Out of the Depths

Saturday, March 16, 2019 • 7:30 p.m.
First Free Methodist Church (3200 3rd Ave W)

Orchestra Seattle
Seattle Chamber Singers
William White, conductor
Laura Thoreson, mezzo-soprano


Lili Boulanger (1893–1918)
Psaume CXXIX

Lili Boulanger
Du fond de l’abîme

— intermission —

César Franck (1822–1890)
Symphony in D minor, FWV 48

About the Concert

“La mer jaune” by Georges Lacombe

From tragedy to triumph, this concert explores the extremes of human feeling as expressed by Lili Boulanger and César Franck. The centerpiece of the program is the apex of Boulanger’s achievement as a composer, Du fond de l’abîme (“Out of the depths”), written in 1917, only a year before her tragic death at the age of 24. In this astonishing work, she interweaves voices and instruments into a free-flowing mélange of styles and textures, incorporating all the major strains of musical thought that were present during the early years of the 20th century.

We conclude with the paramount achievement of French Romanticism, Franck’s Symphony in D minor, a work that encapsulates infinite shadings of darkness and light in its three movements. A favorite of audiences and performers alike, this symphony is notable for its use of “cyclic form,” in which musical themes appear and reappear throughout the symphony, interacting with each other like characters in an opera.

Arrive early for a pre-concert talk by William White at 6:30 p.m.

About the Soloist

Laura Beckel Thoreson

Mezzo-soprano Laura Beckel Thoreson, hailed by Oregon ArtsWatch as “one of the loveliest voices in the Northwest,” enjoys a widely varied singing career spanning opera, oratorio, recital and ensemble performances. She has appeared as a solo artist with Portland Opera, Eugene Opera, Utah Festival Opera, Indianapolis Opera, Augusta Opera, Early Music Vancouver, Oregon Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony and Cincinnati Symphony, among others. An avid proponent of both early and new music, Ms. Thoreson frequently participates in world-premiere performances and appears on Billboard Top Ten recordings. Upcoming and recent engagements include Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater with the Ensemble of Oregon, Pluviosity by Northwest composer Stacey Phillips, Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” Symphony with Portland Youth Philharmonic, Mendelssohn’s Elijah with Willamette Master Chorus, Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 with Oregon Sinfonietta, Rossini’s La Cenerentola with Portland Opera and Handel’s Messiah with Portland Baroque Orchestra. A native of Vancouver, Washington, and a graduate of Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, Ms. Thoreson was a member of the voice faculty at the University of Portland for three years. She currently holds a faculty position at Clark College and maintains a full private voice studio in the Portland area. Learn more: laurabeckelthoreson.com

Program Notes

Lili Boulanger
Psaume CXXIX

Marie-Juliette Olga (“Lili”) Boulanger was born August 21, 1893, in Paris, and died at Mézy-sur-Seine on March 15, 1918. She began sketching this work as early as 1913, completing it in 1916. Henri Büsser conducted the first performance in Paris on June 9, 1921. In addition to chorus, the score calls for triple woodwinds (including piccolo, English horn, bass clarinet and sarrusophone), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, celesta and strings.

As a result of her winning the Prix de Rome in 1913, Lili Boulanger was awarded an extended stay at the Villa Medici in Rome (along with a monthly stipend), but illness cut short her initial trip to Italy. Health issues and her efforts in support of students from the Paris Conservatoire fighting in World War I curtailed her composing efforts for a time, but during the first half of 1916 she was able to return to Rome, where she composed settings of Psalm 24 (performed by OSSCS in October) and Psalm 129 (heard this evening). “In them,” notes Boulanger biographer Léonie Rosenstiel, “she poured out her anguish and torment” over her bedridden condition. “Even the opening words of Psalm 129 (‘They have oppressed me, since I was young’) seem to mirror the tone of her letters” to her close friend Miki Piré. Caroline Potter points out that both psalm settings “combine straightforward melody lines... with harmonically adventurous accompaniment.”

