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ClassicsOnline Home » Chamber Music - SAINT-SAENS, C. / MILHAUD, D. / DEBUSSY, C. / HONEGGER, A. (French Music for Clarinet and Piano) (Veglianti, Polimanti)
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921): Sonata in E flat minor for clarinet and piano, Op. 167
Darius Milhaud (1892–1974): Duo concertant, Op. 351 • Caprice, Op. 335a
Claude Debussy (1862–1918): Première Rapsodie • Petite Pièce
Arthur Honegger (1892–1955): Sonatine for clarinet and piano
Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983): Arabesque
Francis Poulenc (1899–1962): Sonata for clarinet and piano
Like Mozart and Mendelssohn, Camille Saint-Saëns showed remarkable precocity as a child, first show in piano lessons from his great-aunt at the age of two and a half. He coupled with his musical interests a wide general enthusiasm for learning of all kinds, literary and scientific, and was, as a composer, to produce music of many genres during a career that spanned the second half of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth, starting in a period that knew Mendelssohn and continuing beyond the death of Debussy.
Saint-Saëns was born in Paris in 1835, the son of a clerk in the government service, who died shortly after the birth of his only child. He was cared for by his mother and her adoptive aunt, and appeared in public concerts as a child, having, by the age of ten, memorised all the Beethoven piano sonatas. In 1848 he entered the Conservatoire, studying the organ and composition, and continuing to show his gifts as a pianist, organist and composer. He taught briefly at the newly established Ecole Niedermeyer, where his pupils included Gabriel Fauré, with whom he established a close relationship, and in 1871, after the disasters of the Franco-Prussian war, was instrumental in the foundation of the Société Nationale de Musique, with its aim of propagating French music, Ars Gallica. After the death of his mother and the failure of his marriage he spent much of his later life travelling, accompanied by his dog and a loyal manservant. By the time of his own death in Algeria in 1921 he had to some extent outlived his reputation at home. In France this was the age now of Les Six. Debussy was dead, Fauré was near the end of his life, and Stravinsky had already, some eight years, scandalized Paris with his Rite of Spring. Abroad he retained something more of his earlier fame. Once known as the French Mendelssohn, he had written music that appealed to audiences in much the same way as his predecessor’s, for its clarity of texture and its attractive powers of invention, calculated to delight rather than to shock.
In the last year of his life Saint-Saëns wrote three sonatas for wind instruments, for oboe, for bassoon and the present Sonata in E flat major, Op. 167, for clarinet and piano. A fourth sonata for cor anglais was planned but never completed. The Clarinet Sonata was dedicated to the clarinettist Auguste Périer, who had joined the staff of the Conservatoire in 1919. The lilting first subject of the opening Allegretto is contrasted with other material, and the following Scherzo makes full use of the agility of the clarinet, in a trio section that includes demanding changes of register. The slow movement has an opening of due minor-key solemnity, its first section using only the lower register of the clarinet, matched with the lower sonorities of the piano. This is in contrast to the following passage, as arpeggiated piano chords lead to material gently confined to the flute-like upper register of the clarinet. The final lively Molto allegro, with its rapid runs and arpeggios, leads eventually to the return of the opening Allegretto, bringing the sonata to a conclusion.
Descended from a Jewish family that could trace its origins back as far as the tenth century, Darius Milhaud was born in 1892 and was always to draw fundamental influence from his native Provence, in spite of war-time exile in America. As a composer he was prolific, with over 440 works to his credit. These encompass a wide variety of genres, twelve symphonies, concertos for instruments ranging from viola or piano to marimba and vibraphone, choral and vocal works, chamber music, including eighteen string quartets, keyboard pieces and a body of work intended for children. After two years spent with the poet/diplomat Paul Claudel in Brazil, Milhaud returned to Paris in 1918, joining the group of young composers that became known, whether they liked it or not, as Les Six, four of whom are represented in the present recording. Although they were not united by any overt system of composition, they shared friendship and, in common with other contemporaries, were variously influenced by Satie and by Cocteau.
