Ballets and Symphonies
* Symphonie in G
* Ouverture anacreontique
* Pavane pour un genie vivant
* Scuola di Ballo
The Ulster Orchestra/Thierry Fischer
Hyperion CDA67323 Total time: 70:25
Summary for the Busy Executive: Musique avec choucroute, sans
Ned Rorem once wrote that the world contained only two types of composers:
French ones and German ones. He thought of himself as French. I would
say there are considerably more types, but, then again, I have no way
of putting that into so neat an aphorism. Of all the French composers,
Jean Francaix may quintessentially represent a certain type of Gallicism:
a musical elegance, balance, wit, mesure, and clarity; negatively,
avoiding bombast, pretension, and over-inflation. If the German Composer
(in capital letters) seeks to render great thoughts, yearns for spirituality
transcending the world for heaven, and begs to be regarded "philosophically,"
this kind of French composer seeks to capture the pleasures of the
beauties he can see and touch - an attitude echoed in Frost's lines,
"Earth's the right place for love: / I don't know where it's likely to
go better." There are, of course, "mystical" and religious French
composers, but even here their music differs from that of their Romantic
and post-Romantic German counterparts. Satie's "Rosicrucian" music is
stark, almost matter-of-fact. Faure's, Messia=EBn's, Poulenc's, and
Durufle's religious music - unlike, say, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis or
the first movement of the Mahler Eighth - fits comfortably in a church.
The German composer aspires to a heaven that utterly transforms earth.
To the French composer, heaven is like earth, only more so.
Francaix (1912-1997) found his groove early and stuck to it. It's
extremely difficult to sort out the order of his works, early to late,
just by listening. The great mythic time and place for Francaix's art
seems most likely the classical Eighteenth Century, the object of such
homages as Poulenc's Les Animaux modeles (based on La Fontaine's fables)
and Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin. Francaix's music aims at the lightness
of a Mozart divertimento or contredanse. Yet a listener would make a
serious mistake to underestimate Francaix. Within bone-simple structures,
some very sophisticated maneuvers take place.
Francaix has produced things in his catalogue he calls concerti and
symphonies and string quartets. With our expectations for these forms
largely conditioned by Beethoven and his successors, Francaix may confuse
us. The 1953 Symphony in G, his third and final, is less complex than
even Bizet's Symphony in C. In fact, in its "feel," it hearkens back
to the sinfonias of C.P.E. Bach and the Mannheim school. You will search
in vain for "standard" symphonic structures, or at least those that work
in standard ways. Most of it sounds like extremely refined song or dance
strains repeated over and over. The first movement, for example, more
alludes to than follows sonata-allegro. The second subject, for example,
appears only once all by itself, and then briefly and furthermore an
unusual half-step higher than the main key. As far as harmonic theory
goes, it's a very tricky modulation indeed, but the composer pulls it
off as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Francaix,
naturally, returns to the main key just as easily. Nevertheless, we
don't have that sense of symphonic argument we get in Beethoven, Brahms,
Mahler, and even Haydn and Mozart, or Prokofiev's Classical Symphony,
for that matter. Francaix does something much closer to Schoenberg's
continuous variation or a Charlie Parker riff piece. Of course, he
sounds like neither. Much the same goes on in the other three movements:
a beautiful slow movement, essentially a song which proceeds at the pace
of a slow, perfect summer day; a quirky minuet and trio; a rondo-like
finale in which Francaix displays his manic side.
The Serenade of 1934 is one of the composer's popular successes.
Learning that it has had the most recordings of any other work in
his catalogue wouldn't surprise me. It moves with the insouciance of
Rene Clair's Italian Straw Hat or Le Million. The finale, with its
playground-taunt refrain and trombone slides, comes as close to musical
farce as any piece I know. Like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in
The Ouverture anacreontique and the Pavane pour un genie vivant come
from late in the composer's career - the Seventies and Eighties. If we
consider the contemporary music of the time, even the tonal contemporary
music, they stand so far apart as to sound timeless. The overture
("anacreontic" means amatory or convivial) shows Francaix's idiosyncratic
turn of mind. Instead of something to get your blood racing, over
half of it runs to the languorously slow, until the convivial kicks in.
Even then, it ends as it began. The pavane, written for the fifty-year
commemoration of Ravel's death, has the still mystery of that master's
"Pavane de la Belle au Bois Dormant" ("pavane of the Sleeping Beauty"
from the two-piano suite Ma mere l' oye). It's a gorgeous, intense three
or four minutes.
Scuola di Ballo, written for the Ballets russes, belongs to that genre
of modern composers reorchestrating and even rewriting older music as a
kind of homage. If not the first, Tchaikovsky's fourth orchestral suite,
subtitled "Mozartiana," is surely one of the earliest examples, while
Stravinsky's Pulcinella ballet represents perhaps the peak of the genre.
Typically, Francaix aims at something modest - reorchestrations of pieces
by Boccherini, I must admit, not one of my favorite composers. Francaix,
however, through a magically delicate orchestration manages to increase
the interest of Boccherini's quintet originals at least five-fold.
My only quibble is that it doesn't sound particularly like Francaix.
Nevertheless, you can see the Frenchman's fondness for an insistent,
almost banal tune and his ability to transform them into something
The Ulstermen play idiomatically under Thierry Fischer. After all,
according to the actor-playwright Sacha Guitry, "ce qui n'est pas clair
n'est pas francais, mais ... ce qui n'est pas clair n'est pas 'de'
Francaix" (what's not clear is not French, but ... what's not clear is
not by Francaix). They are clear; their touch is light. What more could
you ask for?