The 30-bar orchestral introduction, emphasizing dark woodwind and brass textures, begins with parallel-ninth chords that, according to Rosenstiel, “foreshadow Honegger’s Le Roi David, which was not written until after Lili Boulanger’s death.” (Listen in particular for the EE♭ contrabass sarrusophone, a metal double-reed instrument called for in many French orchestral works of this era, but rarely heard in concert today.)

Unison male voices dominate the vocal writing (Boulanger also prepared a version for solo baritone in place of the chorus), with the sopranos and altos singing but a single syllable (“Ah!”) during the final 16 measures. The unison vocal writing, notes Mary Moran, “is a feature of Gregorian chant, and also represents the unified people of Israel cursing its enemies” while “use of only male voices through most of the piece corresponds to the custom of men as the traditional soldiers and defenders of their nation.”

As tenors and basses sing “Des laboureurs ont labouré mon dos, Ils y ont trace de larges sillons” (They cut deep wounds in my back, making it like a plowed field) the triplet figures in the orchestral accompaniment, according to Helen Julia Minors, resemble “the action of plowing as the clarinets oscillate up and down. This pattern remains for the entire middle section, passing through the instruments of the orchestra.”

Reviewing the 1921 premiere in La Revue musicale, Georges Migot wrote: “It is the first time that an overall hearing of the most significant works of Lili Boulanger allows us to confirm the immense loss for music caused by the death of this 24-year-old musician. ... Psaume 129, a fierce and taut vocal line, registers itself with a profound impact on polyphonic development in which male and powerful progressions express the deaf hatred and exasperated anger of an oppressed people. ... Apart from all questions of syntax, apart from every school, Lili Boulanger, in spite of Destiny or thanks to it, has endowed music with new accents.”

Lili Boulanger
Psaume CXXX

Boulanger completed this work in 1917. Henri Büsser conducted the first performance in Paris on January 17, 1923. In addition to solo alto and chorus, the score calls for triple woodwinds (including piccolo, English horn, bass clarinet and contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, organ, celesta and strings.

Lili Boulanger’s setting of Psalm 130 is her most ambitious choral-orchestral work, and the longest of her post–Prix de Rome compositions aside from the song cycle Clairières dans le ciel for tenor and piano. Surprisingly, the actual text of Psalm 130 is roughly the same length as that of Psalm 129. Her sketches reveal that the work was originally intended to be substantially shorter, but along the way she added orchestral episodes while repeating sections of text. Exactly when Boulanger began thinking about setting Psalm 130 remains unclear, but it likely predates her sketches for Psalms 24 and 129.

She dedicated Du fond de l’abîme (“Out of the depths”) to her father (“à la mémoire de mon cher Papa”), who had died when she was six. Psalm 130 is a prayer for the dead, leading Caroline Potter to theorize that the composer may have planned for it to be part of a Requiem mass, although others dispute this theory.

Reviewing a February 1923 performance of Du fond de l’abîme, composer Florent Schmitt (who had created a remarkable setting of Psalm 47 in 1904), wrote: “Coming from the mysteries of the abyss, a song rises slowly, the choirs staged parallel to the orchestra, whose music successively emerges little by little to reach the most desperate violence.”

The work opens quite literally in the depths of the orchestra, with tuba and cellos yielding to a rising contrabassoon motive that eventually passes upward through the orchestra. (Léonie Rosenstiel likens this passage to the opening bars of Ravel’s La valse and Concerto for the Left Hand, both composed years later). An impassioned dialogue between first and second violins leads to a dramatic dotted trumpet figure. All of this material will recur throughout the work.

After reaching a climax, the orchestra descends back into the depths, setting the stage for the initial choral entry, evoking plainsong chant and built on a half-step interval (“denoting fear”). “After the voices join into a contrapuntal texture,” writes Rosenstiel, “they regroup and end the section in aggressive homophony.” A brief orchestral interlude leads to a faster section in which altos and basses reprise the dotted trumpet motive.

