World War I, Fanelli was already a forgotten hero anyway, since it seems that Pierné too lost interest in him. The truth, however, was more tragic: after 1894 Fanelli did not compose a single note more, as if avoiding a reputation as a hopeless and even dangerous former member of the avantgarde. The name of Fanelli is mentioned again in a curious anecdote in George Antheil’s memoir Bad Boy of Music (1945). In his article in the Transatlantic Review of November 1924, Antheil had called Fanelli "one of the greatest inventors and musical iconclasts of all time", but he had also condemned him with the sentence "Fanelli discovered the nuclei of a new movement, but he failed to discover that movement itself".

The present writer is, of course, still battling for Fanelli and searching for his manuscripts, after learning that the first part of Tableaux Symphoniques was the only orchestral piece ever published. By chance he came across the second part of Tableaux ten years ago, while consulting the card-index boxes of the music library of Radio France. The inclusion of the work of another composer on the present disc was necessitated by the limited amount of Fanelli’s music available. On the other hand, since Fanelli’s case is quite strange, the inclusion of Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray’s obscure Rapsodie cambodgienne makes this release even more of a rarity.

The Tableaux Symphoniques are indeed worth rediscovering and would deserve a most important place in the history of French music for their anticipation of the course it would take in the next fifty years, with particular qualities, especially in harmonic and instrumental language. Jean d’Udine, who wrote a detailed review of Tableaux, considered them extraordinarily modern, appreciating their freedom of form, and declaring that Fanelli, by bravely breaking with traditional symphonic form, "has even reached further, towards a wider unity, by just doing what he wanted". He went on to compare the work’s advanced musical language to the still "harmonically classical" one of Ravel and Debussy, appreciating that Fanelli avoids flirtation with their characteristic sonorities. D’Udine finally has to admit that Tableaux are not a masterwork, but he still allows that Fanelli has a certain genius of his own, considering that the piece was written by a young man of 23.

Théophile Gautier’s Romance of the Mummy was first published as a serialised novel in 1857 and can be considered a typical example of orientalism in the arts of that time. Particularly in opera, ancient Egypt had occasionally provided a musical subject. This trend, which had long been a particular aspect of European art, had found new impulse after Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign of 1798-99, and thanks to the efforts of the archaeologist Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832), who had first travelled to Egypt in 1828-29, had not only enriched France’s museums, but also inspired writers, painters and musicians. Gautier’s short novel indulges in profuse descriptions of landscapes, locations, costumes and objects, giving us the impression that its rather simple plot is only a pretext. The story begins with a prologue, in which an English archaeologist falls in love with a mummy, when he finds it is that of a woman, and not of an Egyptian Pharaoh. Papyrus rolls, found in the same mausoleum, reveal the fate of Tahoser, an Egyptian girl who has fallen in love with Poëri, a handsome young Hebrew. Ramses II, the mighty Pharaoh, who remains unnamed in Gautier’s novel, has seen Tahoser and decides to possess her at any cost. After discovering that Poëri is in love with Rachel, Tahoser becomes ill and is healed by the mysterious prophet Mosché (Moses), who initiates her into the cult of Jehovah. Ramses manages to abduct Tahoser and becomes an enemy of the Jews in circumstances described in the Book of Exodus. After the death of Ramses in the waves of the Red Sea, Tahoser is crowned Queen of Egypt, and that is how she has found her place in Pharoah’s tomb, around 1300 BC.

Fanelli, who dedicated the second part of Tableaux to Gautier’s daughter Judith, whose mother was the contralto Ernesta Grisi, sister of the famous ballerina Carlotta Grisi, quotes in his manuscript excerpts from Gautier’s book before each section, and the fact that he limits himself only to the novel’s first four chapters suggests that he had eventually intended to set some more to music. These quotations are carefully selected and transformed in a most personal way, making of the work not simply an example of romantic or post-romantic programme music, but creating fascinating symbolism and atmosphere.

The first Tableau particularly attracted Ravel by its stifling atmosphere, suggesting a hot day in the streets of Thebes, their silence interrupted by the cries of vultures. The plaintive vocalise of a female slave, accompanied by two harps and tambourines, played behind the orchestra, is something of a novelty for that time, to be used similarly some twenty years later, in 1907, by Florent Schmitt in his ballet La Tragédie de Salomé. In the second Tableau, we are transported to the shores of the Nile, where preparations are being made for the victorious return of Pharaoh. It is on this occasion that Tahoser sees the handsome young Poëri and falls desperately in love. The sudden turning of the music from nervous chatter and repeated rhythmic calls into langourously sighing phrases describes this most effectively, in an Andante sounding like pure Bernard Herrmann. The triumphant procession of Ramses is the most important and effective part of the suite, heard in the third Tableau, an astounding anticipation of Debussy’s Images and Respighi’s Pini della via Appia. The moment in which Ramses discovers the beautiful Tahoser among the crowd gives the orgiastic music a short pause before the march theme resumes with increased fervour. The Pharaoh is now back in his palace and in the following three Tableaux, various decadent festivities in his honour are depicted. In the fourth Tableau, Ramses is massaged by his slaves and entertained by naked girl jugglers. In the fifth a group of grotesque jesters join in, but Tahoser’s thoughts are far away, although the music is as advanced as that of Bartók or Stravinsky. The crowd opens the festivities with hymns of victory. The daringly avantgarde divertissement described in the last Tableau is followed by Ramses with total indifference. During a great orgy, in which ordinary people mingle with the courtiers, Ramses learns from a spy that the name of the object of his desire is Tahoser, and that she is the daughter of a high priest. A group of his courtier women, overhearing the news, are racked by jealousy. The final abrupt chords in Fanelli’s piece cannot better describe this ambiguously menacing atmosphere.

