About this Recording
8.555568 - IBERT, J.: Ballade de la Geôle (La) / 3 Pièces de Ballet / Suite Élisabéthaine (Kubrická, Slovak Philharmonic Chorus, Slovak Radio Symphony, Adriano)

Jacques Ibert (1890–1962)
La Ballade de la Geôle de Reading • Trois Pièces de Ballet (Les Rencontres) • Féerique • Chant de Folie • Suite Élisabéthaine


After his musical training at the Paris Conservatoire under Gabriel Faure and Andre Gedalge, the second of whom also taught Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud, and further studies with Paul Vidal and Nadia Boulanger, Jacques Ibert settled at the Academie de France at the Villa Medici in Rome, an institution of which he held the post of director from 1937 until 1960. During the second World War, after serving as an officer in the French navy, he returned to Rome. Later, without resigning his position at the Villa Medici, he took the position of director of the Paris Opera from 1955 to 1956 and was nominated in the latter year to the Institut de France.

Ibert’s personality and work are striking in their great artistic freedom and variety of styles. A composer lying in style somewhere between neo-impressionism, neo-classical and modern tendencies, he produced an impressive list of works, including operas, ballets, stage and film scores, symphonic, chamber and vocal compositions. He can be considered a true musical exponent of the esprit of Paris, although some of his more serious works reveal a more cosmopolitan facet of his personality. His orchestral skill makes him a major, but still relatively unexplored representative of French music of the twentieth century.

In an interview Ibert gave some indication of his method of work: “In each of my works there is an emotive shock that gave me the starting-point of inspiration, but this shock is only useful if it can become a true emotion. If this happens, my attitude is not to feel this emotion passively, but to become master of it and re-create it accordingly”. His artistic credo he expressed as follows: “What I like to do is what others do not… I avoid every theoretical scheme of which I might become a slave and write only according to the demands of my own sensitivity: truth in art is what touches and emotion has its own boundless time.”

La Ballade de la Geôle de Reading

Eyebrows would have been raised at the Opera Comique in 1937 at the notion of a ballet set in Reading Gaol, not to mention at the author of the poem that inspired the ballet and the background of his personal experiences as a convict. The way Jacques Ibert understood and transmitted Oscar Wilde’s humanitarian message with its moving account of the harsh prison atmosphere, dominated by the story of a man who had murdered his beloved, astonished and impressed that first audience against all expectation.

Ibert originally conceived La Ballade de la Geôle de Reading as a symphonic poem, writing the work between 1920 and 1922. The first performance took place on 22 October 1922 at the Paris Concerts Colonne, when it was conducted by Gabriel Pierne, to whom it is dedicated. The sections of Wilde’s poem that head the score in the French translation by Henri-David Davray will be found, together with the latter, on pages 4–6.

Debussy, Ravel and Dukas, is an extremely mature and powerful score, masterly in its orchestration. In form the work is a triptych, built on modal themes. In the first part the cor anglais introduces the main theme, then developed through four sections. The prison and its inhabitants are described, with counterpoint leading to variations of a more expansive and urgent motif, to be identified with the murderer’s anguished desires and memories. An eerie interlude for clarinet, harp and celesta, with transparent string writing, suggests the “little tent of blue” in Wilde’s poem, and this new motif is developed together with the existing material into a dramatic climax, never losing, here as elsewhere, a predominantly lyrical character. The second part is marked by madness and terror. A sarabande over a seven-beat rhythm is first developed from a mysterious to an increasingly dramatic mood, strengthened through tremoli of horror, glissandi, harmonics and col legno effects into an almost despairing 6/8 gagliarde, using all the forces of the orchestra. The third part can be considered an epilogue, in which the dark atmosphere of the prison is brought again to a climax, an unceasing cry of pity proclaimed by the whole orchestra. It dissolves into an impressionistic mood, as at the beginning, in which feelings of hope for human pity in this world can eventually be heard in the peaceful bass clarinet and cor anglais reminiscences of the second motif. The Ballade is scored for three flutes, double wood-wind with cor anglais, bass clarinet and double bassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, two harps and strings, with a large percussion section.