Milhaud’s Duo Concertant, Op. 351, was written in 1956, at a period when he was dividing his time between France and America, in the latter continuing his war-time association with Mills College. The Duo for clarinet and piano has characteristic wit and elegance in its writing, its outer sections contrasting with the gentler central section. Caprice, Op. 335a, the first of three pieces for wind instruments, dates from 1954, the other pieces for saxophone and for flute respectively. Like the later work it demonstrates the composer’s skill and command of writing for wind instruments, here in an unmistakably French context.
Debussy was born in 1862 in St Germain-en-Laye and started piano lessons at the age of seven. In 1872 he entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he abandoned the plan of becoming a virtuoso pianist, turning his principal attention to composition and in 1884 winning the Prix de Rome. Debussy’s personal life brought some unhappiness in his first marriage in 1899 to a mannequin, Lily Texier. His association from 1903 with Emma Bardac, the wife of a banker and a singer of some ability, led eventually to their marriage in 1908, after the birth of their daughter three years earlier. His final years were darkened by the war and by cancer, the cause of his death in March 1918, when he left unfinished a planned series of chamber music works, only three of which had been completed. As a composer he developed a musical language of his own, characteristic and innovative, opening a new vista for other musicians.
The Première Rapsodie was published in 1910 in its first version, for clarinet and piano, with an orchestral version the following year. The work was intended for use in a Conservatoire competition, together with a short test of sight-reading, the Petite Pièce. It was dedicated to Prosper Mimart, the professor for whose class it was designed, and it was Mimart who gave the first performance of the original version in January 1911 for the Société Musicale Indépendante. Debussy was pleased with the work, if not with most of the Conservatoire competitors. Marked at the beginning Rêveusement lent, the Rapsodie offers the contrasts of tempo and mood necessary in a competition piece, but it is the feeling of the opening, dreaming, that predominates. In the very short Petite Pièce, marked Modéré et doucement rythmé, a gently dotted rhythm prevails.
Arthur Honegger was a close friend of Darius Milhaud and was also associated in the early 1920s with Les Six. Born in 1892 at Le Havre to parents originating from Zurich, he was the first of the group to die. His training had been at the Paris Conservatoire, where he acquired from his teacher, Gédalge, in whose class Milhaud had also studied, a sound technical basis, particularly in counterpoint. His Sonatine for clarinet and piano was written in 1921–22 and first performed in New York City the following year. The work reflects elements of French elegance, coupled with less of the frivolity that occasionally marks the works of his colleagues and friends in Paris. The sonatina includes a moving slow movement and a finale that reflects current French preoccupations with jazz.
A member of the Les Six, with Milhaud, Durey, Auric, Honegger and Poulenc, Germaine Tailleferre was first taken up by Satie, but her later career as a composer failed to win her the kind of fame enjoyed by some others of the group. Her nostalgic Arabesque, written in 1973 and based on an element in her Hans Christian Andersen opera of 1960, La petite sirène, has a charm and elegance of its own.
Francis Poulenc, a younger member of Les Six, was born in Paris in 1899, the son of Emile Poulenc, a director of the pharmaceutical firm Poulenc Frères. His musical tastes and gifts were drawn largely from his mother, an amateur pianist, who gave him his first piano lessons, when he was five, leading to study, three years later, with a niece of César Franck. Inspired by what he heard of Debussy, by 1914 he had discovered the music of Schubert and of Stravinsky and began lessons with the pianist Ricardo Viñes, his teacher for the next three years. Through Viñes he met Erik Satie and Georges Auric, with Honegger, Milhaud, Tailleferre, Manuel de Falla and, inevitably, Jean Cocteau, and made friends too with other writers, notably the poets André Breton, Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard, a reflection of his wide reading and general cultural interests. After military service between 1918 and 1921, he took lessons from Charles Koechlin.
In common with other French composers of his generation Poulenc had a particular gift in handling music for woodwind instruments. His Sonata for clarinet and piano was completed in 1962 and had its first performance with Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein in New York in April 1963, three months after Poulenc’s death. It was dedicated to the memory of Honegger, who had died in 1955. The brusque opening of the first movement leads to a central section marked très calme. The following Romanza was conceived as a moving lament for Honegger. To this the final Allegro con fuoco provides a lively and characteristic contrast.
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