In addition to music cells, which function as motifs or as accompanying figurations, there are two recurring themes, associated with Tahoser and Ramses, but they are not used systematically as leitmotifs. The central dancing theme of Tableau No. 4 becomes the theme of Tableau No. 5 through inversion and the grotesque jugglers’ string leaps with tremoli in the fourth are taken up again in varied form and with different contrapuntal figurations at the end of the fifth. Pharaoh’s marching theme of Tableau No. 3 is heard again during the orgy of the last Tableau. Already in 1883 Fanelli uses whole-tone scales, intervals of a ninth and picturesque harmonic and instrumental effects which later became trademarks of the Impressionists. Polytonality, uneven metres, unmodulated changes of harmonies, free ornamentation, the use of augmented triads, and an overall non-relation to basic tonality can all be found in Tableaux Symphoniques, perhaps the first example in French music history in which sound and instrumental colour become principal means of musical expression, and in which a composer dares to transpose his purely sensorial impressions and detaches himself from absolute music and traditional romantic tone-painting.

From the 1954 edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, we learn that Fanelli died in Paris on 24th November 1917 and that he had also studied with Charles-Valentin Alkan. It seems that little more is known of Fanelli, whom the French include on their list of compositeurs maudits. An obituary on Fanelli can also be found in a 1918 issue of The Monthly Musical Record, where it is said that "exaggerated reports were circulated about a neglected genius, etc., but the music was simply sincere and expressive, and was soon forgotten". By a strange coincidence, the French composer Olivier Gavignaud (born 1970), with librettist Cathy Jacob, has recently written a "musical comedy" for soli, chorus and orchestra entitled Le roman de la momie, based on Gautier’s neglected novel, an attractive work also recorded and conceived for pedagogic use and for school performances. Gautier’s Mummy, in fact, returns again.

Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray was born in Nantes on 2nd February, 1840. He died in Vernouillet, near Paris, on 14th July, 1910. His father, a highly cultivated ship-owner and shell-expert, had destined his son for the law. At the age of nineteen, however, after graduation, Louis-Albert decided to become a composer, having already undertaken parallel musical study at the Nantes Conservatoire. In 1862 he won the Prix de Rome and it was in Italy that he discovered the music of Palestrina and grew to love folk-music, an interest later extended to the folk-music of many different cultures. He was, in fact, the first musician to introduce French audiences to the exotic, from both the popular and the classical domain, including the then largely unfamiliar music of Russia. Bourgault-Ducoudray was responsible for the Paris première of Balakirev’s symphonic poem Tamara (1881), and also collected and published folk-music from Brittany, his native region of which he had become a fervent patriot and politician. In 1878 he was appointed professor of music history at the Paris Conservatoire, an ideal position for the presentation of his enormous musical knowledge. His own compositions are obviously inspired by various folk-music styles. The two operas Tamara (1890) and Myrdhin (1905), set respectively in Baku and Brittany, can be considered his masterpieces, and both deal with the struggle between paganism and Christianity. Besides a magnificent Stabat Mater (1874), homage to Palestrina, he also wrote dramatic cantatas celebrating historical personalities like Vasco da Gama and Anne of Brittany and lesser-known French heroes, and his sparser orchestral output includes a Symphony (1861) a Symphonie religieuse (1868), with chorus, and the tone-poems Carnaval d’Athènes, Danse égyptienne, L’enterrement d’Ophélie, Le fils de Saül and Rapsodie cambodgienne. His chamber music includes numerous works for piano and a considerable quantity of songs and song cycles based on Armenian, Celtic, Greek, English, Scottish and, of course, Breton folklore. Bourgault-Ducoudray also wrote widely on musical subjects suggested by his various travels.

Rapsodie cambodgienne, written in 1882, bears the subtitle Khnénh Préavossa (The Feast of Water). In the first part the God of Earth, Préa Thorni, addresses the God of Water, Préa Congkéar, begging him to cede him his sceptre, in order to re-establish the land’s fertility. It is only through the supplications of the flood-stricken inhabitants that Congkéar finally agrees to withdraw. In the second part, the Cambodians celebrate this event by a colourful religious celebration. Bourgault-Ducoudray’s oriental rhapsody is beautifully orchestrated. Although not as impressive and avantgarde as Fanelli’s, it contains real musical themes from Cambodia, but suggests the technique of his favoured Balakirev or Rimsky-Korsakov, whose work he had promoted.


(edited by Keith Anderson)

Close the window