Program Notes: Morlot Conducts Debussy & Martin

Seattle Symphony Judith Fong Conductor Emeritus Ludovic Morlot conducts the Seattle Symphony in music by Thomas Adès, Debussy, Martin and Honegger featuring Seattle Symphony Principal Flute Demarre McGill and Principal Harp Valerie Muzzolini on Thursday, November 5, 2020 at 7:30pm on Seattle Symphony Live.


Three Studies from Couperin
Les amusemens (“The Amusements”)
Les tours de passe-passe (“The Sleight of Hand”)
L’âme en peine (“The Troubled Soul”)

BORN: 1971, London
WORLD PREMIERE: April 21, 2006, Basel Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer

Thomas Adès’ music has been featured by the Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall and the London Symphony Orchestra, to name a few. His repertoire includes operas, symphonies, concertos, choral works and film scores, reflecting a stylistic deftness and flexibility that marry new ideas with established forms.

This approach is clear in his Three Studies from Couperin for chamber orchestra. In this work Adès celebrates his love of music of the French Baroque, and particularly François Couperin (1668–1733) who served as King Louis XIV’s organist and is remembered for his short and enchanting works for keyboard. Adès’ ‘studies’ of three Couperin movements revel in the French composer’s musical character, while bringing it into conversation with Adès’ own compositional voice. He takes each piece, arranges and elaborates on it, fitting the music to two small orchestras. Les amusemens opens with a lilting theme. The clarity of the multi-voiced texture is aided by light and airy articulations. Les tours de passe-passe is spectral and electric; melodic fragments in icy timbres and angular rhythms are passed between orchestral sections. L’âme en peine is reflective and stately. Through a relaxed tempo and descending lamenting figures, Adès provides a solemn end to his homage to Couperin and the French Baroque period.

Scored for 2 flutes (the first flute doubling alto flute the second flute doubling bass flute); 1 clarinet; 1 bassoon; 2 horns; 1 trumpet; timpani & percussion; strings


Danses sacrée et profane (“Sacred and Profane Dances”)
Danse sacrée: Tres modéré
Danse profane: Modéré

BORN: August 22, 1862 in Saint Germaine-en-Laye, near Paris, France
DIED: March 25, 1918 in Paris, France
WORLD PREMIERE: November 6, 1904, in Paris, with harp soloist Lucille Wurmser-Delcourt.

As a musician who straddled the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Achille-Claude Debussy wrote amidst major artistic changes. Already during his studies at the Paris Conservatoire in 1872, his artistic ideas began to clash with the school’s rigid curriculum. As the 1884 winner of the coveted Prix de Rome, Debussy showed he could successfully apply the compositional rules he found so grating. But his process looked to other art forms (e.g. painting, poetry) to expand a listener’s response to music beyond the emotional to the visual and the tactile. Debussy’s love-hate relationship with Wagner and German Romanticism also heavily impacted his stylistic shift in the 1890s, where he developed an idiom that prioritized atmospheric timbres, mellifluous direction and restrained emotionalism.

Debussy was approached by harp manufacturer Pleyel and Wolff to compose for their newly developed ‘chromatic harp’ — an instrument with additional strings and range from the standard concert harp. Danses sacrée et profane for harp and string orchestra, was the resulting work, and although the chromatic instrument never really took on, the piece remains a mainstay of harp repertoire. The dances gently contrast one another. The sacred dance points to the mystical and spiritual. Profane here infers worldly music inspired by nature. Danse sacrée begins with the main theme in the harp and strings. Clear motifs emerge and disappear between harp and ensemble. This ebb and flow, combined with dynamic swells in the strings, create a feeling of stasis that is relaxed and eerie, even when the main theme reappears. The Danse profane has a more energetic character, calling for rich timbres and longer lyrical phrasing. The main theme’s third reappearance sets up the apex of the work, where the ensemble returns to a unified texture and arrives at the movement’s loudest dynamic. The passage culminates in an ethereal held note before ending with punctuated pizzicatos and harp strum.