An increasingly urgent instrumental passage featuring material from the opening leads to an impassioned choral-orchestral outburst that subsides as the soloist introduces a new melody (“Si tu prends garde aux péchés”). The pace quickens and builds once again as the chorus returns. Instrumental solos over harp arpeggios set the stage for another solo passage (“Mais la clémence est en toi”). The chorus returns briefly as the mood lightens somewhat and a solo tenor from the chorus joins the alto soloist (“Car en Iahvé est la miséricorde”).

Just at the point when listeners might suspect that Boulanger is heading toward an uplifting, hopeful conclusion, the mood plunges once again into despair with a return of the “out of the depths” motive, concluding (as the work began) in B♭ minor.

César Franck
Symphony in D minor

César-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert Franck was born December 10, 1822, in Liège, and died in Paris on November 8, 1890. He composed this symphony between 1886 and 1888. Jules Garcin conducted the first performance on February 17, 1889, at the Paris Conservatoire. The score calls for pairs of woodwinds (plus English horn and bass clarinet), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp and strings.

Born to a German mother and a French–Flemish father in what is now Belgium (but at the time was part of the Netherlands), César Franck exhibited early pianistic talents that his father encouraged (and, one might say, exploited). Young César enrolled in the local conservatory at age seven and embarked on his first concert tour four years later. In 1835, the Franck family moved to Paris so that César could study at the Conservatoire, where he took up an interest in composition that his father dissuaded, preventing César from entering the Prix de Rome competition. (On another concert tour at age 20, Franck met Franz Liszt, who encouraged his interest in composition.)

Despite his father’s attempts to mold him into a piano virtuoso, Franck won renown as an organist, both for his playing and for his improvisations at the keyboard. Later in life he turned to teaching: Vincent d’Indy and Ernest Chausson were among his many devoted students. Although he composed vocal, sacred, keyboard and chamber music throughout his life, Franck created his most celebrated works—including much of his orchestral music—during his final decade or so: a piano quartet, the A-major violin sonata, the thrilling tone poem Le Chasseur maudit (“The Accursed Huntsman”), the Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra, Psyché for chorus and orchestra, and—by far his most famous composition—the Symphony in D minor.

During his student days in Paris, Franck had composed a symphony (very much in the Classical mold) that was performed in 1841 but is now lost. Had it not been for his students pressuring him to write a mature work in this form, Franck’s Symphony in D minor may never have come about. In three movements, it is, as Phillip Huscher writes, “not so much a work in the tradition of Beethoven as a hybrid characteristic of Franck, combining elements of both symphony and symphonic poem in a thematically unified whole.” (When asked if the symphony had a program, Franck replied: “No, it’s music, simply music,” although he did admit to thinking, “very vaguely, of a an ancient procession” when composing the opening of the slow movement.)

Nevertheless, Beethoven’s influence can be detected in other ways. “The finale takes up all the themes again, as in [Beethoven’s] Ninth,” Franck wrote. “They do not return as quotations, however; I have elaborated them and given them the role of new elements.” And, as Richard Taruskin has asserted, Franck’s symphony “mine[s] the legacy of the late Beethoven quartets. The unusual form of the first movement, in which the initial slow section... alternates with the ensuing allegro throughout the movement,” emulating Beethoven’s Op. 127 and Op. 130 quartets. Most notably, the first three notes of Franck’s symphony quote the “Muß es sein” (“Must it be?”) motive of Beethoven’s final quartet, Op. 135, previously borrowed by Liszt in Les préludes.