Trois Pièces de Ballet (Les Rencontres)

Ibert’s mother, who was a music-lover and a sculptress, kept an artistic salon at her house, where intellectuals and society friends would gather. Ibert decided to portray some of these characteristic guests in music, at first in a set of five piano pieces which he called Rencontres, written in 1921–22. Two years later he orchestrated them and entitled a selection of three numbers Trois Pièces de Ballet. In the case of any stage performance, choreography was left to the imagination of anyone who cared to stage the work, as Nijinska did at the Paris Opera in 1925. The present recording makes use of the three-part concert suite. Trois Pièces de Ballet foreshadows that colourful and witty mixture of neoclassicism and the music-hall style of the 1920s that the composer would later re-create more specifically in his ballet La Licorne (or The Triumph of Chastity). While Les Bouquetières and Les Bavardes hide themselves behind classical dance forms, Les Créoles reveals itself as a delicate tango. Passing homage to Ravel cannot go unnoticed, especially in some outbursts in Les Bavardes reminiscent of La Valse. In this third and scherzo-like movement the rhythm is an infectious but often changing 5/8. The work opens with a short intrada for distant trumpets and percussion. Although it is scored for a large symphony orchestra, including cor anglais, three bassoons, two harps and percussion, it contains passages suggesting rather the lightness of a chamber ensemble.


Féerique is a short symphonic poem, in the key of E major, composed at Houlgate in Calvados in 1924 and also first performed under Gabriel Pierne. Once again it is an orchestration of an earlier piano composition. As its title reveals, Féerique brings us into a fairy world and is correspondingly orchestrated, impressionistic in mood, in common with much of Ibert’s music of this period. It contains a central section of scherzo-like character, rising to a climax at the recapitulation, in which the original lyrical theme reappears, culminating in a glowing and rhythmically affirmative tutti. The final harp glissandi signal the breaking of the spell. The orchestral forces employed are almost identical with those of Les Rencontres.

Chant de Folie

An exciting discovery among Ibert’s early compositions, Chant de Folie was inspired by the horrors of war which the composer had himself experienced as a young man. It was completed in 1923–24 and dedicated to Sergey Koussevitzky, who performed it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1925. Henri Busser was responsible for the first performance in Paris a year later. This was Ibert’s last Envoi de Rome, in accordance with the terms of the Prix de Rome, after the Ballade de la Geôle de Reading, Escales, Féerique and Les Rencontres.

This short and dramatic setting for mixed chorus and large symphony orchestra is based on an implacable and vigorous marching rhythm. At first tonal, the harmonies thicken and increase in dissonance. A central episode sung by a separate group of four sopranos and two contraltos, with the words of Louis Pasteur Vallery-Radot’s poem (Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi’s English translation may be found on page 6) over the vocalise of the rest of the female voices of the chorus, is of a more visionary character, but is taken over again by the initial nightmarish atmosphere, where the chorus sings wordlessly, as at the beginning, rising again to a dramatic climax. Syncopation plays an important part in this work and the main 4/4 beat is occasionally broken by the intervention of 2/4 or 3/4, in which dissonance brings a suggestion of chaos, an avant-garde element of the period. Arthur Honegger would have loved this piece. Chant de Folie is scored for a large symphony orchestra including percussion, glockenspiel and two harps.

Suite Élisabéthaine

Ibert’s music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an interesting discovery, makes a worthy addition to the music for the play by Mendelssohn. The composer compiled the suite from his score for a Marseille performance of the play in 1942. Four of its movements are neo-classical adaptations of pieces by Elizabethan or post-Elizabethan English composers, John Blow (Prélude), John Bull (Entrée), Orlando Gibbons (Cortège) and Henry Purcell (Final). An additional English theme, the sound of Big Ben, is humorously quoted in Dancerie. In the score it is written, for the first time only, as E-C-E-G instead of E-C-D-G, but the orchestral material has been corrected by musicians who understood Ibert’s sense of humour. Further investigation shows a suspiciously Russian tune in the central episode of the Finale. The movements that have no earlier source are more romantic or modern in flavour and include, in Chanson des fées led by a soprano solo, and Nocturne, a small vocalising women’s chorus. The whole suite is a virtuoso mixture of styles, including that of the composer himself. The score calls for a larger woodwind chamber ensemble of two flutes, oboe, cor anglais, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, with three horns, three trumpets, trombone, percussion, harp, celesta and a small string ensemble of six violins and three violas. Ibert’s Suite Elisabéthaine may take its place by the side of other orchestral suites of the 1920s in ancient style, such as the Antiche Danze ed Arie of Respighi and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella.

Edited by Keith Anderson

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