Scored for solo harp; strings


Ballade for Flute and Orchestra (1939/1941)

BORN: September 15, 1890 in Geneva, Switzerland
DIED: November 21, 1974 in Naarden, The Netherlands
WORK COMPOSED: 1939–1941
WORLD PREMIERE: November 28, 1941 in Basel, Switzerland,conducted by Paul Sacher, with soloist Joseph Bopp and the Basel Chamber Orchestra.

Frank Martin, like his compatriot Arthur Honegger, is one of the most frequently programmed 20th century Swiss composers. As composer, performer and pedagogue he was associated with the founder of the Dalcroze method of music and movement education, Émile Jacques-Dalcroze. From 1943–1946, he served as president of the Swiss Musicians’ Union. He eventually settled in the Netherlands. While determining a composer’s “maturity” is always subjective, Martin considered the development of his compositional voice a decades-long journey. His stylistic exploration coalesced into an idiom that reflected his love and respect for Bach and the artistic potential of chromaticism, serialism, and timbres that rested outside associations of beauty.

The Ballade was composed as a test piece for the Geneva International Flute Competition, with piano accompaniment. Martin later orchestrated the piece. Short, stepwise melodic cells in the opening flute part create a sense of growing drama as more instruments enter the texture. The flute is the center: the instrument’s full range is explored, and the soloist introduces new sections and drives the work’s direction. Its diverse timbres range from bright, muted, breathy, and harsh, communicating a range of intense emotional states. The latter section features the return of melodic segments from earlier in the work, before the piece concludes with a punch from orchestra and soloist.

Scored for solo flute; piano; strings


Symphony No. 2, H. 153
Molto moderatoAllegro
Adagio mesto
Vivace; non troppo

BORN: March 10, 1892 in Le Havre, France
DIED: November 27, 1955 in Paris, France
WORLD PREMIERE: May 18, 1942 at the Collegium Musicum of Zurich in Zurich, Switzerland

Artistic collectives can be an important space for the exchange of ideas and consolidation of creative principles. The Swiss-born Arthur Honegger was a member of the short-lived collective known as Les Six, six French-based composers who focused on breaking with both the overwhelming impact of German Romanticism and the lush chromatic language of Debussy and Ravel. Honegger looked to the formal and harmonic clarity of the Classical period as well as contemporary uses of chromaticism, serialism and a break with standard melodic development.

Honegger’s Second Symphony, for string orchestra and trumpet, was commissioned in 1937. Intended to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Basel Chamber Orchestra, the work was not completed until 1941 and premiered in 1942 at the Collegium Musicum in Zurich.

During these years, as war engulfed Europe, Honegger chose to stay in Paris. He found himself living and working in Nazi-occupied France. Though his music had been denounced as degenerate in Germany and annexed regions, Honegger was able to continue work as a film composer. His professional travels were approved by the Nazi regime. At the same time he joined a Resistance organization of composers and musicians. Honegger’s decision not to criticize the regime led to his professional and literal survival, but his reputation suffered after the war. One of his professional trips facilitated the transfer of his Second Symphony’s score to conductor Paul Sacher who had commissioned and would eventually premiere the work.

The first movement, Molto moderatoAllegro communicates a fierce intensity through dissonant harmonies and pointed articulations. Adagio mesto is lyrically tragic. The use of stepwise motion in the melodic sections and the creeping movements of the supporting strings evoke a feeling of conflicted stasis. The harsh timbres and pointed articulation return in the Vivace; non troppo, combined with a ferocity and drive thanks to the simmering supportive sections, use of the violin’s high register and unison passages. It is here that the trumpet makes its first and only appearance, supported by the violins in a lyrical chorale that is one of the few moments of tonal happiness, where hope breaks through.

Scored for trumpet; strings

© 2020 A. Kori Hill

Posted on November 4, 2020