Due to Parisian musical politics, critical reaction to the symphony seems to have been predetermined. Charles Lamoureux declined to perform the work with his orchestra at the Théâtre du Château d’Eau, relegating the premiere to the orchestra at the Conservatoire, albeit “quite against the wish of most of its members,” according to d’Indy, who credited “the benevolent obstinacy of the conductor, Jules Garcin.” Critic Camille Bellaigue decried the symphony’s “arid and gray” melodies “devoid of grace or charm” and “destined to vanish at once.” Composer Charles Gounod complained of “incompetence pushed to dogmatic lengths,” while d’Indy reported “the subscribers could make neither head nor tail of it, and the musical authorities were in much the same position.” In his biography of Franck, d’Indy even claimed that Ambroise Thomas, the director of the Conservatoire, had posited: “Just name a single symphony by Haydn or Beethoven that uses the English horn! There, you see: Your Franck’s music may be whatever you please, but it will certainly never be a symphony!” Thomas seemed to forget the unforgettable English horn solo in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, along with Haydn’s Symphony No. 22, which calls for not one, but two English horns. Then again, d’Indy may have been an unreliable narrator, as he also backdated the composition of Franck’s symphony to avoid claims that it had been influenced by Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony. (Had social media been in existence in 1889 Paris, one can only imagine the Twitter battles involving @realcharlesgounod and @dIndy1851.)

When asked by his family about his impression of the premiere, Franck simply replied, “Oh, it sounded well, just as I thought it would.” Shortly after his death the following year, the symphony managed to rise above the circumstances of its premiere and by the early decades of the 20th century became a staple of concert programs throughout Europe and the United States. Curiously, in more recent years its presence in the concert hall has dwindled significantly. Reviewing a 2012 performance by Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony at Carnegie Hall (only the fourth performance there since 1988, despite the fact that the work has been played seven or eight times per season in that venue during the 1920s and 1930s), Alex Ross wondered “how a composer like Franck can be touted as the heir to Beethoven in one generation and dropped as a creaky relic in the next. The canon, ostensibly static, never stops evolving.”

While noting that “Franck’s variation technique can come across as schematic, as if the score had a music-appreciation lecture built into it,” Ross asserts that “all that motivic riveting and welding makes for a structure of tensile strength. Right at the start, the symphony’s fateful three-note motto has the action of a turning screw, its intervals widening by degrees.” Program notes approved by Franck for the work’s premiere (and translated for the first New York Philharmonic performance some two decades later) detail how this slow introduction “leads into the allegro, or first movement proper, of an energetic and ardent character.” But not for long, as “the theme of the introduction returns in a new key, after which the development of the principal theme of the movement is resumed. This leads to the appearance of a new theme, which is immediately followed by a third. This third theme is much employed in the ensuing working-out section and also in the finale. After the second part of the movement a return is made to the first theme, that of the introduction, now given out fortissimo and in canonical imitation. The theme of the Allegro is then resumed and leads to the conclusion of the first division of the symphony.

“The second movement begins with pizzicato chords for the string orchestra and harp, which do not give out the melodic theme, however. This theme, of a sweet and melancholic character, is presented by the English horn. The first period is completed by the clarinet, the horn and the flute, after which the violins announce a new theme. After some modulation this period comes to a close. The English horn and various wind instruments now take up again some fragments of the first motive in B♭ minor, after which we arrive at a new part, which is a complete composition itself—in the style of a scherzo—a very sprightly and sweet episode.” Franck does not quicken the tempo for this “scherzo” passage but merely has the violins play more notes in each bar, allowing him to later superimpose this new theme on top of the English horn melody.

“The third movement opens with a phrase of a clear and almost brilliant nature, which contrasts strongly with the rather somber and melancholy sentiment of the two preceding movements. Later a new theme is announced in the brasses and finally a third in the cellos and basses. The opening theme of the second movement now reappears, accompanied by a figure in triplets. After a development of the themes of the finale there is a slowing of the tempo and a fragment of the somber third theme of the finale is heard. There is more development of these themes and finally in the coda the opening theme of the finale is heard, rounded by the principal themes of the first movement.”

Reflecting on his Symphony in D minor, Franck declared: “I risked a great deal, but the next time I shall risk even more.” Alas, the symphony would be Franck’s final orchestral work.

--- Jeff Eldridge