About this Recording
8.557985 - SIBELIUS: Pelleas and Melisande / DESBRIERE: Sinfonia
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Jean Sibelius (1865-1957): Pelléas et Mélisande Suite, Op. 46
Jacques Desbrière (b. 1925): Sinfonia


The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was born in 1865, the son of a doctor, in a small town in the south of Finland, the language and culture of his family being Swedish. It was at school that he was to learn Finnish and acquire his first interest in the early legends of his country. His musical abilities were soon realised, although not developed early enough to suggest music as a profession until he had entered university in Helsinki as a law student. His first ambition had been to be a violinist. It later became apparent that any ability he had in this direction was outweighed by his gifts as a composer, developed first by study with Martin Wegelius, then in Berlin and, more effectively, in Vienna.

In Finland once more, Sibelius won almost immediate success in 1892 with a symphonic poem, Kullervo, based on an episode from the Finnish epic Kalevala. There followed compositions of particular national appeal that further enhanced his reputation in Helsinki. During this period he supported himself by teaching, as well as by composition and the performance of his works, but it proved difficult for him to earn enough, given, as he was, to bouts of extravagance, continuing from his days as a student. In 1896 he was voted the position of professor at the University of Helsinki, but the committee's decision was overturned in favour of Robert Kajanus, the experienced founder and conductor of the first professional orchestra in Helsinki. As consolation for his disappointment Sibelius was awarded a government stipend for ten years, and this was later changed into a pension for life. The sum involved was never sufficient to meet his gift for improvidence, inherited, perhaps, from his father, who at his death in 1868 had left his family in some difficulty.

Sibelius continued his active career as a composer until 1926, his fame increasing at home and abroad, particularly with his series of symphonies, the first in 1898 and the seventh in 1924. An eighth symphony was completed in 1929, but destroyed. The rest was silence. For the last 25 years of his life Sibelius wrote nothing, remaining isolated from and largely antipathetic to contemporary trends in music. His reputation in Britain and America remained high, although there were inevitable reactions to the excessive enthusiasm of his supporters. On the continent of Europe he failed to recapture the earlier position he had enjoyed before the war of 1914 in Germany, France and Vienna. He died in 1957 at the age of 91.

The play Pelléas et Mélisande, by the Belgian symbolist poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, had been written in 1892 and first staged in Paris. It attracted the attention of various composers, notably Debussy, whose opera was first staged in 1902, but was also the subject of a symphonic poem by Arnold Schoenberg, completed in 1903, and in 1898, at the instigation of Mrs Patrick Campbell, incidental music had been provided by Gabriel Fauré for an English version of the play, staged in London. It was in 1905 that Sibelius wrote his incidental music for a Swedish version of Maeterlinck's work, staged at the Swedish Theatre in Helsinki. Set in a medieval dream world, the play tells of the meeting of Golaud with the mysterious Mélisande and their marriage, before Golaud returns to the castle of his grandfather, Arkel, King of Allemonde. Golaud's half-brother Pelléas meets Mélisande and they fall in love. When, finally, Golaud discovers their association, he kills Pelléas and wounds Mélisande, who dies, after giving birth to a daughter.

The incidental music starts with an introduction to the opening of the play, where maidservants wash the entrance to the castle of Arkel, preparing for the day. The second scene marks the meeting of Mélisande and Golaud. She is found sitting by a spring in the forest. Golaud, lost while out hunting, approaches and questions her. The introduction to the scene depicts Mélisande initially in a cor anglais melody, accompanied only by violins and violas, further extended by other instruments, before the final return of the cor anglais. In the fourth scene, by the sea, Geneviève, mother of Golaud and Pelléas, is with Mélisande, gazing at the sea. They are joined by Pelléas, whose words, as the day draws to a close and the wind rises, are accompanied by a short passage for piccolo, clarinets, bass drum and muted strings.

The second act opens by a fountain in the castle park. Pelléas and Mélisande sit by Blind Man's Spring. She plays with the wedding-ring Golaud has given her and drops it into the water. The introduction to the act has brief suggestions of what is to come, but is generally serene, ending with the characteristic Sibelius interval of a descending fifth.

The introduction to the third act, the sixth in the suite, offers spinning music for Mélisande. The scene is a room in the castle, and with Mélisande is Pelléas and Golaud's young son Yniold, sad because he thinks Mélisande is going away, but seeing Golaud approaching. The rhythm of the spinning-wheel provides continuing activity for the violas. The song of the three blind sisters, the fourth piece in the suite, again introduces the cor anglais, accompanied only by timpani, before the repeated verse, with its plucked strings, clarinets and horns. Mélisande, in a tower of the castle, sings as she combs her hair, before the appearance below the tower of Pelléas, who fondles and kisses her hair, as it falls down about him. They are rebuked by Golaud for playing in the dark like children. In the third scene Golaud takes Pelléas down to the castle vaults, where he is in danger of falling. In the following scene they emerge into the daylight. Golaud warns Pelléas, but the fifth piece, Pastorale, accompanies his praise of the beauty of the day, while the clarinets, in thirds, offer a gentle melody accompanied by plucked lower strings.

The fourth act is preceded by the entr'acte that appears as the seventh number in the suite. The music lightens the mood, but the act opens with the meeting of Pelléas and Mélisande in a corridor in the castle, his presentiment of danger and his plan to leave. The act ends with the meeting at the fountain of Pelléas and Mélisande, where, as they kiss, they are confronted by Golaud, who kills his brother and slightly wounds Mélisande as she flees.

In the fifth act the servants discuss what has happened, how Golaud has been found with a self-inflicted wound at the castle gate in the morning, with Mélisande, who though only slightly hurt, now lies dying. Muted strings open the music for her death-bed. The descending fifth is heard again, and the inevitable sadness of the scene is momentarily lightened with a brief change to the major key.

Keith Anderson



Jacques Desbrière was born in Paris in 1925, making him a contemporary of Dutilleux, Sauguet, Jolivet, Françaix, Ibert and other French composers of the second half of the twentieth century. He wrote a large number of pieces for piano and various different chamber ensembles.

The Sinfonia featured on this recording was commissioned by and is dedicated to his friend Patrick Gallois. It was first performed by the Sinfonia Finlandia in Jyväskylä in February 2005.

The Sinfonia takes the form of a double nocturne; its first movement (Prélude et Allegro) opens slowly and solemnly and introduces a theme that will reappear throughout the work. This leads into a fast-moving, lively section before the slow music of the opening recurs and, finally, a dramatic coda brings the movement to an end. The second movement, Dumka (Lent – Vif – Lent), takes its inspiration from a piano nocturne Desbrière wrote in 1989. It begins with a clarinet solo above a regular, syncopated beat on the strings. There follows a rapid episode in which we hear, although recast, the themes from the central section of the first movement. The slow opening theme then returns, this time played by solo oboe with a string accompaniment, as before, in accordance with usual dumka structure. The final section begins without a pause and takes up the lively central section of the first movement, now transposed into D minor. In 2006 the composer added a coda which concludes the Sinfonia at a slower tempo and in a consciously different style from the rest of the work, which returns to its quiet opening.

A work of art is less the reflection of a shared world than it is the most finished expression of the artist's own personality. The artist's vision then comes up against an audience's "taste". Beauty, after all, is in the eye or ear of the beholder — in whatever suits our individual tastes or sensibilities.

Recent years have seen this tendency to take a subjective view of art intensify. The avant-garde extols the virtues of creating "ex nihilo" and wiping clean the slate of earlier traditions, to the point that "originality" will eventually supplant any other aesthetic value. Today, however, this cult of the new for new's sake must be seen as a completely outmoded concept.

It is in this context that so-called "modern" (rather than "avant-garde") French music as personified by figures such as Franck, Ravel, Satie or Desbrière today has an unequalled contemporary feel. And this musical tradition which does not reject tonality gives us what in an atonal universe would be unlikely, even reviled examples of genuinely modern beauty.

We are no longer talking here about "discovery" or "invention", but about "expression", for this music gives full expression to the personality of its creators — an ideal perfectly illustrated on this CD by Jacques Desbrière's Sinfonia.

Luc Ferry
Traduction : Susannah Howe



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